In japan, she was regarded as “the queen of scandal,” the critic Tatehata said, and not as a major artist. Yet she continued to create art, enlisting fellow hospital patients to assist her. The refurbishment of her reputation began with small exhibitions in Tokyo of the exquisite collages she made with magazine clippings that Cornell had given her. But her rediscovery on a larger stage dates from the pioneering 1989 exhibition in New York that was organized by Munroe at the short-lived Center for International Contemporary Arts. To prepare for the show, Munroe visited Kusama in Tokyo and went through an apartment she kept that was piled, floor to ceiling, with shoeboxes and suitcases decorated with polka dots and old-fashioned air-travel decals. In these containers were diner receipts, letters from dealers and artists, and every last shred of press coverage—all of it carefully preserved by Kusama as the record of her New York art career. When Munroe brought back Kusama’s archive of the sixties to the United States, she was stopped at customs in Seattle and accused of importing pornography. “I had to say, ‘No, this is art history!’ ” Munroe recalled.
Kusama represented Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1993 in an acclaimed exhibition curated by Tatehata. The renegade who hawked mirror balls a quarter of a century earlier had morphed into a doyenne of the international art scene. Her refound celebrity was cemented by an exhibition of her New York work, held in 1998 at the Museum of Modern Art and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But even though she remained an active artist—indeed, a hyperactive artist—she was celebrated mainly for work she had done in the sixties. That disappointed her. At the Venice Biennale, about half the space was devoted to her New York production. “She asked me to show more of her contemporary work, but I denied it,” Tatehata said.
Maybe it is too early to assess Kusama’s more recent pieces. As always, her antennae are attuned to the zeitgeist. Around the time when artists like Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami were setting up studios that resembled factories, and creating art that seemed like merchandise, Kusama established a studio of assistants to churn out dot paintings and net paintings. In Japan, where the Hello Kitty culture of cuteness (kawaii) is pervasive, her sculptures became less sinister and more jokey. Some of the recent installations look not like images of self-obliteration but rather a playground at McDonald’s. And the fiberglass-reinforced plastic sculptures that she began making in the early nineties—giant flowers and pumpkins—are downright kawaii. However, the mirrored pavilions of the past decade are as mesmerizingly beautiful as any in her career.
Tatehata argues that a few of the paintings in the colorful “My Eternal Soul” series now under way constitute “some of her best work.” “The early sixties was her most glorious period,” he said. “In the 1990s and the early 21st century, her studio looked like a factory. Now she paints and draws in her own hand. That is the reason she is having a second peak period—she does everything by herself.”