Yayoi Kusama left Japan with only a few drawings stuffed into her suitcase. Now, for the first time, these works have emerged from a private collection. Sarah Nelson reports
In November 1957, Yayoi Kusama, a 27 year-old from Japan, arrived in Seattle from Tokyo. She was travelling light, but had everything she needed: a large sum in US dollars sewn into her dress, a letter from Georgia O'Keeffe tucked into her pocket, and a bundle of drawings crammed into her suitcase.
Kusama went on to become one of the most notable artists of the 20th century – her retrospective this year at Tate Modern and the Whitney Museum of American Art confirmed her as a key figure in the period that extends from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. However, little of her early work still exists: before leaving Japan she had burnt most of it on the banks of the Susuki River behind her family home.
But among the pieces that do survive is a series of works on paper made in 1953-56 that are being offered in Bonhams Contemporary Art sale in New York. These works – with two in pastel on paper from the 1960s – were given to George Matsuda, a Japanese-American architect with whom Kusuma lived in New York between 1958 and 1964. Matsuda, who has never before spoken about their relationship, introduced Kusama to the New York art world and to artists such as Andy Warhol, Eva Hesse and Donald Judd, who suggested the pair move into the studio on the floor below his. It was a pivotal moment in her life.
When and how did you meet Yayoi Kusama?
I met Yayoi Kusama through an artist friend shortly after her arrival in New York City in 1958. I was initially attracted by her personality and the fervour with which she pursued her work. I assisted her in finding her first studio in NYC on East 10th Street. A small space with only a toilet and washbasin. It was here that Yayoi began her work on the infinity net paintings.
How long were you together?
We were together from 1958 to 1964, during which time I assisted her with framing, shipping, correspondence and general management of her business affairs. She was totally consumed with her work and development, and doing everything she could to get her work seen and known. Off and on, Yayoi lived with me in my apartment on 32nd street and later we shared my studio/living quarters at 53 East 19th Street.
Can you describe the building that you lived in and the people in it?
This was a space that Don Judd was instrumental in locating for us. He lived on the 4th floor there. The 19th Street address was part of a neighbourhood that was home and studio to a number of artists (performing as well as visual), among them Ed Clark, Al Held, Andy Warhol and Eva Hesse.
What work was she making while you were together?
The photographer Hal Reiff became interested in Yayoi's work, and at one point he provided a rowboat which she covered with sock-like protrusions all sewed and stuffed with cotton from found mattresses. At this point she was bringing home all kinds of things to incorporate into her art. The rowboat was first exhibited at the Gertrude Stein Gallery. It was isolated in a small room covered with photographs of the boat over all four walls and ceiling.
If you could acquire one of her pieces, which would it be?
Of all her work I am particularly fond of her white Infinity Net paintings, work done shortly after her arrival in New York City.
Sarah Nelson is a Contemporary Art specialist at Bonhams San Francisco.