My Broken Art: A Creative Source

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My Broken Art: A Creative Source

Paintings Are an Exorcism of Illness, Abuse, Poverty and Rejection


Henk Peeters, a European artist, called Yayoi Kusama a minimalist. Donald Judd, the art celebrity and her former partner, called her a "stratified structuralist." Some contemporary art historians have called her a surrealist pop artist. But Ms. Kusama, who at 71 is one of Japan's most respected artists, refuses to put her art in a box.

"I only painted what I wanted to paint," she once said, and left it at that.

Ms. Kusama recently visited Seoul to open an exhibition of her work at the Jin Gallery near Kyongbok Palace in central Seoul. "It's good to be an outsider," she said in an interview during her visit.

The last of four children in a wealthy but unhappy family, Ms. Kusama has suffered hallucinations since her childhood in the small city of Matsumoto near Nagano, Japan. She said that everything she looked at became "utterly remote," and patterns appeared before her eyes. Some might consider this a psychiatric disorder.

In her autobiographical essays, "Odyssey of My Struggling Soul," Ms. Kusuma wrote: "One day, looking at a red floral tablecloth, I turned my eyes to the ceiling and saw the same red flower pattern everywhere, even on the window panes and frames. The room, my body, the entire universe was filled with it. This was not an illusion but reality."

At the age of 16, she began to explore this reality through painting. To her, art was a form of "self-therapy," an outlet for the fear, anxiety and emotional turmoil she was experiencing.

Ms. Kusama's illness was not understood. Her neighbors berated her and her family locked her in a closet. Her father sexually abused her. The sexual oppression expressed in her art is intimately connected with her fear of closed spaces and anxieties about food.

"My mother says that my father started sleeping around with other women from the third day of their marriage," she said. "I watched this unhappy pair as I grew up. It's not surprising that my attitude to sex isn't any healthier."

She referred to her series of paintings called "Accumulation," in which she covered a sofa with stuffed phallic tentacles, and said: "Notice that the high heels are stepping on the phalluses in my later works. It's my rejection of my obsession with sex."

Her early works use disturbing phallic imagery that she called her raw interpretation of male aggression. However, later works, including "Violet Obsession" and "Beyond My Illusion," tend to give a subtler view of male sexuality, with a touch of humor and irony.

For a long time, the Japanese art world, which tends to be patriarchal was not kind to Ms. Kusama. She said she was constantly called an "insane woman artist" who practiced "inauthentic" Japanese art. She moved to New York in 1958 at the invitation of Georgia O'Keeffe, with whom she had corresponded for several years. There, her "obsessive" paintings gradually came to be recognized by the small group of avant-garde artists in the Manhattan art scene. In a studio at Broadway and 12th Street, Ms. Kusama met artists who became lifelong friends including Larry Rivers and Lucio Fontana.

One of Ms. Kusama's three assistants, Isao Takakura, said that despite some recognition in the art world, she had little money in New York. He referred to her work "Airmail Stickers," a densely pasted collage of airmail stickers on a 1.81-meter (6-foot) canvas, and said, "This work was done when Kusama-sensei (teacher) was extremely poor," he said. "She got these free airmail stickers from the post office because she didn't have any money to buy paints." The work is now part of the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

In 1966 Ms. Kusuma turned heads with her sensational "Narcissus Garden" at the Venice Biennale. She lay down amid 1,500 plastic mirror balls in the Biennale's outdoor garden. Each mirror ball glared with light reflections. Making a symbolic statement about narcissism in the art world, she sold each ball for $2 at the site as the part of the performance. "I was 'wholesaling' my works," Ms. Kusama said. "I told the viewers that I was selling narcissism, because that's what the mirror balls suggested in the installation. People came like crazy. My section was so crowded that the Biennale eventually asked me to stop selling them. But people wanted the balls so badly that they ended up stealing them. By the end of an exhibition, all the balls were gone. I was the first one to make a sale at the Venice Biennale."

An active participant in America's sexual revolution in the 1960s, Ms. Kusama also directed a performance titled "Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She decorated the bodies of performers deliberately placed next to works by Renoir and Giacometti. It was a critique of American museums that turned art into a commodity.

"Just to let you know," she said, "I didn't have sex with those performers. I just painted them and directed the performance." Some of her later works reflected the AIDS epidemic and dealt with the themes of sexuality and death.

The current exhibition at the Jin Gallery, which runs until Nov. 30, includes the "Infinity Net" and "Pumpkin" series of paintings. Both reflect the artist's dot motifs taken from her hallucinatory visions. For information call 02-738-7570.

by Park Soo-mee

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