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Before Yayoi Kusama Made ‘Infinity Rooms,’ She Created Standout Political Works

Has there ever been a more unlikely artist sensation than Yayoi Kusama? Today, she’s known best for her “Infinity Rooms”—large-scale enclosed environments that have become Instagram fodder, with their endless reflections of reflections, polka-dotted surfaces, and glittering lights luring droves of people in search of selfies, transcendence, and more. But the recent Kusama craze has…

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Before Yayoi Kusama Made ‘Infinity Rooms,’ She Created Standout Political Works

Has there ever been a more unlikely artist sensation than Yayoi Kusama? Today, she’s known best for her “Infinity Rooms”—large-scale enclosed environments that have become Instagram fodder, with their endless reflections of reflections, polka-dotted surfaces, and glittering lights luring droves of people in search of selfies, transcendence, and more.
But the recent Kusama craze has obscured what landed her in art history in the first place—namely, her boundary-pushing ’60s-era sculptures, performances, and photographs intended as reactions against a male-dominated world and expressions of her own psyche. During the time these works were made, they placed Kusama at the center of a new avant-garde emerging in New York, where she was based from 1958 to 1975.

Below, a guide to some of the lesser-known parts of Kusama’s oeuvre, many of which will figure in a major retrospective that is scheduled to open in September at the Gropius Bau in Berlin, recently reopened after a temporary coronavirus-related closure.

Yayoi Kusama, Nets, 1957.
©Yayoi Kusama/Courtesy David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Singapore and Tokyo; and Victoria Miro, London and Venice

“Infinity Nets”
Long before the “Infinity Rooms,” there were the “Infinity Nets,” a series that, though far less baroque in its form, drew on similar themes. When Kusama first arrived in New York in 1958 from Tokyo, where she had experienced commercial success, she brought with her around 2,000 works on paper. Many took the form of watercolors and ink drawings that made use of repeated patterns; some even included the polka dots that would later become her signature motif. Just a year and a half after her arrival, Kusama had her first U.S. solo show, at New York’s Brata Gallery, where she exhibited white-on-white paintings that seemed to barely even be there.
Kusama wrote that she intended the white paintings to be “like a bomb,” and judging by the reviews, the critics heard the explosion. Artist Donald Judd, who later became Kusama’s romantic partner, was known to be a tough critic, but even he was among its admirers, writing in ARTnews, “The expression transcends the question of whether it is Oriental or American. Although it is something of both, certainly of such Americans as Rothko, Still and Newman, it is not at all a synthesis and is thoroughly independent.” Because her art of the era dovetailed neatly with some of the geometric abstractions being produced by avant-garde groups in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, Kusama’s work was more often seen in Europe than it was in New York during the ’60s.

Looked at today, the paintings seem to foreshadow the move toward Minimalism and, later, Post-Minimalism during the ’60s and ’70s; critic Lucy Lippard even curated Kusama’s work alongside abstractions by Minimalist artists. But Kusama’s concerns were not merely formal. Curator Lynn Zelevansky, who organized a landmark show about Kusama’s New York years that appeared at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in 1998, has argued that the paintings have a lot to do with Kusama’s childhood hallucinations of dots and recurring patterns. “I don’t consider myself an artist; I am pursuing art in order to correct the disability that began in my childhood,” Kusama once said, referring to her mental illness. (Since 1977, she has been hospitalized in Tokyo by choice.)

Kusama’s “Accumulations” sculptures in a 2017 exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian Institution

“Accumulations”
Kusama’s interest in recurring forms reached its greatest expression with her “Accumulations” works from the 1960s, which often feature canvases and objects that are cluttered with repeating visual motifs. Sometimes, this is done through the bringing together and arranging of one kind of object—for some of her most famous works in the series, she laid out airmail stickers in neat rows, creating eye-popping patterns that, from far away, look like more orderly versions of the all-over compositions of the Abstract Expressionists. A group of works made using egg cartons, arranged to create rows and rows of hump-like forms, followed. But the series reached its high point with sculptures featuring ready-made objects festooned with phalli.
Many curators and critics agree that there are feminist undertones—overtones, according to some—in these phallus works. Noting that Kusama’s father was absent during her childhood in Japan, curator Alexandra Munroe, who has worked with Kusama’s art frequently over the years, has written, “If the vast majority of women would submit to domination, would allow the denial of their subjectivity, Kusama would not.” Viewed this way, Kusama’s phallus works start to seem like statements about the oppressiveness of a male-dominated world. Others have said the feminist commentary was not entirely intentional and instead have suggested a psychological context, relying on Kusama’s statements about how the pieces derive from her fears of sex and in particular male genitalia.
Still other curators have suggested that the works may have something in common with contemporaneous developments in the world of Pop art. Many have drawn comparisons between Kusama’s airmail sticker works and the rows of images that Andy Warhol screen printed. And indeed, Kusama’s works even appeared at New York’s Green Gallery, which became a haven for Pop, and the artist was included in a compendium about Pop art penned by Lippard. When it came to her own feelings about Pop, however, Kusama expressed a note of sorrow: a predilection for that movement, she said, had caused some to “become exclusive of others,” like herself, because she made more subdued monochromes.

Yayoi Kusama with Infinity Mirrored Room – Phalli’s Field, installed for the 1965 solo exhibition “Floor Show” at Castellane Gallery, New York.
©Yayoi Kusama/Courtesy David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Singapore and Tokyo; and Victoria Miro, London and Venice

Photography
Many recent exhibitions of Kusama’s “Infinity Rooms” have been promoted with a famed 1965 photograph of the artist standing inside the environmental installation Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field. Wearing a red one-piece suit, she stands before the camera, her arms behind her head and her eyes lifelessly staring into the distance. It’s easy to read the picture as an artist portrait and nothing more, but in fact, Kusama produced photographs like this one as something akin to the artworks themselves.
Although, of course, it’s hard to say whether Kusama really “took” the picture. As part of the setup for these images, Kusama enlisted the help of well-known photographers—Rudy Burckhardt, who shot famed photographs of Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, was among them—to merely work the camera. But it was she who meticulously plotted out each image, choreographing where the camera went and what pose she’d strike in front of it. These works become early examples of performances staged purely for a camera, and they testify to Kusama’s ability to toy with the male gaze.

Yayoi Kusama, Macaroni Pants, 1968.
©Yayoi Kusama/Courtesy David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Singapore and Tokyo; and Victoria Miro, London and Venice

“Food Obsession”
A lesser-known though hardly insignificant part of Kusama’s oeuvre, the “Food Obsession” sculptures involved affixing pieces of dried pasta on clothes and other objects. Though seemingly lighthearted, the series’ origin is dark: Kusama has said the works grew out of an image she conjured of all the food one eats during a lifetime passing by on a conveyor belt. For one work no longer extant, Kusama covered a mannequin with pasta; in a related photograph, she leans in to kiss it. The meaning of these works is oblique—Zelevansky, the curator of the MoMA show, has claimed they may even have alluded to eating disorders—but for Kusama, they were another expression of her obsessions. “I find myself being put into a uniform environment which is strangely mechanized and standardized,” she once said. Soon enough, the artist literalized that with her 1966 work Kusama’s Peep Show, which resembled a mirrored hexagonal space that could be seen only by staring into it through an aperture. When visitors looked in, all they saw was their own face duplicated many times over.

Yayoi Kusama with Narcissus Garden, 1966.
©Yayoi Kusama/Courtesy David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Singapore and Tokyo; and Victoria Miro, London and Venice

Environments, Happenings, and Activism
Like many artists of the 1960s, Kusama brought her artworks outside the confines of the art gallery and the museum, often in extroverted and bizarre ways. As artist Hans Haacke once put it, Kusama had “headed … into the peculiar world of performance art” during the mid-’60s. That started as early as 1966, when Kusama showed her sculptural installation Narcissus Garden, a work with 1,500 mirrored balls covering the ground, at the Venice Biennale in Italy—without ever having been invited. She began selling the shiny orbs to the exhibition’s visitors, and soon enough, the police got involved, forcing her to stop her makeshift sale. Some have viewed the piece’s title as a reference to narcissism—and have suggested that the work was intended to underscore how buying art was in some way based on egotism. According to curator Laura Hoptman, the work acted as a “crass reminder—in the hallowed precincts of the Biennale—of the economic underpinnings of the go-go contemporary art market.”
Kusama continued pushing that political commentary even further as the ’60s progressed. A similar kind of institutional critique can be found in her 1969 performance Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MOMA (Otherwise Known as the Museum of Modern Art) — Featuring Their Usual Display of Nudes, an attempt to enliven the museum’s holdings by having nude performers appear in the sculpture garden alongside masterpieces of modernism. (The scandal that ensued landed the piece on the cover of the New York Daily News the next day.) And for another work known as Naked Demonstration/Anatomic Explosion one year earlier, Kusama assembled naked dancers outside the New York Stock Exchange as a protest against the Vietnam War. “The money made with this stock is enabling the war to continue,” a press release explaining the work read. “We protest this cruel, greedy instrument of the war establishment.”

Yayoi Kusama, “Anti-War” Naked Happening & Flag Burning at Brooklyn Bridge, 1968.
©Yayoi Kusama/Courtesy David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Singapore and Tokyo; and Victoria Miro, London and Venice

Antiwar Works
It can be difficult to square the less happy aspects of Kusama’s recent art with their bright colors and their seemingly uplifting titles. That makes a work like The Obliteration Room (2011) all the more difficult to make sense of. Initially conceived as a work for children, the piece features a white room that, over the course of its exhibition, is turned colorful through the application of warmly hued dots by visitors. The title, however, is telling: its use of the word “obliteration” gestures at an unseen violence taking place.
In fact, Kusama’s work has often dealt head-on with carnage, particularly of the sort wrought by the war machine. The artist’s colleagues have recalled that, during the ’60s, Kusama was among the many in the art world who were vehemently antiwar. (“You can’t eradicate violence by using more violence,” she once wrote in an open letter to Richard Nixon, then President of the United States.) And, once she returned to Japan in the 1970s, she began painting works whose titles seemed to allude to mass graves and conflict. In her writings since then, she has empathized with victims and the oppressed. In a statement about the recent coronavirus pandemic, she wrote, “Now is the time for people all over the world to stand up / My deep gratitude goes to all those who are already fighting.”

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NYU Will Remove Sackler Name from Graduate Institute, Deana Lawson Wins Hugo Boss Prize, and More: Morning Links from October 23, 2020

To receive Morning Links in your inbox every weekday, sign up for our Breakfast with ARTnews newsletter. News New York University’s Langone Medical Center will remove the Sackler name from its Graduate Biomedical Institute following years of pressure from the student body and artist Nan Goldin’s advocacy organization P.A.I.N. [Hyperallergic] Yesterday Marian Goodman Gallery announced that it would close its London location. In an interview with ARTnews, gallery…

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NYU Will Remove Sackler Name from Graduate Institute, Deana Lawson Wins Hugo Boss Prize, and More: Morning Links from October 23, 2020

To receive Morning Links in your inbox every weekday, sign up for our Breakfast with ARTnews newsletter.
News
New York University’s Langone Medical Center will remove the Sackler name from its Graduate Biomedical Institute following years of pressure from the student body and artist Nan Goldin’s advocacy organization P.A.I.N. [Hyperallergic]
Yesterday Marian Goodman Gallery announced that it would close its London location. In an interview with ARTnews, gallery founder Marian Goodman shared what comes next for the enterprise’s British operation. [ARTnews]

Thirteen women, in interviews with The New York Times, have accused the Iranian celebrity artist, Aydin Aghdashloo, of sexual misconduct over a 30-year-period. [The New York Times]

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A New York program that offers perpetrators of minor offenses the opportunity to take an art class at the Brooklyn Museum instead appearing in court, is at risk of defunding. [The Art Newspaper]
Deana Lawson is the first-ever photographer to win Guggenheim Museum’s $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize. [ARTnews]
Artists & Institutions 
After a summer of social and financial turmoil, white-led arts institutions nationwide are reckoning with racism. But what does it take to achieve equity?  [Los Angeles Times]
A show of work by Bruce Nauman at Sperone Westwater Gallery, featuring a new digital artwork activated by an iPad touchscreen, “confirms how sedulously he is still pushing the studio’s limits,” writes Jason Farago. [The New York Times]
Maxwell Alexandre’s first solo show in England is now on view at David Zwirner’s London gallery. Check out some of the work, which centers Rocinha, the Rio de Janeiro favela where he was raised and currently lives, here. [The Paris Review]
Market
Sotheby’s back-to-back modern and contemporary evening sales in Paris and London generated a total of $90.4 million. [Art Market Monitor]
The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem is facing criticism following the decision to deaccession dozens pieces of art and artifacts at Sotheby’s. [The Art Newspaper]

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Artist Saul Fletcher Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide

Saul Fletcher, a British-born, Berlin-based artist known for moody images of collaged objects photographed against a plaster wall in his studio, was found dead last week in Berlin what several outlets have reported to have been a murder-suicide. The claims have been circulating in the British and European tabloids since late last week, with the…

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Artist Saul Fletcher Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide

Saul Fletcher, a British-born, Berlin-based artist known for moody images of collaged objects photographed against a plaster wall in his studio, was found dead last week in Berlin what several outlets have reported to have been a murder-suicide. The claims have been circulating in the British and European tabloids since late last week, with the tabloids linking Fletcher with actor Brad Pitt (Fletcher was photographed by paparazzi last year walking around the Venice Biennale with Pitt and sculptor Thomas Houseago).
This morning, the three galleries that represented Fletcher at the time of his death—Anton Kern Gallery in New York, Knust Kunz Gallery Editions in Munich, and Grice Bench in Los Angeles—provided to ARTnews a joint statement regarding the reports: “We are devastated, appalled, and shocked by the tragic loss of Rebeccah Blum and Saul Fletcher. We are all grief-stricken and confused. We offer our deepest condolences to their families and together are offering our support and help.”

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Blum is a freelance curator who previously was director of Berlin’s Aurel Scheibler gallery. ARTnews has not been able to independently verify these deaths or the circumstances surrounding them.
According to a Daily Mail article published on July 23, Fletcher confessed to his daughter last Wednesday evening that he had killed a woman, now assumed to be Blum based on the statement of the galleries. Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, according to the Daily Mail, Fletcher’s daughter reported this information to the Berlin police, who subsequently found a woman dead from apparent stab wounds in Fletcher’s apartment. The following morning, Fletcher was found dead in the garden of property he owned near Rochowsee lake, about two hours north of Berlin.
ARTnews has reached out to Berlin law enforcement, but has been unable to verify this reporting at this time.
Fletcher, who was born in 1967 in the village of Barton, on the northeastern coast of England, and was largely self-taught, first came to prominence in the late 1990s when he began showing with New York’s Anton Kern Gallery. In a review of his exhibition at Kern in 2000, New York Times critic Roberta Smith called Fletcher’s photographs “evocative, slightly macabre, sometimes overly precious,” which “appear to be the work of a shut-in working in a nearly empty attic with the occasional cooperation of family members.”

Fletcher’s work has appeared in major international exhibitions as well, including the 30th Bienal de São Paulo in 2012, the 4th Berlin Biennale in 2006, and the 2004 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. His most recent exhibition at Anton Kern was in 2018. That same year, Inventory Press published a monograph of his work with essays by Ralph Rugoff, curator of the 2019 Venice Biennale, and critic Kirsty Bell.

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Unprecedented Toppling of Monument to Slave Trader Shocks British Art World

Until his statue was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters on Sunday, few people outside Bristol had heard of Edward Colston. Dramatic images of the protests held in the British city show the bronze sculpture of Colston being torn down and thrown into the harbor of the historic port city. But the felling of the…

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Unprecedented Toppling of Monument to Slave Trader Shocks British Art World

Until his statue was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters on Sunday, few people outside Bristol had heard of Edward Colston. Dramatic images of the protests held in the British city show the bronze sculpture of Colston being torn down and thrown into the harbor of the historic port city. But the felling of the monument to the merchant, whose fortune was earned from the transatlantic slave trade he helped establish in the late 17th century, is just one part of a fierce and reignited debate about public art honoring problematic figures that’s being waged in Britain right now.

“I’ve recorded uprisings since the 1980s, but I was slightly stunned,” said artist John Akomfrah, referring to images on social media of the Bristol demonstration, which was peaceful, like many other protests across the U.K. “There is a remarkable irony. [Colston] has ended up in the place where he put hundreds of lives”—the harbor where bodies of enslaved Africans were thrown overboard during the infamous Middle Passage.

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Colston was a leading member of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on the slave trade in the late 17th century. “There’s no sympathy from me about his plight,” Akomfrah said.
The merchant’s statue, which was unveiled in 1895 when the British Empire was at the peak of its power, has long been a source of division in the city. Attempts to add a contextual plaque referring to the philanthropist’s role in the slave trade had reached a political and bureaucratic impass, prompting demonstrators to take matters in their own hands last weekend.
“I was amazed. It was the kind of thing I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” said Hew Locke, a London-based sculptor who lived in Bristol in the 1980s. “This piece has been on my mind as a problem for years,” he told ARTnews. “Colston wasn’t a bad man. The language was wrong. He was an evil man. That’s the truth of it.”
John Cassidy’s sculpture has been derided as a poor work of art, but Locke disagrees with that assessment. “Aesthetically, it was one of Bristol’s best Victorian sculptures,” Locke said. In 2006, to pay homage to the sculpture’s history, Locke bedecked a large-scale photograph of the Colston monument with the trappings of his wealth based on the exploitation of Africans.

It’s unclear right now what will happen to the statute. Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol, said on Monday that Cassidy’s sculpture will be “fished out” at some point but vowed that it will never return to its former prominent location. The bronze could be destined for the city’s history museum, MShed, which overlooks Bristol harbor, along with a collection of the Black Lives Matter protestors’ placards.
The fate of Colston’s statue and the Black Lives Matter movement raises awkward questions for other cities in the U.K. On Tuesday, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a review of all London statues with slavery links. One London’s former docklands now business district of Robert Milligan, a prominent slave trader and plantation owner, has been vandalized and covered in protest placards. On Tuesday, it was revealed that the statue would be removed. And there have been renewed calls to remove or at least recontextualize colonial-era statues, including ones in Cardiff in Wales, Dundee in Scotland, and in Oxford. Since 2016, campaigners have tried to banish the statue of the arch-imperialist of the Victorian era, Cecil Rhodes, at the University of Oxford. (A demonstration is taking place on Tuesday.)
Locke expressed skepticism over whether anything would change. “We will see,” he said. Meanwhile, authorities in Belgium have begun to remove statues of King Leopold II after protests. His colonization of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo involved systematic brutality and atrocities.
Some institutions have begun taking accountability for their role in structural racism, but their responses have done little to satisfy critics. Several big London museums, following their peers in the U.S., issued statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests at the end of last week and over the weekend. The British Museum immediately faced accusations of inaction over decolonizing its collection, which includes colonial-era looted art and human remains. The National Gallery in London also posted on social media its rejection of “racism, inequality and violence” in response to the death of George Floyd while being arrested by police. Anti-racist protestors began gathering in Trafalgar Square a week ago on the art museum’s doorstep despite an ongoing national lockdown due to coronavirus.
For nearly 100 years a bronze statue of George Washington has stood on the gallery’s front lawn, making it one of many public London monuments to “dodgy figures,” as Locke has put it. Presented by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1924, it is a replica of the marble sculpture by the French 18th-century sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon that stands in the State Capitol building in Richmond. There is no mention on a plaque (or on the National Gallery’s website) that Washington was a slave owner, or that Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States in the U.S. Civil War.
When reached by ARTnews about whether it planned to make that history available, a National Gallery spokesperson claimed it was not the museum’s responsibility to do so, but rather the U.K. government’s. The museum is “looking” to update its website about the biography of its founding collector, John Julius Angerstein, however. Its current page about Angerstein glosses over the uncomfortable truth that much of the art collector’s wealth was based on insurance of ships used in the slave trade. He also had a financial stake in a slave plantation in the Caribbean.
Such a clarification of institutions’ history is becoming more common in the U.K.—Tate, for example, issued a lengthy statement about its founder’s role in the slave trade last year. Locke said that context such as this is necessary for institutions—and, in particular, the monuments in the cities around them. “The sculptures are part of history, but you need some acknowledgement of who these people were,” he said. “You can’t say police brutality is terrible, institutional racism is terrible, and then you don’t want anything to change in your local landscape.”
Locke, like Akomfrah, seemed resigned that the debate about the relocation of colonial-era monuments in the U.K. will now be framed by the government as a question of law and order after Colston’s violent removal. The U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson was quick to condemn the Bristol protestors’ actions claiming that the Black Lives Matters protests have been “subverted by thuggery.” After coming under fire, he toned down his rhetoric but insisted that anyone who harmed property would face “the full force of the law.”
Many in the British art scene—and beyond—are now left with serious quandaries going forward. “Let’s be clear, [Colston] was a mass murder,” Akomfrah said. “He benefited from the misfortune of others. The real question is, why was that statue put up in the first place?”

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