Yayoi Kusama: The Polka-Dot-Loving Art Legend I Initially Mistook for Crazy

A documentary in the works looks to capture the incredible career of an 83-year-old Japanese eccentric.

sheller 615 Kusama©Tokyo Lee Productions, Inc.(www.kusamadocumentary.com).jpg

Yayoi Kusama, known for her innovative soft-sculpture, immersive, polka-dotted experiences, is among Japan's most revered living artists. With art that strides the abstract, cute, and bizarre, this 83-year-, orange-wigged living doll is the consummate avant gardist. She exists in a self-contained bubble of spacy illusions and ephemeral visions, and for the past 38 years has lived voluntarily in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital across the street from her painting studio. Frequent exhibitions at MoMA and the Whitney, prestigious gallery shows, mountains of published monographs, and scores of fashion products bearing her imprimatur attest to her surprising popularity. Last February, the Tate Modern in London opened a major retrospective, now in its final month, that testifies to her colossal art-world appeal.

I came to know Kusama in 1968. But to me, then, she was simply a kook. I was the 17-year-old rookie art director of Screw, an underground sex paper that was a part of the late-'60s sexual revolution. That's where I fielded almost daily phone calls from Kusama, who was aggressively hawking photos of the orgiastic happenings she had choreographed. You see, she was a prodigious orchestrator of gaggles of naked hippies, some wearing masks of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, covered in polka dots and scampering in undulating piles of potato-shaped soft sculptures (and on one occasion dangling on the Alice in Wonderland monument in Central Park). Kusama routinely appeared in these photographs as ringmaster, wearing a dot-encrusted leotard.

"I come now, bring photos," Kusama announced in such fast-clipped, heavily accented English that I almost believed that she was speaking—and I was understanding—Japanese. She'd arrive at the door moments later, as though she had called from just around the corner. Usually, she'd stay for an hour or so, explaining the hidden meaning of every single shot. Listening was torture.

"During that era she also made 'orgy clothes,' with strategically cut holes."

I'd never met anyone as self-promotional as Kusama. But I'm reminded of Woody Allen's joke about the guy who had a brother who thought he was a chicken: When asked why he wasn't committed to a mental asylum, the reply was "'cause we need the eggs!" Well, at Screw we needed the photos—and Kusama kept the underground sex press well-stocked.

It was a story on a blog in which I mentioned Kusama's hijinx that brought me to the attention of Heather Lenz, a filmmaker making the documentary Kusama Princess of Polka Dots, a seven-minute version of which was cut for the Tate exhibit . I was surprised to learn that this strange blip of memory—Kusama—had become such an incredibly renowned artist. If only I saved those photos, I might be rich enough to help Lenz complete her entire film in time for the Tate exhibit.

Lenz was introduced to Kusama's work in the early '90s, when she was earning duel degrees in Art History and Fine Arts, and her textbooks seldom contained any mention of women artists. "Then one day, a sculpture professor showed me a photo of Kusama's sculptures," she told me in a recent interview. "It was love at first sight."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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