“I decided long ago that one must paint terror as well as beauty from life.” So says the titular character in “Pickman’s Model”, a short story by HP Lovecraft about how artists make monsters — or become them. Pickman’s paintings are the stuff of nightmares, rendered so vividly that the narrator of the story, a friend and fellow artist, can barely stand to look at them. “Only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible,” the narrator shudders. “When we saw the pictures we saw the daemons themselves and were afraid of them.”
Yayoi Kusama creates demons too, although they don’t look like the fictional Pickman’s. Her pet horrors are all the more frightening for their ordinariness. She is afraid of sex, and men, and war, and food. Most of all, she’s afraid of disappearing into the endless white noise of the universe — or, in her parlance, of “Obliteration”. The polka dots she’s been famous for since the Sixties obscure the physical boundaries of whatever form they’re applied to, human or otherwise. Walk through one of her mirror rooms and the singular you disappears. In her autobiography, Infinity Net, Kusama describes watching helplessly as a net-shaped pattern spills off one of her canvases and begins to cover the table, the walls, the contours of her body; it’s difficult to say where the hallucination ends and the art — or the artist — begins.
While her work flirts with the concept of suicide — the ultimate obliteration of the self, by the self — Kusama’s career has been astonishingly long-lived: today, she is a 94-year-old grande dame of the art world. This year saw the publication of a retrospective essay collection, Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now, as well as the opening of yet another solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the first two months of tickets for which have already sold out. Kusama has not yet been obliterated.
She might, however, be cancelled.
“Yayoi Kusama Apologizes for Past Racist Remarks”, reads a recent headline from the New York Times, while the San Francisco Chronicle laments Kusama’s upcoming show at the city’s modern art museum: “Japan’s Yayoi Kusama, one of the world’s most prominent creators, has produced work that objectified and demeaned Black people. Does the art community care?”
The allegations of racism centre largely on the autobiography, which came out in 2002, and details Kusama’s fraught relationship with her family, her struggle to be taken seriously as an artist in her native Japan, and the mental health issues that eventually resulted in her voluntary residence at the Tokyo hospital where she has lived since the Seventies. The most damning line from the book, though it does not actually appear in the English version of Infinity Net, is one in which Kusama describes the real estate values of her NYC neighbourhood tanking due to “black people shooting each other out front, and homeless people sleeping there”.
Although the New York Times describes Kusama’s problematic commentary being “surfaced” by the website Hyperallergic in June this year, it would be more accurate to identify this cancellation attempt as the particular obsession of just one man, a writer named Dexter Thomas.
Thomas is the author of the Hyperallergic essay in which he accuses the artist of a “troubling record of anti-Black statements”, and to which as far as I can tell, every story about Kusama’s supposed racism can be traced. His interest in Kusama in turn traces to an earlier essay he wrote for Vice News, in which he describes being banned from the artist’s studio for reasons unclear, though Thomas coyly suggests that his being black might have had something to do with it. And while multiple outlets, including the New York Times, have reproduced the claim that Kusama describes black people in her autobiography as “primitive, hyper-sexualized beings”, the implicit attribution appears to be in error. This is not a quote from Infinity Net; it is Thomas’s subjective interpretation of Kusama’s words.
In fact, reading the autobiography, it struck me that most of Thomas’s claims rely on a subjective (and in some cases, motivated) reading of Kusama’s work or behaviour, rather than her own explicitly stated views. And his main criticism — that “black people make several appearances… as exotic or primitive beings” — I found to be in astonishingly bad faith.
In one case, Kusama recalls that she became fascinated by the idea of travelling to the US after seeing “the exotic face of a little black girl with braided hair” in a picture book — a description that may be off-colour by 2023 standards, but also captures something essential about how strange and inaccessible America seemed to a Japanese child living on the other side of the world in the Forties. In another case, Thomas complains that Kusama describes the lips and genitals of a black participant in one of her naked performance art pieces, the obvious implication being that white characters do not receive similar treatment; he apparently missed the scene just 35 pages later in which Kusama’s boyfriend, a white man, begs the disgusted artist to touch his penis: “It was like a big, desiccated calzone.”
And then there are Kusama’s actual and explicit observations of the way that the sexual liberation of the Sixties became intertwined with issues of race and class, which suggest a far more conscious and critical perspective than Thomas gives her credit for. In one passage contextualising her naked performance artworks against the backdrop of the sexual revolution, she archly notes the phenomenon of privileged white women coming to New York in explicit pursuit of black lovers, “drawn by the legendary sexual prowess of dark, muscular men”.
“Blacks were still discriminated against in mainstream society, but the tendency to prize them as sexual playthings was taking root,” she writes. Perhaps Kusama could have done more to condemn this tendency — that is, if you believe that the job of an artist is to not just observe the world as it is but bloviate about how it ought to be. It’s hard to square the woman who wrote the above lines with the bogeyman conjured by her critics: an unapologetic racist who “seems to luxuriate” in stereotypical depictions of blacks as “hyper-sexual and primitive”.
And it’s hard to see what, exactly, is to be gained from analysing her work through the framework of contemporary American racial politics in the first place. Soleil Ho, the writer at the San Francisco Chronicle who denounced Kusama’s upcoming museum show, suggests that the Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now book should have analysed her career in racial terms, lamenting that “the many esteemed curators and critics in the volume also opted to look away”. What Ho and others seem not to realise is that there’s a difference between looking away from a thing, and looking at it from a more productive angle. Despite the myopic convictions of certain American culture critics, not everything is best evaluated through the lens of race; not every story, person, or artwork is best understood as a parable for power, privilege and oppression. And in Kusama’s case, trying to reframe her life and legacy via a reckoning with her alleged racism is like trying to interpret her work by standing blindfolded inside one of her installations and licking the wall. Whatever information you might glean, it will not help you understand the art.
Often, the defence of this or that elderly or deceased artist is a plea for context: people must be understood as a product of their time, their culture, their unique and often immense personal struggles. Yayoi Kusama, who grew up in a famously insular and non-diverse country, who has spent most of her life institutionalised, and who is literally older than Scotch tape, has arguably earned a pass for being less than perfectly enlightened on the issues of 2023 — and anyway, she’s already made the standard-issue apology for her “hurtful and offensive language”. Her critics can hardly ask for more.
But the more important point here isn’t about how woke a 94-year-old mentally ill Japanese woman should be; it’s about what an artist does, and must do, which is to express the truth of the world as he or she sees it. Kusama’s perspective is bleak and terrifying, but it also makes no pretence of moral authority. The woman is terrified of macaroni; she’s not telling anyone else how to live. All she does, and all she has ever done — in paint, in words, in naked choreography — is to describe what she sees. To paint from life, as Lovecraft’s Pickman put it.
Sometimes that means capturing beauty; sometimes it means terror, or something worse. There’s a famous, and famously controversial, painting by Gustav Courbet called “L’origine du monde”. It’s an image of an anonymous woman, naked from the waist down, her thighs spread to show her vulva. The painting has often been criticised as misogynistic, and perhaps it is, but it also articulates something true: Look, it says. This is where we come from. This is how we are made.
Yayoi Kusama, with her dots, her obliteration, is saying something true, too: this is how we unravel. And her autobiography, insensitive though it may be, is a truthful articulation of reality as she experienced it. Rather than punishing her for this, or demanding a reckoning and an apology, perhaps we might reckon with that reality ourselves, as we do with her art, and leave the artist out of it.
Kusama has always showed us the same thing; what changes is who else is looking, and how. The dot paintings that once challenged and infuriated her critics are now considered pop art masterpieces; a naked performance art piece that once resulted in scandalised calls to the police by MoMA officials is now lauded on the museum’s website for its daring irreverence. But Kusama’s view of the world — her obsessions, her fears, her fixations — remains the same. She is still seeking obliteration. She will probably chase it until she’s dead.
And what does she owe to the rest of us? Only the truth of the world as she sees it. Nothing less, nothing more.
At the end of “Pickman’s Model”, the narrator, Pickman’s friend, views a ghastly portrait of a monstrous creature in Pickman’s studio: “The monster was there—it glared and gnawed and gnawed and glared—and I knew that only a suspension of Nature’s laws could ever let a man paint a thing like that without a model”. It’s only after he unrolls a small scrap of paper that was pinned to the canvas that he understands the source of his friend’s demons. The secret of those horrible, haunting paintings. Because there it is: the same glaring, gnawing monster.
“By God,” he says. “It was a photograph from life.”