She and Judd lived on different floors of the same building. He helped her scavenge for raw materials and stuff fabric for her sculptures. “He was very influenced by her,” said the painter Malcolm Morley, who knew them both at the time. Kusama told me that she and Judd were so close that they would eat three meals a day together but that their relationship remained platonic because she regarded sex and sexual organs with horrified aversion. Within her chaste realm, her most ardent suitor was the middle-aged artist Joseph Cornell, who lived with his elderly mother in Queens. Cornell would call her every day and send her love letters. They sketched each other in the nude. Kusama showed me one of his portraits of her: In it, she resembles a Neolithic fertility goddess. That relationship, too, was unconsummated. “He hated sex,” she said. “That’s why we got along for such a long time.” Once, when they were kissing, his mother emptied a bucket of water on them. “But then she felt sorry and asked me to come again,” Kusama added.
Kusama routinely had herself photographed with her art. Often she appeared nude, in provocative poses. Other times she wore a kimono, the traditional garb she had shunned while living in Japan. Critics have interpreted her activity as a feminist critique, but with Kusama, there has always been that insatiable hunger for attention and fame. At the Venice Biennale in 1966, she stood in a kimono outside the Italian pavilion, amid an installation (which she called Narcissus Garden) of 1,500 mirrored plastic balls, selling them for 1,200 lira (about $2) apiece. It was a brilliant stroke of guerrilla art, and a successful one: The police ushered her off for having the audacity “to sell art like hot dogs or ice cream cones,” they said. Back in New York, she staged happenings in which she encouraged people to remove their clothing so she could paint their naked bodies. She presented some of these events as comments on the ossified and money-driven art world, others as protests against the Vietnam War. In 1968, she designed a “homosexual wedding dress,” which two men could wear at the same time, decades before gay marriage emerged as a real possibility. Many of her closest associates were gay men. “They never thought about having sex with me; that’s why I liked them,” she explained.
By the late sixties, she was despairing of her ability to earn a living as an artist and devoting more of her time to happenings and “orgies,” for which she charged admission. She lent her name to a sexually explicit magazine called Kusama Orgy and was listed in the credits as house geisha. She designed dresses with holes cut to expose breasts and buttocks. As word got back to Japan, her parents became more and more distressed. They stopped sending her money, which aggravated her financial woes. Early in 1973, emotionally drained and physically ill, she retreated to Japan. After brief stays at the Seiwa hospital in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo, she admitted herself in March 1977 and has remained there ever since. “The hospital bathes her, it feeds her, it gives her medications,” said Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. “It’s her wife.”