Date of Degree
Anna C. Chave
Julie Nelson Davis
History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology
Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) was among the first Japanese artists to rise to international prominence after World War II. She emerged when wartime modern nation-state formations and national identity in the former Axis Alliance countries quickly lost ground to U.S.-led Allied control, enforcing a U.S.-centered model of democracy and capitalism. As a result, the art world became increasingly internationalized. This interdisciplinary study is the first attempt to comparatively examine postwar artistic developments in Japan, the United States, and Europe, through a focus on Kusama. I consider Kusama not so much in terms that seek to aggrandize the uniqueness of the individual, but that assess her entry into and position within an historical sequence, namely the radical changes which took place after the war. Mine is a material investigation, which addresses how personal and cultural memories may be embedded in objects. By examining her breakthrough work against the backdrop of her milieu, this feminist study will illuminate particular issues Kusama might have encountered in society and analyze how her experiences uniquely shaped her practice. I will also analyze works by Kusama’s peers that help to illuminate the scope and nature of the problems that she encountered.
Growing up under Japan’s militaristic totalitarian regime, Kusama embraced art as a non-conformist pursuit. Her defiance of fanatic chauvinism propelled her, after the war, to seek a career overseas. She arrived in 1958 in New York, where a burgeoning cosmopolitanism contributed to her initial success with five nearly identical white Net paintings. Beginning in 1960, the artists affiliated with the German Zero group invited Kusama to exhibit in Europe. By 1962, she had shown with the future Pop and Minimal artists in New York. As New York’s art market became more firmly established, however, multiculturalism tended to become less embraced there. By 1966, this drove Kusama to drop out of the commercial art world. She began creating politically charged site-specific installations and Happenings where the theme of liberatory sexuality was key. But around 1969, as the gallery-money-power-structure became an unchallengeable fact, she ceased her activity in New York.
Yamamura, Midori, "Yayoi Kusama: Biography and Cultural Confrontation, 1945–1969" (2012). CUNY Academic Works.