D eveloped from 1961 onwards, when the artist was living in New York City, soft sculptures have been an important part of Yayoi Kusama’s decades-long practice. Her first series involves pieces of furniture and everyday objects covered up with a multitude of soft, machine- and hand-sewn, phallic forms. These sculptures, indicative as they are of the artist’s ambiguous relationship with sex, are often seen as a prefiguration of the feminist movement that emerged in the mid-1960s in the US, and a reflection of her psychological mindset. Beyond their undeniable cathartic power, they are also the expression of Kusama’s organic vision of the world as an indivisible whole, in which objects and all living beings constantly transform and intermingle.
Kusama left Japan and her matriarchal family to pursue her artistic dream and escape a society which she deemed too conservative. She was 29 years old when she arrived in New York City, speaking barely any English. She let herself be literally engulfed into the vibrant local art scene of the time, in which Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and Happenings all coalesced. Trained in traditional Japanese painting, she had already emancipated herself from the nihonga style and was doing her first “Infinity Net” paintings, an ongoing signature series featuring compositions of small and repetitive patterns. She describes her New York life as a permanent battle, struggling, as she was, to make a living and provide for the costly oil paints she abundantly used for her mural-sized “Infinity Net” series. Her first soft sculpture, Accumulation No. 1 (1962) originates probably in the necessity to work with inexpensive, readily available materials and found objects. She began experimenting with collages before using pieces of furniture like the armchair that constitutes the core structure of this initial sculpture. In her autobiography, Kusama writes that it had been scavenged by Donald Judd, who happened to be her neighbour and one of her first close friends in the city. He helped her sew multiple stuffed phallic forms from bed linen that she affixed to the armchair, resulting in its total disappearance under the accumulated soft protrusions.
In the following months, she also covered a sofa with similar hand-sewn fabric phalluses. Both soft sculptures were exhibited for the first time in 1962 at the New York vanguard Green Gallery, alongside works by Claes Oldenburg, Robert Morris and Andy Warhol. Kusama has suggested her own work were a strong influence on Oldenburg’s own soft sculpture installations, which he began to produce shortly after, and which brought him immediate fame. Though contested – typical of the male dominance of the art scene at the time – many scholars now agree on this point. Her relentless and repetitive representation of the phallus, stuffed, soft and thus ineffective, could incarnate her attempt to resist, and annihilate, such a power. Each single piece requires long hours of work during which she confronts, appropriates, and desacralises the male organ.
Since then, this pattern has multiplied. Phalluses have invaded various types of everyday objects, covering boats, ladders, dust pans and clothing accessories, all turned into anthropomorphic, humorous, and dynamic soft sculptures. As a teenager growing up in a Japan at war, Kusama spent her adolescence sewing parachutes, and probably remembered this when engaging in a different, and more personal battle. By transforming domestic objects into sexualised artworks, she hijacks their functional and cultural meaning as personifications of traditional familial interiors and representations of “home.” In Untitled (1965), for example, the bath bowl is no longer an attribute of the housewife but an autonomous and grotesque entity from which striped- and polka dotted-phalluses keep surging. While she frees these everyday objects from their social and moral attributions, she emancipates herself at the same time from her own social, gender and national markers as a Japanese bachelorette and woman artist.
Kusama’s relationships with sex are ambiguous. She often acknowledges her “sex obsession” and her “fear of sex”, highlighting for instance her platonic rapports with her partner Joseph Cornell. At the same time, she said that she came to New York to praise the “sexual revolution” and overturn people’s conservative perception of sex. Kusama’s statements, and autobiography, tend to participate in her personal mythologies and needs to be considered as such. Passionate about psychiatric theories, she has always remained rational in her analysis of her own anxieties and neurotic pathologies.
In fact, her phallic motifs were often associated with more maternal or feminine elements. A 1963 photograph shows her standing between Accumulation No. 1 and a wall of egg boxes, staring at viewers. At that time, she was collecting discarded egg cartons out of which she created large-scale sculptures. The hollow cavities of the boxes would complement the male sexual protuberance. This maternal, feminine part can still be felt in later works such as Flower A (1985), a medium size box filled with shiny translucent eggs, all squeezed and surrounded by equally soft and small forms as if in a nest and Gentuer Object (Spirit of the Bird) (1988), where the soft phallic forms nestle what appears to be a flower composed of feathers for petals and synthetic hair for the bud. Silver Night (1982) could also be interpreted as featuring a group of families packed on a large borderless – therefore dangerous – dustpan, with the taller, maternal components watching over the smaller ones.
The matrix of Kusama’s practice is evident in the sensory and immersive environments that envelop and exceed her accumulation of phallic forms. The repetitive patterns of the soft sculptures, like the dots of her “Infinity Net” paintings, contribute to create invasive environments where no focal point or benchmark can guide the eye. Aggregation: One Thousand Boats (1963) consisted of a rowing boat painted silver and covered with her typical phallic extensions. She displayed it at Gertrude Stein Gallery in New York along with 999 posters portraying the same boat, pasted all over the gallery walls. Considered as her first ever “environment”, it generated a sense of loss and announced her later gigantic famous installations. In Infinity Mirror Room - Phalli’s Field (1965), the soft sculptures multiplied thanks to a mirror game that created an infinite space in which the white-and-red polka dotted phallic protrusions seem to grow endlessly. Kusama activated these spaces by posing for photographs in the middle of her installations, thus positioning herself at the core of these personal and fanciful ecosystems.
Looking at her earlier drawings, it is fascinating to see how Kusama was already portraying flower-like protuberances. In her 1945 graphite on paper Study of Peony Branches, for instance, the burgeoning peonies spring from the branches to form uncanny long buds. Having this in mind allows us to see the soft sculptures as organic forms, with every single “phallus” growing like a new sprout. In Japan, Shinto beliefs confer life to everyday objects. Kusama’s sofa, boat, or basket vibrate with life alike. Her Untitled (Silver shoe) (1976) made from a shoe and sewn stuffed fabric, develops indeed like a limb. It would seem empowered enough to run secretly at night. Overall, the soft sculptures resemble a luxuriant flora that proliferates spontaneously through continual mutations. They belong to a whimsical, interconnected, world where objects and living beings merge and surge with a refreshing and powerful liberty.