Genius has long been tied to madness, but it is also the realm of men. The raw intellectual power that fosters genius or turns on the light bulb is more likely to be seen as a male trait – whereas female intelligence and skill is perceived as coming from hard work and persistence.
Through pervasive images of the tortured artist and the mad scientist, mental illness in genius men becomes a means through which other-worldly knowledge or creativity is obtained. Their otherwise socially unacceptable behaviors become the bearers of civilization’s greatest gifts, their story that of the tragic hero. Women, however, are not afforded the luxury of their genius taking the forefront of the conversation. Women don’t get to be geniuses; we just get to be crazy.
This particularly rings true when one considers the genius of Yayoi Kusama. Her slow but exponential comeback over the past 20 years has identified her as an icon, but because her current rise to stardom is so linked to a partnership in 2012 with Louis Vuitton and her popularity on Instagram, her work is often dismissed as commercial, shallow, narcissistic, and twee. Moreover, descriptors such as “visionary” and “ahead of her time” become buried beneath obsessions over her age and the fact that she lives in a mental institution.
That her art is informed by hallucinations and obsessive compulsive behaviors is no secret – Kusama often brings up the relationship between her mental illness and her work in writings and interviews – but it overwhelmingly has become a tool that journalists and art critics use to evaluate just how ‘deep’ and therefore serious and worthy of attention her work truly is. Roberta Smith’s review of the Infinity Rooms at the Hirshorn dubs them “Kusama Lite,” and insists that “[the paintings and sculptures of the ’50s and ’60s] are her great achievement.” For Smith, the Infinity Rooms exhibit “sanitizes” Kusama by not paying enough attention to her “psychological problems or genuine wildness” which she finds more visible in Kusama’s earlier works. The ties to mental illness and depth of her earlier work thus also serve the double purpose of proving to readers that the speaker is a true fan, not one of those duped by selfies and polka dots.
Although her work in the 50s and 60s is so beloved by contemporary viewers as the crucible of her vision and “seminal” to pop, minimalist, and conceptual art, it is not until recent years that this narrative has begun to emerge. Even though at the time she was well-known, ground breaking, and influencing others such as Warhol to become geniuses, she did not enter the canon of modern art the way they did following her break from the visual arts and return to Japan in the early 70s. “Not as famous as she should be,” or “she has waited too long to be discovered” is typically how people describe her fame. In the late 60s as a young woman her art involved more and more displays of nudity and sexuality, and her premature departure from the US left her returning to Japan as “the queen of scandal.” It’s not until now, in her 80s, when her sexuality is deemed to no longer be a threat and that her male peers are essentially out of the way that Kusama is coming into her own as an artist.
Her age continuously mystifies the public. That an octogenarian is beloved by millennials, that she is constantly producing new material, that she is finding stardom so late in life is perplexing to many. This persistence and determination is only second to her insanity in its ability to de-emphasize her artistic genius. In a recent Seattle Globalist article in which female artists responded to Kusama’s work, all interviewees mention an admiration for her relentless production, her work ethic, her obsessive qualities, or her persistence in the face of sexism & mental illness. What’s interesting is that in this article Kusama’s mental illness and hard work are not connected to each other; her psychological conflicts provide inspiration or become a thing which she is to overcome, while her “prolific output” reflects dedication, not obsessive compulsive behaviors. Gone is the otherworldly intellectual & creative power identified with genius. In its place arrives a crazy lady who can’t stop working.
Across the decades, Kusama has consistently expressed aspirations of self-obliteration, to lose herself in her art. But the public insists on separating out the pieces of her they believe in most: her insanity, a wacky old woman adorable and desexualized, an attention-seeking publicity grabber, a one-woman Kusama factory. In the process, the parts of Kusama that most seem to agree upon but no one is willing to scream from the rooftops fade into the background: visionary, ground-breaking, brilliant, one of the greats.