Yayoi and Me

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Before Yoko Ono there was Yayoi Kusama, a performance and conceptual artist for whom ego and hubris knew no bounds. When I was seventeen (the innocent “art director” of the fledgling Screw magazine), I used to field regular calls from Kusama, who wanted to give us her wares for publication. In almost incomprehensible broken English, she’d ask if I’d publish photographs of one or more of her many art orgies.

Kusama, a polka dot fanatic, painted them on scores of naked men and women who would then adorn masks of Fidel Castro, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and wear police or nurse’s hats. She’d have them pose for photos in public places (like Central Park) while engaging in orgiastic gymnastics. Often she would strike a deadpan pose in the shots too (detail from a 1968 Screw centerfold, bottom).

A few years ago, much to my surprise, I found a bunch of catalogs of Kusama’s art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Actually, surprise is an understatement. It was That Kusama!!?? After all, when I knew her, she was a purveyor of what we once affectionately called soft porn (she also made soft sculptures of potato-like things). Little did I dream she would be heralded as a major avant garde artist who, in 2006 received the Japanese National Lifetime Achievement Award. In November 2008,her 1959 painting No. 2 was auctioned by Christie’s New Yorkfor more than $5.7 million, the second highest bid ever earned by aliving female artist. (Marlene Dumas is first.)

Now a new film, I Love ME, “captures Kusama’s creative process as she diligently works tocomplete her series of 50 large monochrome drawings,” says the website New People Artist Series. “As her work comesto life, one can witness the essence of her art as it wells up in theconflict between life, death, and love; sometimes quietly and sometimesjust the opposite.” It is hilarious. I wouldn’t have guessed! For more Kusama films go here.

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →