The popular Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, whose “Infinity Mirror Rooms” have brought lines around the block for one blockbuster exhibition after another, has apologized for racist comments in her 2002 autobiography that drew renewed attention as her new show opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“I deeply regret using hurtful and offensive language in my book,” Kusama, who is 94, said in a statement to The San Francisco Chronicle last week. “My message has always been one of love, hope, compassion and respect for all people. My lifelong intention has been to lift up humanity through my art. I apologize for the pain I have caused.”
Kusama’s apology, which came the day before her show, “Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Love,” opened at the museum, referred to passages from her 2002 autobiography, “Infinity Net,” in which she described Black people as “primitive, hyper-sexualized beings.”
The website Hyperallergic surfaced those comments in June. Last week a Chronicle critic denounced the museum’s decision to proceed with the show.
In the book’s original Japanese edition, Kusama also called her New York neighborhood a “slum” where real estate prices were “falling by $5 a day” because of “Black people shooting each other out front, and homeless people sleeping there.” Those sentences were removed from a later English translation.
Kusama, who was born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, began painting from hallucinations she experienced as a young girl. She has spoken openly about her struggles with her psychiatric condition but continues to paint.
The controversy over Kusama’s comments is the latest example of an institution forced to grapple with the problematic personal history of a prominent artistic figure. And the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has been forced to reckon with what employees have called structural inequities around race.
Its longest-serving curator, Gary Garrels, resigned in 2020 soon after a post quoted him saying, “Don’t worry, we will definitely continue to collect white artists.” And its previous director, Neal Benezra, apologized to employees after removing critical comments from an Instagram post following the murder of George Floyd.
In a telephone interview on Tuesday, the museum’s current director, Christopher Bedford, said he welcomed the opportunity to “be very outspoken about the museum’s relationship to antiracism” and to “thinking about how we can present difficult subject matter with nuance.”
Bedford said the museum had already been planning a symposium next spring “on this question of autobiography in relationship to creativity and how we as a culture reconcile the two when perhaps they’re in opposition.” A longer-term goal, he said, was to develop interpretive materials for the public “about these difficult relationships between maker and objects.”
As for Kusama, Bedford said: “I think it’s really extraordinary that a woman in her 10th decade on earth, who has been creating a staggering body of work and was variously marginalized and discriminated against herself, comes out and apologizes in an unqualified way for racist statements.
“What we are charged with doing is collecting, displaying and interpreting artists in all of their complexity,” he added. “Like everybody else, they are flawed. And the profound effort is not to delete or edit or cancel people; the effort is to reckon with them fully and with truth.”