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Connecting the Dots

Yayoi Kusama has been a major artist--both famous and forgotten--for four decades.

March 08, 1998|Scarlet Cheng | Scarlet Cheng, an occasional contributor to Calendar, writes frequently about the arts and film. She traveled to Tokyo for this article

TOKYO — Artist Yayoi Kusama has alarming eyes--or perhaps they are alarmed. Large and staring, there is an edgy apprehension in them, as if afraid of what she might see. There is also a burning intensity that comes from seeing what she does, which is perhaps too much.

As a child, she had hallucinations in which dots would cover everything from floor to ceiling, in which the patterns of violets lept from the kitchen tablecloth and bloomed into the space around her. These were not happy visions--they were terrifying--and once, as she tried to flee from them, she tripped down a flight of stairs and broke her ankle.

Unlike many others who might have suffered such delusions, whether in the privacy of protective homes or the lockup of institutions, Kusama went public with them, transforming her obsessions into art. Today she is a spry 68, as forcefully creative as ever, and enjoying a blossoming international reputation as one of Japan's foremost contemporary artists.

Beginning today, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is honoring her with her first major museum retrospective in the United States, "Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968," focusing on her creative sojourn in America. The exhibition includes more than 80 works, including sculpture, painting and drawing, as well as re-creations of several major installations.

It is winter in Tokyo, a gray city with gray skies, and down a gray street in an unassuming low-rise building is Kusama's studio. Inside, vivid colors strike the eye. Black boxes filled with nests of bright hues line the entry, a tall golden soft sculpture of spiraling projectiles springs like a giant sea anemone from one corner. And more striking still is this diminutive woman wearing an electric purple blouse with lacy neckline and cuffs, a thick beaded necklace at her throat.

Yayoi Kusama steps forward to greet her visitor with a shy smile. She has deathly pale skin and long black hair with the bangs cut short and straight across her forehead, a style which adds to the severity of her appearance. She examines her guest with those huge staring eyes--off-putting if it weren't for the childlike curiosity that is also in them.

She sits for an interview in the office half of the studio, which is neatly organized with shelves of books and papers along the walls. A translator and her secretary join in as coffee is served in colored demitasse cups and saucers based on her signature dot and net designs. The other half of the studio serves both as storage and workshop for large works-in-progress--five young women are helping to prepare a statue destined for New York's Robert Miller Gallery, for a show timed around the presentation of "Love Forever" at the Museum of Modern Art next summer.

This is clearly the space of a successful artist.

"Almost everything I make is sold," Kusama announces briskly. "In fact, so many people want things from me now, it's difficult to keep up."

Though eager to talk about her work, every so often she pulls nervously at the long strands on the side of her head, every so often she loses track of what she is saying. It is as if so many thoughts rush into her head at once that she gets derailed. But a quick reminder and she's back on course, her memory astonishingly sharp about events that occurred decades ago.

Her English is rusty, and she speaks mostly through translation. But now and then she jumps in to answer before the translator has a chance to speak. Certain key phrases in English have stuck in her mind. Looking at a photo of her youthful self lying naked atop a protrusion-covered sofa from 1962 ("Accumulation No. 2"), she methodically points to the different elements of that captured performance--"Net obsession, phallic obsession, dot obsession, food obsession," she says.

With the first phrase, she points to the intricate net pattern painted on the wall, then to the soft-sculpture encrusted sofa, then to her own polka-dot covered body, and finally to the floor strewn with tubular and wheel-shaped pasta.

While her tone remains matter-of-fact, Kusama is revealing her most deep-seated phobias--the lusts and needs of the human body, the void of the universe, and all the things that have threatened her with obliteration and depersonalization.

As she once said, "Up to now I have never not wanted to kill myself."

Kusama grew up in Nagano prefecture, the home of this year's Winter Olympics. She recalls the "glittering silver" of the mountain ranges but also that life at home was a nightmare. Her parents were ever trying to keep her in conformity, discouraging her dreams of an art career, encouraging her to get married soon.

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