Painting/Art of the Day: Who is the Artist?

16 Dec


Fireflies on the Water. by Yayoi Kusama (born 1929). Mirror, plexiglass, 150 lights, and water, 2002.

Notes from

There’s no denying Yayoi Kusama’s love of polka-dots. She dreams about them, wears them, paints them, and constructs them. So it’s not surprising that ahead of her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (which was on view earlier in 2012), the famous Japanese contemporary artist is showing a new dotted-light installation titled “Fireflies on the Water.” Built inside a small room with mirrors on all sides, the exhibit consists of 150 miniscule lights suspended over a small pool. Search for a point of focus in the endless mirage of reflections — all you’ll see is a shadow version of yourself reflected back.

“Fireflies” is not so different from Kusama’s past work, as it builds on her hallucinatory approaches and psychedelic space conceptions. Like “Obliteration Room” and “Infinity Mirror Room,” it showcases her love of unnerving darkness and fascination for infinite space. But the newer work embodies a more tranquil version of her obsessions, perhaps marking a more peaceful period in the artist’s vision-driven career.

Interesting biographical information from

EARLY LIFE: 1929–1949

Born in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture as the fourth child in a prosperous and conservative family, whose wealth was derived from the management of wholesale seed nurseries, Kusama has experienced hallucinations and severe obsessive thoughts since childhood, often of a suicidal nature. She claims that as a small child she suffered severe physical abuse by her mother. In 1948, she left home to enter senior class at Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts, where she studied Nihonga painting, a rigorous formal style developed during the Meiji period; she graduated the following year. She hated the rigidities of the master-disciple system where students were supposed to imbibe tradition through the sensei. “When I think of my life in Kyoto,” she is quoted, “I feel like vomiting.”


By 1950, Kusama was depicting abstracted natural forms in watercolor, gouache and oil, primarily on paper. She began covering surfaces (walls, floors, canvases, and later, household objects and naked assistants) with the polka dots that would become a trademark of her work. The vast fields of polka dots, or “infinity nets,” as she called them, were taken directly from her hallucinations. The earliest recorded work in which she incorporated these dots was a drawing in 1939 at age 10, in which the image of a Japanese woman in a kimono, presumed to be the artist’s mother, is covered and obliterated by spots. Her first series of large-scale, sometimes more than 30 ft-long canvas paintings, Infinity Nets, were entirely covered in a sequence of nets and dots that alluded to hallucinatory visions. In the early 1960s Kusama began to cover items such as ladders, shoes and chairs with white phallic protrusions. Despite the micromanaged intricacy of the drawings, she turned them out fast and in bulk, establishing a rhythm of productivity she still maintains. She established other habits too, like having herself routinely photographed with new work.

Since 1963, Kusama has continued her series of Mirror/Infinity rooms. In these complex installations, purpose-built rooms lined with mirrored glass contain scores of neon coloured balls, hanging at various heights above the viewer. Standing inside on a small platform, light is repeatedly reflected off the mirrored surfaces to create the illusion of a never-ending space.

NEW YORK CITY: 1957–1972

After living in Tokyo and France, Kusama left Japan at the age of 27 for the United States. In 1957 she moved to Seattle, where she stayed for a yearbefore moving on to New York City, following correspondence with Georgia O’Keeffe in which she professed an interest in joining the limelight of the city, and sought O’Keefe’s advice.[15] During her time in the U.S., she quickly established her reputation as a leader in the avant-garde movement. In 1961 she moved her studio into the same building as Donald Judd and sculptor Eva Hesse; Hesse became a close friend. During the following years, she was enormously productive, and by 1966, she was experimenting with room-size, freestanding installations that incorporated mirrors, lights, and piped-in music. She counted Judd and Joseph Cornell among her friends and supporters. However, she did not profit financially from her work. Around this time, Kusama was hospitalized regularly from overwork, and O’Keeffe convinced her own dealer Edith Herbert to purchase several works in order to help Kusama stave off financial hardship.

Kusama organized outlandish happenings in conspicuous spots like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, often involving nudity and designed to protest the Vietnam War. In one, she wrote an open letter to Richard Nixon offering to have vigorous sex with him if he would stop the Vietnam war. Between 1967 and 1969 she concentrated on performances held with the maximum publicity, usually involving Kusama painting polka dots on her naked performers, as in the Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at the MOMA (1969), which took place at the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art. In 1968, Kusama presided over the happening Homosexual Wedding at the Church of Self-obliteration in 33 Walker Street in New York, and performed alongside Fleetwood Mac and Country Joe and the Fish at the Fillmore East, New York City. She opened naked painting studios and a gay social club called the Kusama ’Omophile Kompany (kok).

In 1966, Kusama first participated in the 33rd Venice Biennale. Her Narcissus Garden comprised hundreds of mirrored spheres outdoors in what she called a ‘kinetic carpet’. As soon as the piece was installed on a lawn outside the Italian pavilion, Kusama, dressed in a golden kimono, began selling each individual sphere for 1,200 lire ($2), until the Biennale organisers put an end to her enterprise. Perhaps one of Kusama’s most notorious works, Narcissus Garden was as much about the promotion of the artist through the media as it was an opportunity to offer a critique of the mechanisation and commodification of the art market. Various versions of Narcissus Garden have been presented worldwide venues including Le Consortium, Dijon, 2000; Kunstverein Braunschweig, 2003; as part of the Whitney Biennial in Central Park, New York in 2004; and at the Jardin de Tuileries in Paris, 2010.

During her time in New York, Kusama had a decade-long sexless relationship with the American artist Joseph Cornell, Kusama’s only recorded romantic attachment to date.


In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan in ill health, where she began writing shockingly visceral and surrealistic novels, short stories, and poetry. Kusama checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill and eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital since, by choice. Her studio, where she has continued to produce work since the mid-1970s, is a short distance from the hospital in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Kusama is often quoted as saying: “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.” She continued to paint, but now in high-colored acrylics on canvas, on an amped-up scale.

My comments:

Kusama’s piece is really fascinating and interesting, but it brought to mind a question that I’ve wondered about contemporary art pieces-but it could also apply to pre-Modernist art. As you can see in this photo,


the artist did not build the installation that she thought of herself. So technically, she did not “create” her own artwork. This brings up the idea that art is an idea, not necessarily a tangible object-a very contemporary notion in and of itself. But this idea could also be used to justify earlier works, such as those made by the Renaissance masters. They too had studios and employed several artists to help them put together a painting, doing the less technically difficult portions of paintings such as painting in the night sky or foliage. The main artist to whom the work is attributed kept close watch over what his employees did, to be sure, but he technically did not fully make his art.

Knowing this, is this a problem? Is artwork that is actually fully made by the artist who takes credit for it more authentic than art that is made by multiple people but attributed to only one person?
I am not trying to question the authenticity of all artwork because all artists draw on sources of their culture, and therefore never make art that is truly theirs or is truly original; that would be impossible to ask. But I think it’s an important point to consider if Kusama’s work, or Jeff Koons’ work (Koons has a studio full of professional artists who create his artworks in their entirety while he merely supplies the idea; it’s literally like an art factory and he is a business) is as original as that of artists like Vincent van Gogh who never had any helpers.

For me, I’m not sure if I respect artists like Kusama and Koons as much as I respect artists like Van Gogh. Yes, I understand that it would be quite difficult for a diminutive woman who lives in a psychiatric hospital like Kusama to build a installation like Fireflies On The Water. But then again, if your entire occupation is that of the artist, isn’t that just part of the job? If you don’t actually make the works that you create in your head, I feel like one could argue that you are no more than an aesthetic philosopher. I believe that art is a product of what the artist who made it is capable of; if Kusama isn’t capable of actually building Fireflies on the Water, then she can’t make that kind of art. Because it’s one thing to direct others to put every material in its place as you wish, but it’s another thing to actually do it all yourself. Even if you minutely verify that your helpers put everything just so, the process of making it, and by extension the artwork itself, will be slightly different than if you had made it on your own. The reason I think this is so important is because art really is just the synthesis of non-art objects into something that, almost miraculously, becomes art, a really Gestalt kind of phenomenon. I feel like once a material (such as a light) becomes part of an artwork, it by itself even takes on special artistic quality, and in terms of the art realm it becomes kind of special and even sacred (this seems especially true when you consider how seriously museums take their collection, judging by all the don’t-touch rules  and security guards around). As a result, I feel that when someone is arranging art objects to make an artwork, he is the artist. It may not have been his idea how to arrange the objects, but he is the one making the objects into art, and it’s disingenuous that only the person who came up with the arrangement schematic is given credit for that art process.




6 Responses to “Painting/Art of the Day: Who is the Artist?”

  1. tara December 16, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

    So is Albert Barnes an artist based on his arrangements of the art? are the people now taking his arrangments and recreating them at the new Barnes , artists as well or only installers? And what about the installations of light at longwood gardens ? hundreds of people worked to install the lights but the overall idea was only one persons . Who is the artist in that case?

    • zwray1 December 16, 2012 at 9:54 pm #

      Barnes isn’t an artist because he didn’t try to call his arrangement of paintings a new artwork altogether entirely, a single entity that was a work of art; in fact, he called his walls “ensembles” where he used the juxtapositions of distinct works of art to call attention to details in each individual piece that would be more difficult to understand when the painting stands by itself. This is very different from bringing together non-art objects which become art when mixed together. As for the light installations at Longwood Gardens, yes, I think there is an issue with saying that those installations are the work of Bruce Munro. For the sake of efficiency, they could put on the captions of his work “by Bruce Munro with the help of 125 people who installed the lights” for example; but all in all, I think it’s unfair and dishonest to say that Bruce Munro’s works are solely by Bruce Munro.

  2. tara December 18, 2012 at 2:00 am #

    so based on your philosophy, artworks have to be of a scale that one person could complete. i hope that Michelangelo didn’t have any help with the Sistine chapel…..

    • zwray1 December 18, 2012 at 2:06 am #

      Yeah, because I think art is partly about craftsmanship and partly about the ideas, and so the most genuine art has the idea and craftmanship sourced from the same person. As far as I know, Michelangelo actually did paint the Sistine Chapel by himself, and it took him 4 years to do so.

      And by the way, if I’m wrong and Michelangelo didn’t paint the whole thing by himself, then it’s ok to just credit him with the parts he did paint alone, and give credit to other places where credit is due.

  3. tara December 18, 2012 at 2:01 am #

    and is ballet art? or dance of any kind, or an orchestra? does every piece and form or art have to be individual?

    • zwray1 December 18, 2012 at 2:09 am #

      Many would argue that dance and music are art. I think their art forms too, but you shouldn’t classify them in the same category as visual art because once a person performs a dance choreographed by another person, that performance is no longer solely by the choreographer because someone else had a role in creating it. So maybe it would be best to classify art by people such as Koons or Kusama as design, since they definitely came up with the design themselves, and the artwork belongs to the Koons company.

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