Accumulation of Letters (1961) is one of the earliest, and rarest works in the artist’s series of handmade, labor intensive accumulation sculptures and collages. Assembled using cut-out pieces of the artist’s own name from her 1961 exhibition, Yayoi Kusama: Watercolors at Gres Gallery in Washington, D.C., the present work is a prescient synthesis of the major themes that would consume the artist for the next six decades. Repeated over and over again – Yayoi Kusama Yayoi Kusama Yayoi Kusama – the letters dissolve into pattern, swaying from the referential to the purely abstract. Narcissism, self-obliteration, and accumulation, the essential kernels that define Kusama’s body of work, converge in spectacularly succinct format.
Since the early 1950s, Kusama’s body of work has been characterized by equal parts creativity and compulsion. From a very early age, the artist struggled with a neurotic disorder that manifested itself in hallucinatory visions. Kusama described the experiencing as seeing, “the same pattern covering the ceiling, windows, and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body, and the universe.” Although associated with the Pop, Minimalist, and Performance Art Movements, her work is intensely personal, and since being committed into psychiatric care in the late 70s, also functions as a form of meditation and therapy.
The watercolors featured in the Gres Gallery exhibition were in fact the seminal works from which Kusama began the series of paintings for which she is now most widely recognized, the Infinity Nets. The large-scale ethereal canvases are composed of a single iteration of a simple gesture; scalloped, small brushstrokes that sweep in a seemingly infinite wave across the canvases surface. In 1961 Kusama moved into a studio one floor below Donald Judd’s. Although motivated by different ends, Kusama and Judd were similarly engaging with repetition as a formal approach, at a moment when Minimalism was not yet even defined as a movement. For Kusama, repetition functioned as a means to self-obliteration. It was a visual manifestation and metaphor of the artist’s own attempt to surrender herself to art.
The present work, created in 1961, follows the artist’s first monumental Infinity Nets, but pre-dates her earliest major accumulation sculptures from 1962, constructed of white painted soft phallic forms collaged over living room furniture. In the Airmail – Accumulations, also from 1962, Kusama methodically laid down hundreds of ‘via air mail’ stickers, perhaps a self-conscious acknowledgment of her status as an expat in New York having arrived from Japan in 1958. At the same time that Kusama was collaging stickers and stamps in infinite arrangements, Andy Warhol was also exploring the formal, as well as subconscious effects of repetition using stamps, soup cans, and dollar bills. However, unlike Warhol, whose process mimicked mass production, Kusama’s accumulations are laborious, hand-crafted endeavors. Time is an inherent part of the process, both spent gathering and accumulating the material, and then transforming it into one congruous object.
Accumulation of Letters is arguably one of the most art historically important works by Kusama. In many ways it can be read as a self-portrait, the artist’s name, or signature, standing in as a metaphor for the self. Known for her promotional talent and flair - Kusama regularly arranged for professional photographs to be taken of her with her work often wearing outfits that matched the paintings or sculptures - Accumulation of Letters acts as an artwork-cum-advertisement. In the exhibition catalogue for Kusama’s 2012 traveling retrospective, Rachel Taylor writes that Kusama “situated herself at the centre of her artistic universe, the key protagonist in a world populated by proliferating forms, endless nets and infinite polka dots” (Taylor cited in: Exh. Cat. London, Tate Modern, Yayoi Kusama, 2012, p. 109). In 1966, Kusama’s Narcissus Garden was installed in conjunction with, but not formally part of, the 33rd Venice Biennale. Consisting of hundreds of mirrored spheres laid out on the grass in one giant kinetic carpet, Kusama stood wearing a gold kimono handing out copies of a statement written by British art critic Herbert Read that praised her original talent. She sold the spheres for $2 each under a sign reading “Your narcissism for sale”, until the Biennale organizers put an end to the commercial enterprise. At the heart of both Narcissus Garden and the present work is Kusama’s interest in the reflection of the self through the object. Accumulation of Letters is potentially the most complete visual manifestation of the central themes that defined the artist’s practice.