Some of you might remember a post about Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (here for those who’ve missed it). This artist fascinates me both because of her work, which dislays a very original vision of life, and her history, about which I will say more later. I was therefore interested to come upon an article which described her relationship with another artist, Joseph Cornell, a man almost as strange as herself. Cornell, a reclusive who made the most exquisite collages and boxes, has also been an old favorite of mine, but I had no idea these two were connected in any way.
Yayoi Kusama was born in Tokyo in 1929, the daughter of a horrendously abusive mother who used to tear up her paintings. She suffered from hallucinations since she was a child and, although these developed into the mental illness that led to her spending her life in an asylum, drawing upon these experiences also served as a basis for her art.
Nurturing a fierce determination to move to New York, Kusama wrote to Georgia O’Keefe and, having received a reply, showed up in the city with no money and little English. In the beginning she was beset by loneliness and poverty, but eventually she became involved in an artistic community which included Georgia O’Keefe, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Eva Hesse. She became an advocate of free love in 1960 New York, leading nude happenings for which she was reviled as a national disgrace in her homeland.
She became renowned as painter, pop artist, cultural activist, and experimented in various mediums including sculpture, painting, collage, film, performance, happenings, fashion design, and publishing.
She gained recognition for her sexually charged public performances in Central Park protesting the Vietnam War, her large-scale infinity net paintings, psychedelic mirror room installations, and the ‘Narcissus Garden’ which was shown at the 1966 Venice Biennale.
Despite presiding over orgies, Kusama had a fear of sex, perhaps because she had suffered from her father’s philandering, and remained abstinent throughout her life. So it was that when she met Joseph Cornell, an odd-duck loner 26 years her senior, who lived with his domineering mother in Flushing, Queens, the two struck up an intense, albeit platonic relationship.
In the basement of his mother’s house, Cornell spent his days dreaming and making delicately detailed glass-covered boxes. These are small imagined worlds made up of found objects where a ping pong ball becomes the moon, or wooden animals and cutout birds are suspended over a landscape of newspaper clippings and little stamps. He often used star maps, small machine parts, pebbles and corks, along with text from old newspapers and magazines, to create collages. Into these he channeled all his longings and dreams of romance, vanished European cities, and travel to faraway places.
Cornell hated selling these precious objects, frequently changing galleries and dealers so that no one could gain too much control over his work. But he loved to give them away, especially to women. A deeply romantic man, he adored women but was crippled by physical reserve, accentuated by the behavior and influence of his jealous and possessive mother.
Cornell became besotted by Kusama, flooding her mailbox with letters and personalized collages, and calling her on the phone constantly.
They became close, often spending time at Cornell’s mother’s home in Queens, passing the day sketching each other in the nude. Of course his mother deeply disapproved of this, and apparently once poured a bucket of water over them as they sat kissing beneath the backyard quince tree.
After some time Kusama took a step back, feeling the situation had got claustrophobic, but the two isolated, driven, visionary misfits remained close until his death in 1972.
Kusama was deeply affected by Cornell’s death. She returned to Japan, and in 1977 checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital ever since, going to work in her studio only a short distance away. Cornell’s influence did not end with his death, however, since he had given her boxes of magazine cuttings and other materials which she subsequently used to make a series of luminous collages. These feature elements of his style including surrealist cutouts, layered with her signature pattern of polka dots and infinity nets.
As I mentioned before, Kusama was also involved in publishing a number of works; and while I’m not about to pick up a book entitled ‘Love suicide at Sakuragazuka’, I remain entranced by her unique, delightful weirdness.