“It’s a great vindication, a great validation,” said Alexandra Munroe, the senior curator of Asian art at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, who is a long-time expert on Kusama. “It’s been a steady rise.”
Some attribute the Kusama craze to the Instagram generation, with young people lining up to take selfies in the artist’s Infinity rooms of mirrors, colours and lights. Others say her compelling personal story as an Asian woman who travelled alone to the US and has openly battled her demons (she lives in a Tokyo psychiatric institution) is resonating amid today’s heightened sensitivity to issues around identity politics, immigration and mental health.
Whatever the reason for Kusama’s popularity, she is reaching a whole new pool of wide-eyed art fans, as well as art aficionados. And museums are hoping her Infinity rooms will whet the public’s appetite for more art in general.
“Since we started showing Kusama, our audience has grown much more diverse and much younger,” said art dealer David Zwirner. “It’s no longer an elite art world gathering, it’s people interested in all kinds of culture.”
Kusama said she was pleased her work was having an impact. “I make works with all my thoughts and the deep messages I’ve sent out on life and death, peace and love, hoping that my art will reach out to many people,” she said in an email.
She added: “I hope people will see my art with their own eyes, and not the images.”
Sceptics suggest the art world is looking to cash in on Kusama, or at least to crassly draw hordes of visitors. The Infinity rooms often require paid tickets with timed entries and people wait hours to get their glimpse.
Some dismiss Kusama’s renown as a creative construct.
“It’s largely her doing,” said the outspoken critic and curator Robert Storr. “She has a huge, albeit profoundly damaged, ego. From the start, she mounted a campaign to conquer the art world and she has triumphed. It’s a lifelong devotion to her own self-mythologising.”
But Zwirner, who began representing Kusama in 2013, said the artist’s mass appeal did not negate her art historical heft. “With her early work, she planted a flag in minimalism before we knew that term – she made those fields of white,” he said, referring to her early Infinity Net monochromatic paintings. “There is not a single major museum that doesn’t own a Kusama or wouldn’t want to own one.”
Her work is in the collections of the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the Tate Gallery, among others. More than 4700 people contributed to a crowdfunding campaign by the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, to purchase Canada’s first permanent Infinity Mirror Room, which opened in May. And two years ago Kusama opened her own museum in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo.
Munroe, who helped cement Kusama’s stature with her 1989 retrospective at the Centre for International Contemporary Arts in New York, said the artist had previously been “scrubbed from the history books” but she had slowly made her way into the canon – partly by dint of doggedness.
“She was completely confident that she deserved the fame that she would eventually get,” Munroe said. “Even in her 30s and early 40s, she had a sense of destiny and a sense that her work was great.”
Indeed, Kusama was in many ways the precursor of several important art historical movements. She was making soft sculpture before Claes Oldenburg; pop art alongside Andy Warhol; mirrored rooms before Lucas Samaras; and performance art in 1969, when she stepped naked into MoMA’s Sculpture Garden fountain to stage an unauthorised happening, Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead.
Dressing in outfits that match her artwork, Kusama has a lovable, relatable quirkiness that speaks to a younger generation, and her work is undeniably eye candy – vibrant, playful and accessible.
She has also become a powerful symbol of perseverance; despite the personal darkness she has staved off over the years (including at least one suicide attempt) and her advanced age, Kusama continues to make art almost every day.
“Kusama’s work makes people happy,” Zwirner said. “People stand in line to have that experience.”
THE SPIRITS OF THE PUMPKINS DESCENDED INTO THE HEAVENS is on show at NGA, Canberra.