J apan, which kusama denigrates in her autobiography as “a corrupt and bogus fourth-rate country,” was obviously too small to contain her ambition. In her bourgeois environs, she had to struggle against expectations that she would become a pampered housewife. Despite her mother’s protests, Kusama studied painting, first in Matsumoto and then in Kyoto. Her talent was recognized immediately. So was her extraordinary fecundity. Three years after graduating from art school in Kyoto, she exhibited 200 works in a 1952 solo exhibition in Matsumoto. Seven months later, she showed 280 new works in a second show.
With the help of a relative who had lived in Seattle, Kusama left Japan in late 1957, first to attend a gallery opening of her work in Seattle and then, six months later, to reside in New York. Despite providing material assistance, Kusama’s parents temporarily disowned her. “I received money—enough to buy three houses at the time—and my mother said, ‘Never come back to my place,’ ” she said. “My mother was at that point trying hard to make me a wealthy bride, so that is why she was so upset.” For a young Japanese woman who spoke little English, relocating on her own to the States so soon after the war took enormous courage. “It was difficult in the years when I went to the United States,” Kusama said. “Today it is full of people coming from Japan on planes, but then it was only picture brides for GIs.”
In New York, Kusama’s networking skills proved to be remarkable. “Whenever I went to a party, I made a friend,” she said. She got to know Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg, and many others. Judd, who was then primarily an art critic, wrote an enthusiastic and perceptive piece on Kusama’s first show in New York, which took place in October 1959, little more than a year after her arrival. He was also the first to buy one of her enormous white proto-minimalist “infinity net” paintings, which Kusama began making in 1958. Preparing a canvas with a background of pale gray and then superimposing on it one small white arc after another, she ended up with a surface that pulsated with a lacelike proliferation. In her cold East 19th Street apartment, unable to afford much food other than rice, she would work 40 or 50 hours without taking a break. Painting the infinity nets produced in the artist a similar effect to the experience of the viewer, which Kusama once described as “a kind of dizzy, empty, hypnotic feeling.”
Starting in 1961, she made soft sculptures well in advance of Oldenburg. In these works, which she called “accumulations,” fabric stuffed in phallic shapes multiplied on furniture, spilled out of suitcases, or popped up out of shoes. She also produced clothing covered with dried macaroni and painted silver or gold; resembling fancy brocade, it commented in a witty Pop manner on both factory-made food and trend-mad fashion. Her decal pictures and wallpaper antedate Warhol’s comparable exercises in repetition. She constructed a room-size installation in December 1963, before the term “installation art” even existed; and one of her early mirrored pavilions, Kusama’s Peep Show, in which blinking white, green, red, and blue lightbulbs on the ceiling were reflected on the walls and floor, appeared in March 1966, months before Lucas Samaras introduced a similar one.