She grabbed my wrist and pulled me close. “What do you think of my work?” Yayoi Kusama asked, peering at me intently from under the bangs of her trademark wig in her Tokyo studio. While I can’t recall the exact date—most likely the early 1990s, when I was travelling frequently to Japan—I’ll never forget the visit. The first opportunity for me and other New Yorkers to see a substantial body of Kusama’s oeuvre was in the fall of 1989, at the inaugural exhibition of the relatively short-lived Center for International Arts (CICA) on Fifth Avenue.
Not only was this stunning retrospective an eye-opener, but the catalogue exerted a profound effect on my own writing and curatorial practice. It featured an overview by Alexandra Munroe, the guest curator, who stressed the importance of situating significant non-Western artists within an expanded view—what she termed the “international avant-garde.” Now the Senior Samsung Curator for Asian Arts at the Guggenheim Museum, Alexandra is in a position to make that happen. Reiko Tomii, who compiled Kusama’s first substantial biography and bibliography, was also a key collaborator. I knew both Alexandra and Reiko from my early forays into contemporary Japanese art. Alexandra had been extraordinarily generous, introducing me to curators and artists. Reiko and I subsequently worked together on a survey of American art from 1960 to 1990 that traveled to three museums in Japan.
Overseeing the retrospective was Bhupendra Karia, CICA’s executive director, who edited the catalogue and wrote the introduction. I was wowed by his essay. Not only did he delineate challenges faced by modern non-Western artists, he also gave a succinct, clear, precise, and scholarly account of the intricate workings of the 20th-century Japanese art world. How had he arrived at such detailed knowledge of this history, I wondered? I subsequently learned that, born in India in 1936, he attended Bombay’s Sir J.J. School of Art, and from 1957 to 1960 had continued his studies at Tokyo University of the Arts. He became an important photographer and teacher and, with Cornell Capa, helped establish the International Center of Photography in New York, where he curated over forty-five exhibitions. Unfortunately I never met him. At his death in 1994, he left an important legacy as artist, curator, writer, and scholar.
What jogged my memory of meeting Kusama, the CICA show, and its publication was the chapter “Leaving Midtown” in Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965, in the publication accompanying the Grey’s upcoming show of the same title, which opens in January 2017. In her discussion of the Brata Gallery—a pioneering cooperative space on East 10th Street—guest curator Melissa Rachleff describes the impact of Kusama’s first solo New York show there in October 1959. The Brata was among the earliest galleries to present work by contemporary Japanese painters, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Artists like Kusama and colleagues like Munroe, Tomii, and Karia make working in the art world tremendously inspiring and now, in a time of troubled, inflated market economies, still tolerable. I remain extraordinarily grateful to all of them.
LYNN GUMPERT is Director, Grey Art Gallery, New York University.