Kusama and Ono? Not a thing

I was reading something else the other day and it said something about when Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama lived together, and I was like, wait, what? And had to chase that down. [tl;dr They knew each other in New York. Their interactions are undocumented, but maybe worth asking about. I don’t think they lived together.]

I’d spent several months chasing down every single thing I could find about Kusama, and the thing that stuck with me was how odd it was that Ono and Kusama were never considered together, or in relation to each other. In many ways they were so similar, and occupied a similar spot in the small avant-garde world of 1960s New York. Yet neither ever mentioned the other, and no writer, curator, critic, or historian ever mentioned them in each other’s context.

If there were a connection, I’m sure Alexandra Munroe—who’s written books and curated shows by both Kusama and Ono—would have said something.

What I remember from researching Kusama was that Ono shared many biographical similarities—conservative, wealthy Japanese family; struggle for recognition while white guy colleagues get credit for their ideas; scandals and blowback at home over sexually adventurous work; hospitalized and medicated by families for mental illness—but it was only Kusama whose work was interpreted biographically. And those similarities get complicated quickly when you look at the specifics, and shouldn’t obscure the significant differences in the two artists’ lived experiences, both at the time and since, and in their work.

But they did cross paths in New York. Ono shows up just three times in Midori Yamamura’s book, Inventing The Singular, which documents Kusama’s work in her world, not in relation to her biography. In her datebook, Kusama recorded one meeting with Ono, in July 1961. This was after Kusama had already been in the city three years, since 1958; but it’s also right after Ono ended the concerts and happenings she’d organized in her Chambers St loft with LaMonte Young.

At the time Ono was married to avant-garde composer and John Cage colleague Toshi Ichiyanagi. Their relationship ended messily; Ono was institutionalized in Japan, and got out and married to Tony Cox, with whom she had a daughter. She was making work and staging performances and gallery shows in 1964-66. She was making butt films—literally a film of 365 butts— when Kusama was staging nude polkadot happenings. Ono’s marriage to Cox ended with her relationship to John Lennon.

Besides the logistical improbabilities of Ono’s own situation, the biggest blow to the likelihood of her living with Kusama is the source of the claim: Sam Green. Green was a fabulist, dealer, curator, and hustler who managed to become friends with tons of amazing art people, and organize some important shows. But he was also an untrustworthy bullshitter who made stuff up and told other people’s stories as his own. In a 2008 Daily Mail article, after complaining of inaccuracies of filmmaker Tom Kalin’s portrayal of Green as the lover of both mother and son in an infamous socialite scandal in the 1970s, Green went on about his BFFship with John & Yoko:

I had met Yoko Ono before I met John Lennon. She shared an apartment with a Japanese artist I admired called Yayoi Kusama.

Yoko fancied herself an artist and whenever I went to see Yayoi, Yoko would say: ‘Sam, you have to see my new work. It is so fantastic.’ After about the sixth time I said to her, quite bluntly: ‘Yoko, I’m not interested.’

Then in 1974, she and John came to New York as a couple. A few days after they arrived, I got a call from Andy Warhol. ‘Sam, you’ve got to help me,’ he said. ‘John and Yoko are insisting I introduce them to everybody in New York.’

So Andy and I put together a party for them.

Green did work at Richard Hu Bellamy’s Green Gallery in 1964, when Bellamy showed Kusama’s work in a summer group show. And Green did arrange with his father, an art professor at Wesleyan, to show dozens of Pop works, including Kusama’s and Warhol’s, at the Davison Art Center in 1964. And Otto Piene, who’d shown with her in Europe, did include a Kusama painting in his show of Groupe Zero at the ICA in Philadelphia in the fall of 1964, a month after Sam Green became its director.

Which, nothing seems to indicate that Green had any actually substantive involvement or insight about Kusama’s work. And his dismissiveness of Ono at the moment she’s deep in Fluxus and preparing to show Chttp://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/cut-piece/ut for the second time, at Carnegie Hall, is neither the sick burn nor the humblebrag he thinks it is.

In this same period, through Fluxus and beyond, Ono was very open to and supportive of Shigeko Kubota. And Kusama collaborated repeatedly with Eikoh Hosoe. So it’s not like either of these women was averse to the concept of other people. If they were involved in each others’ work or life more, I guess I think we’d know more about it than an offhand namedrop from Sam Green.