Yayoi Kusama Writes of Hunger, Grudges, and Necking With Joseph Cornell in Her Odd Autobiography

Yayoi Kusama Writes of Hunger, Grudges, and Necking With Joseph Cornell in Her Odd Autobiography
Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama
(Courtesy Getty Images)

Yayoi Kusama is a unique artist, and her autobiography is a unique, if not to say weird, book. "Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama" (translated by Ralph McCarthy, University of Chicago Press) is not so much an in-depth narrative of a life as an assertion of Kusama's artistic identity — part memoir, part critique, part artistic statement. She is critical of the lack of support for contemporary art in Japan, and is still resentful at being labeled a "national disgrace" in her homeland for leading nude happenings in 1960s New York. She returns frequently to the inner compulsion that makes her create: "my work was based upon the irrepressible outpouring of what was already inside me." Proud of her artistic authenticity and originality, she seems to still seek the validation that her parents did not provide, inserting dozens of glowing reviews of her work into her text as if to finally win over some reluctant viewer.

This odd book definitely has its high points. "Infinity Net" is at its most engaging when Kusama tells stories of life-changing events, such as sending a letter out of the blue to Georgia O'Keeffe and being astonished at receiving a kind reply. She describes her unstoppable determination to move to New York, and tells terrifying stories of the beginnings of her mental illness as a child, when violets would talk to her and the staircase would seem to disappear underneath her feet. Recording these hallucinations was the origin of her art.

Arriving in New York in 1957, Kusama found it to be "hell on earth." Living in poverty, afflicted by neurotic episodes, she found herself sometimes not eating for days and spending every penny she had on art supplies. Yet her work prevailed over her miserable condition: "my commitment to a revolution in art caused the blood to run hot in my veins and even made me forget my hunger." When her "infinity net" paintings are well-received, Kusama illustates this by cataloging her positive reviews in the text — but the human side of her success is absent. Presumably she moved to a better studio, was able to eat well, and started to enjoy life in New York, but we're not told anything about it. She does settle a couple old scores, mentioning that Claes Oldenburg's wife asked for her forgiveness after he imitated her soft sculptures, and that Andy Warhol appropriated her technique of plastering the walls and ceiling of the gallery with identical photos.

Overall, the book's treatment of human relationships is limited. Kusama's mother opposed the idea of her becoming an artist and was physically and psychologically abusive to her as a child; her father was more supportive, but his serial womanizing caused bitter fights between her parents. Of her three siblings, nothing is said. But the biggest question mark hovers over Kusama's abstinence. She writes of creating soft phallic sculptures as a way of exorcising her fear of the penis and of sex, but it's not clear if her self-imposed therapy was ever successful. When she presided over sex happenings and orgies in the 1960s, she would remain clothed, and she describes refusing sexual overtures from the participants. Believing that "free sex" would end all war, she wanted to start such happenings in Japan, but returning to her homeland, she found the atmosphere to be hopelessly conservative. There's an unacknowledged dissonance here — Kusama wants to free the Japanese people from their repressive views of sexuality, yet she herself seems to have been unable to have a sex life.

In a section titled "People I've Known, People I've Loved," Kusama describes her relationship with Joseph Cornell. It's a surprisingly touching, if rather sad, tale, of two isolated, driven, visionary misfits. Cornell, who was 25 years her senior, would send letters that overflowed from her mailbox and keep her on the phone for hours. They never had sex, but kissed and also sketched each other naked. She tells an amusing and disturbing story of a run-in with Cornell's controlling mother: "Joseph and I were sitting on the lawn one day, kissing, when his mother came up behind us with a bucket full of water. Huffing and puffing, she raised the bucket and emptied the contents on top of us.... 'How many times do I have to tell you, Joseph?' she shouted. 'You mustn't touch women! Women are filthy! They breed syphilis and gonorrhea.'"

Kusama has been voluntarily interned in a mental hospital in Tokyo since 1977 — a decision that she doesn't say much about — while going every day to work in her studio across the street. She seems to enjoy the predictability of her days and the ample time for her work — which also includes writing novels. I'm not sure that I will pick up "Prisoner Surrounded by the Curtain of Depersonalization" or "Love Suicide at Sakuragazuka" any time soon, but in "Infinity Net," I enjoyed the sincerity of Kusama's writing about art. When she says that "for an aspiring artist like myself, to triumph over an unjust environment is to triumph over the pain of feeling cornered and trapped," the term "aspiring artist" is surprising for a woman of 83 years and multiple museum retrospectives. But I'm sure she really means it.