The giant pumpkins first appeared in 1991. The largest were the size of trucks with fat yellow or scarlet ridges covered in black spots, which looked more like the enfolded tentacles of a sleeping octopus than the skin of a fruit. Displayed in mirrored rooms so their bulbous, dotty forms seemed to stretch to infinity, we got a glimpse of the alien Wonderland where they were incubated.
One pumpkin blocks the way at the end of a pier on the island of Naoshima in Japan, and they’ve been sighted in cities as far-flung as Venice and Queensland. Year upon year, the outsize pumpkins keep coming. And this season, they’ve hit the shops.
Anyone familiar with Yayoi Kusama’s obsessively repetitious, dotty universe will identify her handiwork here. Louis Vuitton has just sponsored her touring retrospective, and now Marc Jacobs has collaborated with the octogenarian Japanese art legend on deliciously dotty bags, shoes, jewellery and clothes.
In London, you can discover her pumpkins crowding out the windows of Selfridges and in a special in-store boutique, where they’re shrunk down to micro-size, transformed into the collection’s eye-popping prints.
Kusama’s polka-dot vision can be overwhelming, but here the emphasis is very much on what’s cute and wearable. Girlish blouses with puff sleeves and Peter Pan collars, minidresses and high-heeled pumps set off by dotted bows will whet the appetites of Betty Boops and Minnie Mouses. One print blending the reptilian pumpkin pattern with the LV logo almost looks like snakeskin. It adorns cropped trench coats (there’s also a see-through plastic mac), leggings and scarves in various shades from petrol blue to cherry red. For those wanting to go dotty all over, there are matching fitted trousers and shirts, while plain cardigans with knock-out buttons, spotty shades or bangles provide a gentler hit. Best of all, perhaps, is the chain-handle purse, a perfectly formed miniature Kusama gourd.
While Jacobs’s genius for 1960s-style femininity is writ large, Kusama herself is no stranger to the potential of crossbreeding art and fashion. The roots of her compulsively realised, intricately pattern-coated paintings, sculptures and mirror rooms might lie in the hallucinations she has suffered from since childhood. She might see these shapes multiply ad infinitum, dissolving selfhood and uniting everything under a coating of dots or nets. She might run her studio from the confines of the Tokyo psychiatric hospital in which she has lived since she voluntarily committed herself in 1977. She might describe her art as therapy (surely the only artist to do so and attain serious success). But the psychological troubles that have spurred her work have also gone hand in hand with a head for business and a fascination with fame to rival that of her peer Andy Warhol.
In New York, where Kusama made her name as an artist in the 1960s, in addition to occasionally doubling up as an art dealer on the side, her commercial enterprises included Kusama Musical Production and International Film Production, a gay social club called KOK (Kusama ’Omophile Kompany) and the Kusama Fashion Company, dedicated to her own designs. As pictured at a fashion show she staged in her studio in 1968, these included short shift dresses with voluminous, billowing sleeves, covered in dots and dashes. Bloomingdale’s dedicated a corner to her creations and, in 1969, she opened her own boutique at 404, Sixth Avenue.
A promotional image from this time shows the artist in a bell-sleeved minidress, sombrero hat and stiletto sandals, clutching a travel case. Covering her clothes and accessories like a virile fungus are the nubby, stuffed-fabric phalluses that sprouted all over her accumulation sculptures through the previous decade. There had been high-heeled shoes filled with these strange, soft penises, penis furniture, a penis boat, a penis mannequin and a penis baby carriage, too. This surreal cock-fest has been variously read as an outbreak of repressed erotic energy or the oppressive macho hierarchies that kept women safely in the realms of home, shopping and motherhood. It certainly made for a statement outfit.
Clothes had regularly featured in her art: alongside the phallus encrustations there had been macaroni-pasta trousers (as was often the case, she was working with her fears here – she detested the thought of machine-made food) and flower overcoats. In the run-up to opening her shop, she had staged a gay-marriage-cum-artwork, Homosexual Wedding, designing a single “orgy wedding gown” for the couple to don as one. Not all of her designs were this avant-garde. Many of the garments were simply covered in polka dots, though some were transparent or came with holes cut to allow breasts and bums to hang free. Her see-through dresses sold well to what she describes as “the Jackie O crowd”.
The artist channelled libidinal currents more and more in the closing years of the decade of love. Apparently thriving on contradiction, Kusama’s fixation on sex generally, and particularly phalluses, was, as she has said of much of her work, hinged on using what scared her. She was, she has written, repulsed by the thought of “something long and ugly like a phallus entering me”. That didn’t inhibit her from creating sexually accommodating couture, coming up with the catchphrase “love forever” and staging the nude happenings that made “the priestess of polka dots” a media sensation in the late 1960s.
Enlisting a crew of hippy scenesters to her cause, she staged naked-parties-cum-anti-Vietnam-protests in controversial locations that ranged from the fountain outside New York’s Museum of Modern Art to the city’s Board of Elections, with dancers wearing masks of the current presidential candidates, including Richard Nixon. Kusama herself would usually appear fully dressed, painting her cohorts’ bare flesh. In her experimental 1967 film, Self Obliteration, for instance, the artist appears as dreamy flower child, wading through lakes or larking beneath the trees, covering people, plants and one obliging ginger puss in psychedelic spots.
The tireless campaign of attention-grabbing work would make her at least as famous as Warhol. The effect of her swift ascent in public visibility, however, was double-edged. She made the cover of the Daily News, appeared on The Tonight Show and became a household name, but her critics started to question her artistic credibility. “Kusama is definitely suffering from over-exposure of over-exposure”, bitched The Village Voice in 1968.
Whether, as people whispered, it was Kusama or her work that had been worn out, in 1973 she was back in Japan for good. Troubled by panic attacks, depression and her old hallucinations, a few years later she was ensconced in the hospital that remains her home to this day.
This is far from the end of Kusama’s story. The past two decades have seen her star rise high once more. Through the 1980s in Japan she was best known as an award-winning writer, penning novels about outcasts with experiences not dissimilar to her own. Then, in 1993, her artistic merits were officially acknowledged in her conservative homeland, when she was selected to represent Japan at the art world’s answer to the Olympics, the Venice Biennale, with a show that included a mirrored room of pumpkins. And as the major exhibitions and retrospectives have piled up, the artist’s entrepreneurial drive and relentless use of her own image has been reappraised.
When Kusama first arrived in New York in the late 1950s, she seemed conscious of controlling how she was represented, commissioning a professional photographer to document her painting or posing with her work. There is far more at stake here, though, than self-promotion. As a Japanese woman in a white, male, American art world, the artist’s assertion of identity had a deeply political edge. This is made poignantly clear in Walking Piece, a slide projection of 1966, which marks one of the very first times she directly uses her image as a central focus of her art. With her hair in plaits, carrying a parasol covered in flowers, wearing traditional sandals and a pink silk kimono, she makes for an exoticised outsider in the harsh city streets.
Alongside her peer Warhol, or those who have followed her lead, such as Takashi Murakami, today Kusama is one of the very few contemporary artists out there to achieve a house style that is instantly recognisable. What’s more, unlike those other purveyors of depthless Pop, Kusama has conquered the world with a vision that is uniquely personal. The pumpkin motif stretches back to her childhood in Matsumoto, a town where agriculture was plentiful, even through the difficult years of the Second World War. In her autobiography, Infinity Net, she recalls her first encounter with these strange fruit, in a field full of “zinnias, periwinkles, and nasturtiums”.
“It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner,” she writes. “[…] ‘Pumpkin head’ was an epithet used to disparage ugly, ignorant men. But I was enchanted by their charming and winsome form. What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness. That and its solid spiritual balance.” Kusama has never given up on the pumpkin, first depicting it in the ethereal surrealist watercolours she produced as a student in Kyoto. Now with the Louis Vuitton collection she has got everyone coveting the knobbly-bobbly gourds.
Infinity Net is published by Tate Publishing[ITALS]
By Sky Sherwin