I entered the studio of Yayoi Kusama like Alice wandering into Wonderland. The generic concrete three-story building is located across the avenue from a private Tokyo mental hospital, in which this 83-year-old woman—who is widely thought to be Japan’s greatest living artist—has resided voluntarily for 35 years. For a few minutes I waited as the finishing touches of her maquillage were applied. And then the diminutive and self-aggrandizing Kusama appeared, made up outrageously in a vermilion wig and matching lipstick and dress, her expression frozen in an intense gaze that blended imperiousness with traces of confusion. Assistants watched anxiously. Solicitous of her frailty, they also feared her unpredictable “Off with their heads!”-like flashes of anger. They were well aware that she has fired her longtime secretary three times and, for good measure, once impulsively dismissed her primary art dealer. She is the Red Queen come to life.
On first glance, almost everything about Kusama is paradoxical. Her latest canvases in bold, colorful patterns, which she completes at a ferocious pace, retail in the mid–six figures at New York’s Gagosian Gallery and London’s Victoria Miro; one of her rare early paintings sold at auction in November 2008 for $5.79 million, a record at the time for a living woman artist. Yet she resides in a one-bedroom institutional apartment with little more than a bed, desk, refrigerator, bookshelf, and closet. In conversation, her mind jumps erratically along synaptic connections that follow the timeworn network of her phobias. Every morning, she carefully reads the newspaper and, when she gets to the book listings, underlines the titles of interesting new publications—especially on scientific subjects—which her staff orders, and she reads. Perhaps her core contradiction is that her mental illness, which she has described as obsessive-compulsive disorder, isolates her in a private prison yet also provides a way for her to find a place in the world. “By her obsession, she opens herself to others,” said Akira Tatehata, the president of the Kyoto City University of Arts and a curator and art critic who has been a key supporter of Kusama’s art. “If she was just arrogant and proud of her power, it would deny her communication. But because of her obsession, we want to understand her.”
Many artists long for recognition, but Kusama craves fame like a pop star does. When we spoke, she interrupted me periodically to tell me how famous she was or to ask if I thought she was more famous than some other artist (Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, Donald Judd) whose path she has crossed. In fact, she’s famous but not as famous as she should be. During her most fertile period, while she was living in New York in the sixties, she led the way with astonishing creativity—and in two directions simultaneously—as art moved from the established territory of Abstract Expressionism toward Minimalism and Pop. As demonstrated by a retrospective of her work that opens in July at the Whitney Museum in New York (following stops at Centre Pompidou in Paris and Tate Modern in London), Kusama—notwithstanding her explanation that her work expresses her psychological obsessions—has always been an artist of her time and, usually, a step or two ahead of it.