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Insights into the tragic years of the artist Yayoi Kusama in NYC

In 2019, New Yorkers waited in line for hours to see Yayoi Kusama’s show at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea – eager to get the Instagram selfie of the moment by dotting in the artist’s famous mirrored rooms or with one of her Pumpkin sculptures posed.

Now the 92-year-olds’ recently opened show in the New York Botanical Garden, “Kusama: Cosmic Nature”, with its colorful works spread over 250 hectares, has been sold out for days.

But when Kusama first came to New York City in 1958, she struggled to attract crowds.

During her 15 years here, she created some of the works she is famous for today, such as the Infinity Net paintings, which cost up to $ 8 million. Kusama asked galleries early on to show their work. Most of them refused.

She believed male colleagues – including Andy Warhol, whom she called a “close friend” – were copying her work.

Everything resulted in an attempted suicide.

“Kusama faced terrible prejudice in the art world,” her old friend Hanford Yang, an architect and longtime Pratt professor, told The Post. “It was so good, but none of the big galleries showed it because firstly she was Japanese and secondly she was a woman. . . She fought in New York. She didn’t have any money. I always saw her cry. “

Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Japan, in 1929 and grew up on a seed farm that her family had owned for a century. She spent her childhood surrounded by fields of flowers, where, as she says in the documentary “Kusama: Infinity”, she had hallucinations for the first time – including “speaking” violets – that would inspire her art.

Some of the artists Kusama believed copied their work:

American artist Lucas Samaras was spotted in 1985.

The American sculptor Claes Oldenburg in his studio, 1969.
The American sculptor Claes Oldenburg in his studio in 1969.

Pop artist Andy Warhol, 1976.
Pop artist Andy Warhol seen in 1976.

Kusama said in the film that her parents had an unhappy marriage and she was tasked with spying on her father, who had a wandering eye. Seeing him having a “sex act” led to a lifelong fear of sex. She said she saw her art as a way to deal with the trauma.

She briefly attended the Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts and wrote a fan letter to Georgia O’Keeffe, who, Kusama said, became her “first and greatest benefactor.”
Eager to come to the US and become an artist, Kusama ended up in Seattle at the age of 27 and then New York, just 13 years after World War II.

“This was a time when Japan was still considered an enemy in the minds of many in the United States,” said Alexandra Munroe, senior curator for Asian art at the Guggenheim. “And we know America can be a racist country. Hostility towards Asians has been an integral part of social and political reality for centuries. It must have been very difficult for her. “

In her autobiography, Kusama describes her early Manhattan apartments as “Hell on Earth”. She used a door found on the street as a bed and ate “from the fishmonger’s garbage”. She painted all night to stay warm because she had no warmth.

And she is “aggressive” when she pushes her art, said Yang.

Kusama has described carrying a “bigger than me” canvas 40 blocks to the Whitney for inspection, only to be rejected. She went to parties looking for patrons, crashed events and made friends with contemporaries like Warhol and Donald Judd. When O’Keeffe visited New York, she introduced Kusama to art dealers.

Kusama poses on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1968. Kusama poses on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1968. Getty Images

Yang credits Judd for introducing him to Kusama at Judd’s apartment on Park Avenue South and 19th Street.

“He said he wanted to introduce me to a ‘wonderful artist who will be a great artist in the future,'” said Yang. “And that was Kusama!”

Her first solo exhibition took place in October 1959 in a gallery founded by artists. Judd gave it a glowing review for ARTNews and bought one of the pieces for $ 200. The support of a respected male colleague has come a long way.

In 1962, Kusama began exhibiting soft sculptures that covered sofas and ironing boards with hand-sewn phallic shapes. “Nobody made soft sculptures,” she says in the documentary. Later that year, her colleague Claes Oldenburg made her debut with soft sculptures. Kusama felt that he had stolen the idea. “His wife pulled me aside and said, ‘Yayoi, forgive us,'” Kusama said.

In 1963 she landed a solo exhibition at the Gertrude Stein Gallery, her very first installation. “Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show” featured a boat covered in soft phallic shapes; She also papered the room with repetitive pictures of the boat. In her autobiography, she wrote that Warhol, her “close friend” and “rival”, attended the show, he shouted, “Yayoi, what is this? It’s fantastic! ”A few years later, when Warhol plastered the walls and ceiling of the famous Leo Castelli Gallery with repetitive cow wallpaper, Kusama was shattered.

“She was very upset,” said Yang. “It was very similar. . . and no one has given Kusama credit. “

Kusama is the most successful living artist in the world today.
Kusama is the most successful living artist in the world today.

Your latest show,
Her latest show “Kusama: Cosmic Nature” is now on view at the New York Botanical Garden

Kusama's current exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden.
Kusama’s current exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden.

Kusama's current exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden.
Kusama’s current exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden.

In 1965, Kusama unveiled her first mirror room at the tiny Castellane Gallery, which tried to sell the piece for $ 5,000 and it failed. (They cost about $ 2 million a piece now.) Months later, Lucas Samaras, an artist whose work is now in Whitney’s permanent collection, debuted a mirror room in the more established Pace Gallery.

According to the documentation, that was the last drop. Driven into suicide, Kusama jumped out a window – but landed on a bicycle and survived. Tired of feeling betrayed, she covered the windows of her Greenwich Village studio to prevent other artists from seeing and copying her ideas.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kusama began staging nude “happenings” in which she painted nude volunteers and participated in naked political protests against the Vietnam War. At this point her work has now been shown across Europe and she was a household name on the New York art scene, but monetary success was still fleeting.

Although she never married or had children, she had relationships, including with the famous artist Joseph Cornell. The couple made a good match, Kusama said, because the two of them “didn’t like sex.”

Kusama (pictured above in 1967) says she fought in Manhattan in her early days.Kusama (pictured above in 1967) says she fought in Manhattan in her early days.Getty Images

But in 1972 he died of apparent heart failure. The next year, Kusama returns to Japan, angry with the city’s art scene and the white men who controlled it, and sinking deeper into depression.

Now she says in the film: “I want to live forever.”

She kept creating, but New York City forgot about her. Then a curator tracked them down.

“I’ve heard of Kusama over and over again from all the Japanese artists who have been to New York,” Munroe told the Post. “They kept asking, ‘Where can I see Kusama? Why not a Kusama? ‘ . . . But there were no books about her in English. She wasn’t in any of the top galleries. It was as if the world had forgotten her. “

In 1989, when Kusama was 60, Munroe curated Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in Manhattan, which helped her regain on the international stage. It was also Kusama’s first return to NYC in 17 years.

A few years later, in 1993, Kusama represented Japan at the Venice Biennale. In 1998, Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968, highlighting Kusama’s New York years, debuted at MoMA.

Today she is the most famous and successful living artist in the world with her shows sold out worldwide. According to ARTnews, Kusama’s auction sales increased more than tenfold, from $ 9.3 million in 2009 to $ 98 million in 2019.

Some of her early New York art – three paintings and eight works on paper – will be exhibited for the first time at Bonhams New York on May 12th. The auction house is organizing the sale of the late Dr. Teruo Hirose, Kusama’s personal doctor and longtime friend. In a statement, Bonhams said this was “the rarest group of Kusama works from the late 1950s and 1960s that have ever been auctioned”.

Kusama still paints daily from her studio, which is a short walk from the institution.

Munroe said she wasn’t surprised by Kusama’s success.

“A great artist is someone who changes the way we think, and Kusama is,” Munroe said. “She wanted to change the world [and] She has.”

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