June 2012

Mairead Case

nonfiction

Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama translated by Ralph McCarthy

In 1957, it was pretty much still right after the war, and Yayoi Kusama was twenty-seven. She lived in Matsumoto City, the city where she was born, a Japanese city surrounded by "daylight-swallowing mountains." Kusama wanted out of it. She couldn't breathe there, and her father was a womanizer, and she wanted to make art, to make art as a part of her everyday life. So Kusama wrote to the President of France, René Coty:

Dear Sir, I would like to see your country, France.

Please help me.

Coty wrote back, thanking Kusama and saying she should talk to the French Embassy about cultural exchange programs. She'd also need to pass a language test before getting on a plane. So Kusama started to study, but the only thing that happened was a headache. French was too hard.

English was easier, so she wrote to Georgia O'Keeffe, whose paintings Kusama had seen in a book in a secondhand shop there in town. Plus she'd heard O'Keeffe was the most famous painter in all the U.S., which Kusama believed because she didn't know the names of any others. So she took a six-hour train ride to the American Embassy in Tokyo, looked up O'Keeffe's address in the office copy of Who's Who, and wrote the artist for advice. "Would you kindly show me the way to approach this life?" A ballsy request, given how few women supported themselves as painters, and how complicated America's relationship was with Japan. O'Keeffe wrote back, kindly but without direct direction: 

In this country the Artist has a hard time to make a living. I wonder if it is that way in Japan. I have been very interested in the Art of your country and sometimes think of going there but it is very far away. It has been pleasant to hear from you.

That note was all Kusama needed. She got a sponsor, a banker in Seattle who was the friend of a relative. She told the Japanese government she had a solo show all set up (though of course she didn't, yet). She sewed money into her dress and stuffed it in the toes of her shoes, and then Kusama got on a plane with sixty silk kimonos and two thousand paintings, figuring she could sell them when she needed more money. She wrote O'Keeffe one more time, letting her know she was coming to New York and asking for more advice. O'Keeffe wrote back again:

You seem to be having a hard time to get here. If you do get here I hope it will seem to be worth your trouble. When you get to New York, take your pictures under your arm and show them to anyone you think may be interested. You will just have to find your way as best you can. It seems to me very odd that you are so ambitious to show your paintings here, but I wish the best for you.

(1957 was still pretty much right after Steiglitz's death, too. O'Keeffe had settled her lover's estate and was now settled permanently in New Mexico, not in New York. She was working on the Ladder to the Moon series. It is poignant, how she didn't discourage Kusama from coming so new to such a big, toothy city, with nothing more than paintings under her arm. Later, O'Keeffe would introduce Kusama to art dealer Edith Halpert, who, in part as a favor, bought one of Kusama's paintings when the young artist was broke and achy-hungry.)

Kusama landed in the U.S., determinedly, if not to fanfare, and stayed at the Buddhist Society for about three months. Then she rented an apartment and, later, a loft in the Business District. The heat went off at six o'clock, so she'd start to paint standing up, to stay warm and to keep her stomach from cramping. Every day was a struggle to find food, enough money for canvas and paints, and new ways to dodge questions from Immigration. Kusama started praying before every meal. She slept on a blanket on top of an old door someone left out in the street. Often, on her way home from outside she would pick through the fishmonger's trash, find some heads of fish and cabbage, then boil them down for a thin, gray-greasy dinner.

Kusama's paintings from this period make me cry, which is not a critical stance, but whatever, they are the reasons why I read this book and why I want you to read it. They are toneless, infinite nets of tiny arcs: ellipses, stars, cells. They buzz across her canvases like madness or snowflakes, mapping out a Velveteen Rabbit-y belief that if she just kept making work other people would start to see the blood whooshing in it too. Kusama even started going off the panels, extending the net onto her table and floor and body -- ants, taking over. One year she hauled a painting, one taller than she was, across forty blocks of Manhattan in hopes that the Whitney would chose it for their Annual. They didn't, so she hauled it all forty blocks back home.

The other intensity here -- besides Kusama insisting on being known, and being known for solid, strong art without context or pedigree, a privilege usually reserved for white men -- is that the veil, the lace, the wave these paintings created was an almost-exact visual reproduction of her own mental illness. Kusama's family ran a wholesale seed company (ellipses, stars, cells), and one day she was sitting and drawing in a bed of violets when the flowers started talking to her. She was terrified. Later, red flowers on a tablecloth multiplied like a curse, off the table and onto the ceiling, the windows, the walls. Kusama was terrified then too. She also describes "a thin, silk-like curtain of indeterminate gray" that would fall between her and everyone, everything else.

Certainly these white noise paintings are rooted in those patterns and voices, and Kusama's desire to obliterate that infinity net through work, not distraction, not medicine. "Dissolution and accumulation; propagation and separation; particulate obliteration and unseen reverberations from the universe" became not succubi but "the foundations of my art." Kusama worked head-on with her fears (meaning the voices, the net, also food and sex), to tame, to understand, and finally, to obliterate them. Because of how her work looks, critics usually stamp it "minimalist," or "pop art," but swarm-wise, community-wise, the closest movement (in concept not chronology) is probably Occupy.  

Today, Kusama lives back in Japan, in Tokyo, in an open hospital ward across the street from her studio. She sleeps ten hours a night, waking up at seven for a blood test before working in the studio until six, then returning to the ward to write a while. She has been photographed in a wheelchair and, more often, blunt-cut crayon-colored wigs. She is eighty-three years old and no longer goes to openings or sits on committees. Whenever she does go out, she's usually accompanied by a group of young women who call her "Sensei." Kusama doesn't drink or smoke; she's completely absorbed in her work. And she's held major retrospectives at MOMA and the Tate, exhibited alongside pop artists like Warhol and Oldenburg, and covered objects with not just arcs but dots, light, and macaroni. In 2008, Christie's sold one of Kusama's infinity net paintings for $5.1 million -- a record for a living female artist.

Kusama wrote Infinity Net in 2002, and this University of Chicago Press edition, translated by Ralph McCarthy, came out in January. It's part Page Six pop-nerd-delight (she dated Joseph Cornell a short while, though she was mostly exasperated by his relationship with his mother and never wanted to have sex; at one point, his dick is compared to a calzone), it's part artistic statement, and, like a negative, slightly fast-forwarded copy of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast or E. E. Cummings's The Enormous Room, it's part historical document too. It fails as a traditional chronology of Kusama's work and projects, but it succeeds brilliantly as map of her life as an artist (something linear only for the silver-spooned or absolutely lucky), and as a snapshot of a time when people could still come to New York with zilch, not even the Internet, and reinvent themselves in alchemical glory.

Kusama writes like she draws arcs on canvas: an anecdote here, a mini-manifesto there, snuck-in poems. The book starts with "I landed in America," then jumps back though family history, childhood, early success in Japan, then forward again to America, then hopping through benefactor portraits and manifestos. This would be frustrating as an encyclopedia entry but again, as the map of an artistic career with the artist's own goals in mind, it's zing, zing, zing truth. Case-in-point: other places (the Christie's catalog, a Wikipedia nook) say Kusama failed at being an art dealer when she moved back to Japan, that she just didn't have the business mind for it. In contrast, Infinity Net says briefly how Kusama tried to make her traditional family traditionally proud by opening such a business, but that Japan just wasn't ready for contemporary art in everyday life. And then she moves on. And she keeps making art. There's no crying in baseball.

Infinity Net is Kusama's platform for cataloguing her own work, which is almost always bright, pure, mirrored or multiplied. With the exception of the fashion designs she's done for Louis Vuitton and Lancôme in the last couple years (Dalmatian-spot purses, honey-scented lip glosses), everything else is here: the pumpkin self-portraits, the psychedelic polka dots, the mirror rooms, the soft rainbow light and soft-sculpture. The nudity, the Body Festivals and Happenings. The time she was exhibiting at the Venice Biennial, dressed in a golden kimono surrounded by fifteen hundred mirrored balls. Kusama tried to sell the balls to onlookers for two to three dollars each, but was soon hand-slapped and ordered to stop, told she couldn't sell art "like hot dogs or ice cream" at the Biennial.

Perhaps most striking is how masculine, how capitalist she is about art-making in the U.S. -- not because she didn't want to be feminine. Because she wanted to be powerful. She needed to be, to get back home, at some point, and at some point she needed to try and regain her parents' pride, the family name. (The body painting on The Johnny Carson Show didn't go over so well, nor did 1968's Homosexual Wedding, when Kusama presided over the marriage of two men. She was Priestess of Polka Dots, and the two grooms shared one wedding gown.) In that sense, the tone of Infinity Net -- no chapter so long it couldn't be printed out and tacked to a gallery wall, with plenty of photos and quotes from positive reviews mixed in -- is as much of a landmark feminist text as Chris Kraus's I Love Dick, where Chris says girls use the second person singular when they really just want someone to listen. When she says through love, she is teaching herself to think. When she says the text is the way in. Kusama writing her own artistic statements for a world she learned by heart, after being told it wasn't for her? Same deal.

Notably, for all the love electrified and boundaries crossed in her work, Kusama almost always kept her own personal space bubble in tact. In photos she's always in control, clothes on, always returning the lens's gaze. She made art so people could self-obliterate and return to the nature of their universe -- meaning, for most people in that New York crowd, 1960-something, sexual freedom. Public nudity, public love. Public declaration. Meaning, for her, the freedom to make art and support her self and her health. Wanting that and doing it was naked enough; Kusama didn't need to take her clothes off too.

At one point, she gets so exasperated with Joseph Cornell for not leaving her the hell alone already. (Though she was in love with him -- the only photo where Kusama's looking off sweetly into space is the one where Cornell is holding her hand.) But "I was dying to break it off with him," she writes about the man who made those famous boxes, the ones so famous they're now kept in a special room of the Art Institute. It's specially lighted so the rippling robin blues don't fade. "The relationship had become a great hindrance to my work. He took tremendous amounts of my time, and it never let up."

Heart-thumpingly, the only person in Infinite Net besides Georgia O'Keeffe that Kusama reaches out to specifically, directly, intimately is Richard Nixon. In 1968, in front of the New York Board of Elections, she read a public letter to Nixon, saying she'd have sex with him if he'd end the Vietnam War.

Let's forget ourselves, dearest Richard, and become one with the Absolute, all together in the altogether. As we soar through the heavens, we'll paint each other with polka dots, lose our egos in timeless eternity, and finally discover the naked truth: You can't eradicate violence by using more violence.

This pitch shows Kusama's ignorance of politics -- publically, at least. Her work is always contextualized within her oeuvre, but she never mentions the government, this side of asking it to let her stay in the U.S. -- her ignorance of politics, but maybe also her defiance of them and her willingness to be brave for love. (Had I been alive then, I'm sure I would have felt crazy too, a "please" and a favor probably wouldn't have seemed any nuttier than what Walter Cronkite was saying on CBS.) It is for sure a bold power choice, refusing Cornell in private but waving around a public letter for Nixon. 

In the end, the question I have for Infinity Net isn't about tone or structure or statement. In the end, all those seemed nail-on-the-nosed. Plus it feels lucky to read this story in Kusama's own words. My question is where all her ladyfriends were. She does write about dudes (Cornell, Warhol, Donald Judd, Frank Stella), so it seems that either women weren't around or they weren't around enough to mention. (O'Keeffe was a benefactor and role model, not a pal.) However there is one part, right around when Kusama goes back to Japan, when she talks about driving through the country with a "companion." A "spirited woman." An architect, working on "many big projects and making a name for herself in a field still dominated by men."

The two goofball together, blasting rock music and talking about "literature and other things." They share a thermos of coffee. Then it starts to snow, and suddenly, whoop and whomp: Kusama finds herself at home, at peace. The mountains that once swallowed daylight are now sweetly blurred -- netted, even -- in a "powdery silver haze." I felt happy for her, and wondered how much of her relief came from the homecoming, how much from sitting next to someone who got it because she was living it, too. I wish Kusama got to have more of those moments.

Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama by Yayoi Kusama, translated by Ralph McCarthy
University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 978-0226464985
256 pages

Mairead Case is a writer in Chicago. She's also an editor at Featherproof Books, The Chicagoan, and YETI, a co-organizer of Printers' Ball, a teacher at StoryStudio, and a graduate student in fiction at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.