My first experience of Yayoi Kusama's work took place two years ago, during my most recent visit to Japan. (Information correct at time of writing.) As The Belated Birthday Girl and I wandered around Matsumoto - actually the artist's hometown, though we didn't realise that at the time - we came across a set of gigantic polkadotted flower sculptures outside the city museum. The dotty colour scheme was obviously a motif, as the museum's drinks vending machines had also been painted up the same way. I duly reported it here and thought nothing more about it.
Looking back at that brief review, as Kusama gets a London retrospective at Tate Modern (running until June 5th), the main thing that strikes me now is a big stupid assumption I made in the one sentence I wrote: that Yayoi Kusama was a man. The BBG keeps saying I should correct that error, but I prefer to let it stand as a monument to my appalling sexism. (I'll fix it when I reprint the piece in my next travel book, though. I'm sexist, not stupid.)
I'm a bit basic when it comes to art exhibitions: I like them best when they've got a narrative at their core. Kusama's personal narrative is a doozy, but it's only obliquely hinted at in the captions accompanying the work. I found myself so frustrated by this that I ended up buying her autobiography, Infinity Net, in an attempt to fill in some of the blanks. (It fills in a few, but not necessarily all of them, and I think that's about right.)
Kusama was born in 1929 - and as soon as I heard that, I was reminded of female Sapporo artist Tamako Kataoka, who I discovered on our 2008 trip. Like Kusama, she carried on working to a ripe old age (the exhibition was marking her passing at 103 years old), despite a troubled start. Non-figurative artists have a tough time in Japan already, without the hassle of being female as well. Kataoka battled her way into the Academy through sheer bloody-mindedness, and was able to really cut loose once she'd been formally accepted by the establishment. Kusama, though, was always going to be slightly harder for Japanese society to take, which is why she eventually took the gigantic step of moving to America.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, and you can see how she takes a little time experimenting with techniques to find her style. She hits her stride with the Infinity Net paintings, huge arrangements of meticulously painted white spirals covering a dark background. As you look at these canvasses getting bigger and bigger, and then turning to sculptures where the dots are replaced by hundreds of lumpy phalluses, you start making some awkward judgments about her state of mind.
This is where the accompanying text starts to get vague: contemporary critics hedged around her intricate, obsessively detailed work, without coming flat out and accusing her of OCD. In fact, much of her art at this time has quite basic roots in her personal circumstances. A bizarre neurological condition left her frequently seeing the world through a veil of literal spots before the eyes: an unpleasant sexual experience as a child left her terrified of the male organ. In both cases, she's been using her art to exorcise her fears. Similarly, another set of sculptures shows her covering everyday objects with dried macaroni, apparently in disgust at the American attitude to wasted food after the war. Which seems a bit heavy when written down, but did result in a piece called Macaroni Pants, which is exactly what you think it is: these may be exorcisms, but they happily result in the demons looking surreally ridiculous.
Eventually, bored with the rejection from Japan, Kusama made the move to New York, and quickly found herself much more at home: her Infinity Net paintings were welcomed by critics and audiences who were already familiar with the sort of thing she was doing. It's around that time that she got more into the arena of performance art, where being both female and Japanese gave her undeniable curiosity appeal. It's something she wryly exploits in a slideshow called Walking Piece, which depicts her mooching round Manhattan in full kimono.
Within a couple of years, though, it wasn't her clothes that people were talking about: quite the opposite. Kusama became the architect of a whole series of full-on hippy Happenings, frequently involving nudity in public places (though, crucially, never her own). The key piece of evidence from this period is her 20 minute film Self Obliteration, which turns out to be the pivotal work in this exhibition. (Invevitably, you can also see it on YouTube, albeit in three parts.) Everything Kusama did before - the polkadots, the surrealism, the repetition, the willies - feeds into what we see in the film. Everything she did after feels like a consequence of what she did there, although that's a topic for debate.
In the 1970s, Kusama returned to Japan, where - in an unexpected move - she more or less started again from scratch. Her New York fame counted for nothing back home, where her activities had been reported as those of a lunatic. And it's uncertain whether this had an impact on the other main upheaval in her life: in 1977, she committed herself to an institution, where she's been ever since.
Acid burnout? Depression after the move back to Japan? A recurrence of the mental problems she's had since the early days? Or something a lot more canny than that? Because you can't help feeling that she's playing with the idea of insanity, rather than being a victim of it. These days, she's applying the cliched salaryman ethic to her art: she gets up in the morning, wanders over to her studio, and puts in a full working day with her canvasses. And in the evening, she checks herself back into the loony bin for a good night's rest. That seems like incredibly detailed time management for someone in her condition.
And the most astonishing thing is this: her art still keeps on developing. If this exhibition's layout is to be believed, Kusama has spent her post-New York years reliving the first half of her career, but with the added insight that her advanced years have given her. Her use of colour has become bolder over the years: the penultimate room, dedicated to pictures she painted in 2009 - the year she turned 80 - is truly dazzling. And it's capped by one of her legendary Infinity Mirrored Rooms, a series of installations in which she explores her love of repetition using the simplest tools available. When you come out of that one with your jaw scraping the floor, don't forget to look to your left at the terrace overlooking the Thames: otherwise, you may miss a dinky version of one of the flower sculptures that got me interested in her in the first place.
In her book, Kusama insists that her art is driven by her own feelings, and has nothing to do with what anyone else in the art world is doing at the time. I don't quite buy that: it would seem that decade to decade, she seemed to be working quite closely alongside the popular trends. But her take on them is always skewed in interesting ways, making this an incredibly satisfying exhibition, well worth catching before it closes in a few weeks. If nothing else, I hope I'll be as productive as her by the time I hit 80. (Mind you, if I was aiming for a life like Kusama's, I probably should have racked up a couple of prosecutions for public indecency by now. Better focus on that in the short term.)