Yayoi Kusama with Joseph Cornell in New York, 1970
Yayoi Kusama with Joseph Cornell in New York, 1970

For an artist who advocated free love during her time as the high priestess of the hippies in late 1960s New York, Kusama is remarkably discreet about her own romantic connections.

Joseph Cornell collage dedicated to Yayoi Kusama, c.1967

Joseph Cornell collage dedicated to Yayoi Kusama, c.1967

Collection: Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio, Inc

She describes Donald Judd as an early boyfriend, but the artist with whom she forged arguably her closest relationship was Joseph Cornell. When they first met in the mid-1960s, Kusama was in her thirties; Cornell was twenty-six years her senior. Yet the two formed an unlikely bond that latest over many years. Kusama has described their relationship as passionate yet platonic. Cornell became infatuated with the younger artist, calling her several times a day and making and sending her charming collages with personal messages (‘Have some tea and think of me’; ‘Happy Easter to Yayoi’).

Kusama spent days at Cornell’s Queens home, where he lived with his mother. The two artists sketched each other; Kusama still owns a number of drawings Cornell made of her. At the time she was living hand to mouth, and Cornell, taking pity on her situation, gave her a number of his works to sell.

Portrait of Yayoi Kusama by Joseph Cornell, 1965

Portrait of Yayoi Kusama by Joseph Cornell, 1965

Collection: Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio, Inc

This early experience of art dealing was to lead Kusama to a temporary new profession on her return to Tokyo in the early 1970s, when for a time she acted as an art import agent, sourcing Western works to sell to Japanese clients. Her sales career was short-lived however, as the oil crisis and subsequent recession destroyed her market.

Cornell died in 1972, and Kusama felt this loss deeply. His legacy to her had not ended, however. When she returned to Japan she had brought with her boxes of magazine cuttings and other collage materials Cornell had given her. In the subsequent years, as Kusama began to build her artistic career again, she used these materials in a series of luminous collages. These works were to signal Kusama’s re-emergence to the Japanese art scene after her American sojourn. They also acted as a form of mourning for the American artist who had had such fondness and affection for her.

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