After her groundbreaking Narcissus Garden installation at the 1966 Venice Biennale, Kusama herself became an ever more integral element of her oeuvre. As well as appearing as part of her artworks, she carefully honed her public image – routinely photographed with new work, and regularly appearing in vibrant block colours, as well as her soon-to-be-signature bobbed wigs.
For all her reputation as a High Priestess of the hippie love scene, Kusama was reticent about her romantic attachments and spoke openly about her fear of male genitalia and her displeasure in heterosexual sex. She described her long and intense relationship with Cornell as passionate yet platonic.
In 1962, the artist’s phallic-shaped “soft sculptures” made their debut appearance in a group show at the Green Gallery, New York. Over the next few years, her protrusions adorned chairs, ladders, shoes – and even a boat. For critics, her overtly sexualized objects were a provocation. For Kusama, they were another staging of fear and self-erasure. “I make them and make them and then keep on making them, until I bury myself in the process. I call this obliteration.”
Kusama’s anxieties about effacement were only compounded as successive male peers gained fame with her ideas. Andy Warhol took up her repetitive images for his Cow Wallpaper. Claes Oldenburg was “inspired” by her fabric phallic couch to create his own soft sculpture, with which he became world famous. In 1965, Kusama created the world’s first mirrored-room environment at Castellane Gallery. Months later, in a total swerve from his established practice, Lucas Samaras exhibited his own mirrored installation at the much more prestigious Pace Gallery.
Intense periods of depression followed. “I can’t even count the number of times I contemplated suicide,” the artist recalls. After Cornell’s death in 1972, her mental health deteriorated further. Returning to Japan in 1977, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, where she would later take up voluntary permanent residence, with a studio within walking distance.
Through the 1980s, Kusama’s interest in repetition transposed to printmaking, including silkscreen, etching, and lithography. In the mid 1990s, outdoor sculpture started to appear, with works such as Pumpkin at the Benesse Art Site on Naoshima, Japan; Tulipes de Shangri-La in Lille, France; and The Hymn of Life: Tulips in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles all transporting her repertoire of forms, patterns, and motifs to public space.