The Art and Politics of Artists' Personas: The Case of Yayoi Kusama

SooJin Lee


This essay presents persona as a trajectory of contemporary art in the post- industrial art world, in which artists’ ‘work’ increasingly include non-art activities such as networking and media publicity. After discussing pressing issues in art scholarship in regards to the disciplinary tradition and persona studies, I specifically analyse the image of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) who has been operating in the Western-dominated international art world since the 1960s. Arriving in the U.S. in 1957, Kusama quickly became one of the most prolific and notorious artists in New York. But in the early 1970s she returned to Japan and has since been living voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital. Art historical assessments of Kusama’s work have generally been confined within the Western theoretical parameters of feminismand psychoanalysis. But I draw attention to her persona—a ‘non-art’ topic that has been ignored within the modernist discipline of Art History, which insists on the object-based formalist methodology. I critique this tendency by demonstrating how an artist’s persona can become a medium of art and politics, and how an artist’s artworks can become byproducts of the artist’s larger-than-life public persona. I trace Kusama’s effort at persona cultivation from New York in the early 1960s, and particularly explore her satirical and ironic use of the cultural, racial, and gendered stereotypes about Japanese women. Based on archival research and aesthetics analysis, I argue that Kusama exploited the commercial value of her Japanese body and identity at a time when escalating Cold War national pride and xenophobia jeopardised her career in New York. By discussing how she pursued self-promotion and commercial success, this paper also portrays the commercialization of art and artists during the 1960s.


Yayoi Kusama; artist's persona; art history; artist as celebrity; Orientalism

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