When The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. hosted a 50-year retrospective of Yayoi Kusama’s art in February 2017, it featured six Infinity Mirror installations — her celebrated cube-shaped rooms lined with mirrors. It broke the museum’s attendance records. By the time the show closed that May, 160,000 people had attended it and 475,000 had visited the grounds of the museum, where some of her sculptures were exhibited. On social media, the enthusiasm was even more intense: a 2017 Smithsonian article reported that the hashtag #InfiniteKusama had reached 91 million users and generated 330 million impressions and 34,000 original photographs on Instagram. It is no exaggeration to say that Kusama is the artist most emblematic of the social media age.
Elisa Macellari’s Kusama: The Graphic Novel, a new graphic biography published by Laurence King, is a welcome change, providing insight into the artist’s pre-social media years. Rather than concentrating on the immersive and spectacular nature of the large-scale works that have fascinated museum-goers in recent years, the author, after introducing Kusama’s childhood in the 1930s, mostly focuses on the artist’s pivotal years spent in New York, starting in 1958, when she became part of the city’s avant-garde circles.
We initially meet Kusama at the age of 10 in Japan. Lying on a lawn covered with flowers, she has the first of many hallucinations she experienced in her youth, as flowers begin to talk to her. She turns to painting in order to “get back inside herself and to feel her soul at one with her body,” as Macellari narrates; for example, phalluses, a recurring motif in her work, express her revulsion toward sex, which originated when she spied on her father’s extramarital trysts at her mother’s behest. She channels her hallucination-fueled visual obsessions (dots, swirls, biomorphic shapes) into paintings and patterns.
Defying her bourgeois and conservative parents, she pursues art professionally, living in Tokyo and France before moving to New York. There, in addition to her paintings, sculptures, and performances, she produces clothes sold at Bloomingdale’s (for instance, “See-Through and Way Out Dresses,” as she explains in the book) and establishes the Kusama Musical Production and the Kusama International Film LTD. She also hosts the “Homo Social Club”, where, in 1968, she officiated her first gay wedding.
Macellari cleverly introduces us to the figures that shaped Kusama’s art: Georgia O’Keeffe, who had corresponded with Kusama when the latter sought the renowned painter’s advice; Donald Judd, who had a studio in the same building as Kusama; Andy Warhol, who, in the graphic novel, repeatedly steals her models for parties at the Factory; and Joseph Cornell, 26 years her senior, with whom she had a friendship rooted in artistic respect.
It might be hard for some readers to fathom that, behind the visually captivating mirrored rooms, multicolored dots, twinkling lights, and polka-dot-patterned pumpkins — all extremely pleasing to the eye — is an artist who was once, first and foremost, a provocateur.
For example, in 1966 she crashed the Venice Biennale with an installation titled Narcissus Garden — 1,500 mirrored spheres laid out on a lawn. Produced with the help of Lucio Fontana, she sold the spheres for 1,200 lire apiece (around $2 USD), as a winking critique of the commodification of art. In the late 1960s, she also delighted in staging public performances in which naked performers were painted with polka dots. She held protest parties outside of the New York Stock Exchange, beside the Statue of Liberty, and inside the Fillmore East nightclub. The most notable one was the Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead, in which naked performers mimicked the poses of sculptures in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. On November 25, 1968, she presided over a “Homosexual Wedding,” where, as a press release stated at the time, “Both the bride and groom will wear a fantastic ‘orgy’ wedding gown, designed for two instead of one.” “Here, in the Church of Self-Obliteration [a Downtown loft], Love can now be free,” she further proclaimed.
Macellari wisely concludes in the early 1990s, when Kusama’s art experiences a Renaissance after falling out of favor in the 1970s and ’80s. Narratively, it is understandable: in 1977, the artist began living in a psychiatric facility with an art studio nearby, so there’s not much in terms of worldly interactions to fill pages; the 1980s, which gradually culminate with her recognition, are dealt with in the span of just a few pages.
The novel’s color scheme, which is limited to teal, aqua, red, and warm pink, imbues it with its own distinctive character. Rather than trying to adopt Kusama’s aesthetic or accompany the story with straightforward depictions of characters and events, Macellari — who is a critically acclaimed graphic novelist and illustrator in Italy (her past work includes the award-winning graphic novel Papaya Salad) — remains faithful to her own style. Her writing is poignant as well.
Kusama: The Graphic Novel is an ode to the power of art, which, on multiple occasions, saved Kusama; after she had retreated from the public sphere in the 1970s, art was all she had to hold onto, and she kept creating. In Kusama, art creates camaraderie and bonds between fellow artists and non-artists alike: when she is arrested for one of her nude performances, a policeman gushes over meeting the great Kusama, while an integral part of her friendship with Cornell was their drawing sessions. “To Art, for keeping us alive,” she toasts at one point. These words continue to ring true for artists worldwide.