Yayoi Kusama, with her signature polka dots and mirrored infinity rooms, is the most expensive living female artist. Her recent surveys—from the Louisiana Museum in Denmark and the Garage Museum in Moscow to the Hirschhorn in DC and The Broad in Los Angeles—consistently drew crowds so big that lines wrapping around the block lasted for weeks on end. She's easily on the most loved living contemporary artists on the planet. But for Kusama, fame did not come easily.
When the young artist left Japan for New York in 1957, she knew no one. As a single Japenese woman with almost no connections, she repeatedly faced sexism, racism, and lack of opportunity—despite making some of the most pioneering and forward-thinking artworks to come out of the ‘60s. It wasn’t uncommon for these artworks—that were often shown in little-known galleries with little-to-no financial support—to inspire Kusama’s white, male peers to make similar works, which they exhibited in more established galleries.
Kusama—Infinity, a must-see Magnolia Pictures film that opened earlier this month, illustrates just how high the cards were stacked against her. Three times in the film, Kusama describes how her work was “copied” by better-known male artists—Warhol, Oldenberg, and Samaras. Here, we take a look at those three works Kusama so daringly made without precedent, and the artworks they "inspired."
Kusama’s Accumulation No.1; Green Gallery; June 1962
Claes Oldenberg’s soft sculptures; Green Gallery; September 1962
In Kusama Infinity, the artist describes a traumatic childhood. Her mother, who suspected her father of cheating, would send the young Yayoi to spy on her father while he rendezvoused with his mistress. These experiences, perhaps coupled with other traumas early in life that the film only alludes to, stayed with her into adulthood and left her with a fear of sex. In the early ‘60s, Kusama began to see a psychologist in New York at the suggestion of a gallerist. And though the artist continued to suffer from mental illness for the rest of her life, her artwork became a way to channel her obsessive compulsive neurosis. Around this time, the artist began creating hundreds, if not thousands, of soft sculptures—phallic protrusions that covered the surfaces of furniture, objects, floors and walls. “Accumulation is the result of my obsessions,” says the artist on camera.
In June of 1962, Kusama was included in a group show that involved some of the day’s most avant garde artists: Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, and Andy Warhol. The exhibition at Green Gallery in New York was considered the first Pop art show in the United States, and Kusama’s Accumulation No. 1, an armchair covered in white sewn-and-stuffed protrusions, stole the show. “Nobody bought it, but everyone was talking about it,” says a narrator on Kusama—Infinity. Not only was Kusama the only woman and person of color in the exhibition, she was also likely the least-known.
Her elation over the exhibition wouldn’t last long, however. Claes Oldenberg had exhibited a paper mache sculpture in the exhibition. At that time, he had been working primilary with paper mache and other non-traditional, but hard, sculptural materials. Just months after Kusama exhibited Accumulation No. 1 at Green Gallery, Oldenberg mounted a solo show at the same gallery. The exhibition was filled with soft sculpture. Says a curator in the film, “He was not doing soft sculpture [before that]. I don’t think until he saw Kusama’s artwork, he decided to create sculpture using sewing. It’s very un-masculine.” According to Kusama: “When he did a show that September, I was very surprised. If you looked around, it was all soft sculpture. There was a calendar, and they [Oldenberg and his wife Patty, who assisted him] created numbers with soft sculpture. And then,” Kusama continues, “his wife came over to me and said, ‘I’m sorry, Yaoi.’” This exhibition at Green Gallery is arguably the exhibition that launched Oldenberg into international stardom. And while critics about argue whether or not the male artist “ripped off” Kusama to reach that stardom. Oldenberg himself hasn’t copped to it. He has been quoted saying this:
“She is not making soft sculpture, or, she is, but it is one thing that is repeated. The object is just one way of ending what she is starting. They are devices, and form as these individual things repeating themselves and the proliferation. That’s very different from my work which is about whole form and which is also related to a certain view of reality, to a realistic view. I’m not sure if it meant much to her what object she covered. To me, that tends to be important…. The topic was not the object, [but] the thing that was on the object. Her sculpture is a small thing that covers.”
Regardless of Oldenberg’s intentions, his actions caused Kusama to become deeply depressed. So discouraged by the lack of recognition she received for innovating a new kind of sculpture, Kusama would often lock herself in her studio without coming out for days.
Kusama's "Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show;" Gertrude Stein Gallery; Dec 1964
Andy Warhol's Cow Wallpaper; Leo Castelli Gallery; April 1966
Yayoi’s first solo exhibition opportunity came in December of 1964. "Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show" at Gertrude Stein Gallery enabled the artist to fully realize what she would later become known for: her philosophy of “self-obliteration.” As a child, the artist suffered from hallucinations. Her entire field of vision would become overwhelmed by a proliferation of flowers, dots, or nets. Her installations were recreations of this sense of self-obliteration—a source of fear and trauma—executed in a celebratory, positive way. At Gertrude Stein Gallery, Kusama presented a row boat and oars treated similarly to the chair piece she showed months before—covered with sewn-and-stuffed phallic protrusions. Kusama took a picture of the boat and reproduced it a thousand times, papering the floors, walls, and ceilings of the gallery with the tiled image.
“Andy Warhol came to the show and said, ‘Wow, fantastic Yayoi! I like this so much’” Kusama says in Japanese in Kusama—Infinity. “That influenced him, and then he had a show. He covered the walls with images of a cow. When I saw it, I was surprised. Andy picked up what I did and copied it in his show,” says Kusama. The show she refers to is an April 1966 exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery, which consisted of two rooms: one had Warhol’s silver helium-filled Clouds, and the other consisted only of tiled images of a cow’s head, in pink and yellow. When asked where he got inspiration for the installation, Andy Warhol credited art dealer Ivan Karp:
“He said, ‘Why don’t you paint some cows, they’re so wonderfully pastoral and such a durable image in the history of the arts.’ (Ivan talked like this.) I don’t know how ‘pastoral’ he expected me to make them, but when he saw the huge cow heads—bright pink on a bright yellow background—that I was going to have made into rolls of wallpaper, he was shocked.”
Kusama was shocked as well. Again she retreated to her studio, this time covering all of her studio windows so that no one could look in to “steal” her ideas. “She was living secretly and making a lot of sculptures,” recalls one curator in the film. “She was making work of equal importance, but wasn’t getting the same kind of backing. Sexism plays a roll in this. And maybe racism as well.”
Kusama's Infinity Mirror Room (Phalli’s Field); Castellane Gallery; March 1965
Lucas Samaras's Mirrored Room; Pace Gallery, October 1965
Continuing to push her “self-obliteration” installations, Kusama created an infinite, all-encompassing work in 1965 called Peep Show or Endless Love Show. Sewn-and-stuffed polka-dot protrusions covered the entire floor, which was encased in a room or mirrored walls. The effect was a seemingly endless expanse of polkadotted fields. “There were many artists from the renaissance on who were involved with infinity and perspective—but the viewer always new that they were the master. It didn’t envelop you. This was a great breaking point in art. No longer are you, the viewer, the master. She’s the master.”
Seven months later, Lucas Samaras would show a mirrored environment at the far more established Pace Gallery. Though the artist had dabbled in making objects using mirrored glass, he had never before made an environment; instead, the artist was known primarily for making small sculptural boxes. Looking at Samara’s Mirrored Room, there’s no mistaking it’s similarity to Kusama’s mirrored room that preceded it. Says a curator on Kusama—Infinity, “I think it’s fair to say, unequivocally, that Kusama was the first artist in New York anywhere to create a mirrored environment.”
Kusama became so depressed after seeing that Samara’s room that she became suicidal. “I became so depressed,” the artist said on camera. “And then I just jumped from the window. If I had landed on my head I would have died, but there was a bicycle, and I fell on it. Between the lightness and the darkness of people’s shadows, a bridge to life has stopped me from suicide.”
Kusama has surely overcome her obsticles, but this story reminds us that while Kusama made it, many innovative women artists, artists of color, immigrant artists, and other artists of marginalized communities did not. (To read up on underknown, marginalized artists who contributed greatly to their fields, read our series, "The Other Art History.") Kusama was taken advantage of not only by the male artists who ripped off her work, but also by the dealers, gallerists, curators, and collectors who favored showing and supporting white, male artists in the '60s. Though Kusama's male contemporaries may have received credit for some of her ideas in the ‘60s, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind today that accumulated soft sculptures and mirrored infinity rooms are synonomous with Yayoi Kusama.