From first encountering the artist's work in 1989, to her joining Victoria Miro's roster in 1998, the gallery's co-director Glenn Scott Wright shares unique insights into Yayoi Kusama's ever-increasing power in the global art world, following the artist's latest solo exhibition in London (I Want Your Tears to Flow with the Words I Wrote, 4 June–31 July 2021).
Can you remember when you first met Kusama?
I first came across Kusama's work in 1989 when I was starting off in the art world. I visited the opening of a Helen Chadwick show at MoMA Oxford and walked into an exhibition full of Kusama's work in another part of the building, which had been curated by the museum's director at the time, David Elliott.
I was immediately astonished and captivated by her work and wanted to find out more. That same year, I travelled to New York to see a solo exhibition of her work at the now defunct Centre for International Contemporary Arts, which had been curated by Alexandra Munroe.
It was not until 1998, however, when I went to New York for the opening of her exhibition Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958–1968 at MoMA, curated by Laura Hoptman and Lynn Zelevansky, that I met her for the first time.
Kusama is notoriously private, what is it like visiting her in her studio?
It is a very magical experience. Kusama is very self-aware, and she presents herself immaculately for studio visits with carefully applied make-up with red lipstick while wearing one of her signature red wigs and a dress designed by her, containing motifs from her work.
The studio visit often begins in silence as Kusama works intently on one of her paintings. It's the most extraordinary privilege to watch her painting. When she has finished a particular passage in the painting she then looks up and greets me and the studio visit begins.
Kusama is still actively making work with endless creative urgency. Does she have a large team assisting her or is she quite isolated, painting and drawing on her own?
The studio is in fact very small in terms of numbers of assistants. I have never seen more than six or seven people working there, and most of them work in an administrative capacity.
Kusama herself paints with one assistant by her side, who holds her palette for her and occasionally helps to move her around the canvas. She paints on a canvas that is laid flat on a tabletop in the middle of the floor of the studio.
Your relationship with Kusama spans a long time now; there must be some amazing memories of working on exhibitions or conversations. Can you think of anything that stands out?
There have been so many. Though Kusama is very focused on the present and the future, she has sometimes reminisced about her time in New York and her friendships and rivalries with artists there.
One such anecdote was about her Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, when she invited Warhol—who was both a friend and a rival—to come to the opening and he admired her use of silkscreen wallpaper, which seemed to be a first at the time.
Warhol subsequently invited Kusama to one of his shows and she recalled being devastated to walk in and see that he had used her idea of silk-screened wallpaper to make the cow wallpaper.
I think it was hard for Kusama, who was such an innovator, to see her ideas taken up by many of her fellow artists and friends who, as Anglo-Saxon men, were quickly embraced by the art establishment, while she remained on the periphery. This makes it especially rewarding to witness her extraordinary global success in recent years.
Kusama is an artist who transcends expectations of what a multi-disciplinary contemporary artist is capable of doing. Why do you think this has happened so dramatically, and what do you think her legacy will be?
There is something in Kusama's work that has universal appeal. Her work has that rare ability to attract admiration from both curators and the most sophisticated collectors and critics, as well as the broadest lay audiences with little knowledge of contemporary art history.
There is little doubt that her legacy will be an enduring one, as she has in recent years taken her place very firmly at the forefront of the canon.
Her market seems to be getting stronger and stronger. Do you think this is in part due to the emergence of a new generation of collectors in Asia? Or does it rather point to the increasing awareness of her status now firmly established within art history?
Kusama is the one artist we represent out of quite a stellar list that we get requests for from every continent. Her market is truly global.
The Asian market has certainly played a key role, and of course Kusama's gallery in Tokyo, Ota Fine Arts, has key strategic outposts in Shanghai and Singapore, and David Zwirner has an important presence in Hong Kong, so she is very well represented by her galleries in Asia. —[O]
Main image: Exhibition view: Yayoi Kusama, I Want Your Tears to Flow with the Words I Wrote, Victoria Miro Gallery, Wharf Road, London (4 June–31 July 2021). © YAYOI KUSAMA. Courtesy Ota Fine Arts and Victoria Miro.
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