Dear Shaded Viewers,
it’s been a long time since my last post! Diane likes the work of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama a lot, as she stated in this interview some years ago (read it here) so I just want to repost my interview with author Robert Shore about his new book on Yayoi Kusama. I did this interview on the occasion of the book’s launch and it’s been published on L’Officiel Usa & Italy- full text here
YAYOI KUSAMA BIOGRAPHY – In conversation with author Robert Shore
Often referred to as “the queen of polka dots”, artist Yayoi Kusama‘s life backstories have always been veiled in mystery, while the huge pumpkins sculptures in her Infinity Room pieces have pierced the hearts of millions. With her iconic look—a distinctive red/orange bob, colorful clothing, often a replica of her works—she is known all over the world, and yet how did she leave rural Japan and become one of the most important figures in the world of art and fashion— remember the Yayoi Kusama x Louis Vuitton collaboration in 2012? In the book Yayoi Kusama, published by Laurence King as part of the Living Artists series, author Robert Shore dives deeply into the life of one of the most enigmatic so far legendary contemporary artists.
Giorgia Cantarini: If you had to list the five best discoveries you made throughout your research, what would they be?
Robert Stone: Certainly the connection with Warhol, the fact that since the ‘70s she has dedicated a lot to writing, especially prose but also poetry, her passion for fashion that dates back to the late ‘60s, which becomes a form of expression and self-affirmation. She even created her own fashion line which was sold at Bloomingdale’s for a while. Then there is the fact that many of her performances feature a protest art form. And again, the discovery of the letter to President Nixon advising us to leave war aside and put love first is absolutely courageous and daring. And finally, there is her theatrical work, her theatrical and body painting performances. Absolutely innovative for the time.
GC: What happens in the years she was in New York?
RS: The starting point was the realization of the fundamental intersection between her and Andy Warhol in the New York of the ’60s, a fundamental decade for Yayoi, who in this period was also very inclined to talk about his art which is highly distinctive. It was the ’60s that led her to success. She arrived in New York when Expressionism was depopulated and tried to go further. America and her contacts inspired her. She arrived in the U.S. at the end of the 1950s and it was a very contrary choice if we think about how the world was not globalized as it is today. She also explored minimalism and pop art even though her art cannot be called minimalist.
GC: Can you tell us about the various stages of her career and explain when her mental health started to interfere in her art as well as in her life? Was it a turning point or is it a problem that had always been there and only worsened at a certain point?
RS: Her mental health has always been an important issue for her and she has always exercised tremendous self-control. But she has always tried to ensure that people could totally immerse themselves in her world through her art.
GC: Let’s talk about the extremely distinctive and avant-garde look for those times. Has she always had a red bob?
RS: I believe she has always tried to offer her work in a non-commercial way and her figure has always reflected this desire. Her look has always had a close connection with her private life. Her goal was to represent a work of art herself. I think there are a lot of similarities between her art and her personal look, particularly during the American period of the ’60s where she was more minimal and less playful. The colorful helmet arrives in the period of affirmation. In New York, she had long hair and then short hair like a boy.
GC: From the portrait you made of her, she turns out to be a rather daring artist but also a free woman who makes her voice heard, which is very interesting considering especially her origins.
RS: Yes, in Japanese society, women find it hard to express themselves, and even more so in those years. It was not easy to be a woman artist in a world populated by men. Even when she arrived in New York, she was fully aware that she was an outsider, but that didn’t stop her, let alone frighten her. She greatly appreciated the psychedelic society and in general the community of artists that had been created in New York in the ’60s. Yayoi has always gone against the grain when necessary, never betraying her true nature. For example, she has always fought against sexophobia, a legacy of her adolescence in Japan, which will later lead to the Naked Happenings organized at the end of the 1960s, pro-sex and pacifist works (as evidenced by the interventions against the war in Vietnam) that they will crown her “queen of the hippies” without ever being openly feminist.
GC: Why is she obsessed with pumpkins?
RS: It always had to do with her personal life. During her youth, Kusama’s hometown Matsumoto was unaffected by World War II and had abundant food supplies, especially her family, who owned farmland. The shapes of the pumpkins, which have always filled her warehouse, enchanted the girl. While pumpkins fed the population in wartime, they also feed the artist’s muse. Kusama explores the concepts of repetition and infinity by placing mutant pumpkins in the mirror rooms, creating an eerie feeling that inhabits our minds. Kabocha pumpkins are part of Kusama’s experience, they have become a vegetable alter-ego of the artist, who claimed to have found comfort in their colorful forms since she was a child.
GC: What do you tell us about her relationships. She has been living in isolation for years now and little to nothing is known about her love life. Do we know if she dated anyone in the ’60s?
RS: Yes, although the nature of her friendship with Donald Judd is not known for certain. If we had strolled through midtown Manhattan in 1962, we would have seen artists Yayoi Kusama and Donald Judd hauling a large armchair down the block. That piece of furniture found would become the basis for one of Kusama’s earliest and most iconic sculptures: Accumulation No. 1 (1962), a massive form covered with padded phallus-shaped accents. The work became an example of Pop Art and a highlight of Kusama’s recent successful retrospectives. It also represents a more subtle force in Kusama’s practice: her friendship with the pioneer of minimalist sculpture. And then there are several stories that are talked about and Yayoi herself defines as platonic loves like the one with the artist Joseph Cornell, but I believe they weren’t so platonic in those years.