Nude body painting, phallic symbols -- and letters to "my hero" Richard Nixon.

Artists rarely come more eclectic and eccentric than Yayoi Kusama, an Andy Warhol contemporary turned octogenarian recluse.

It's been four decades since Kusama returned to Japan from the United States and 36 years since she voluntarily chose to live in a psychiatric institution.

But the artist continues to produce new works, and "she's been able to reinvent herself again and again," said Francis Morris, who curated Kusama's 2012 retrospective at London's Tate Modern.

Now Kusama's works grace Rio de Janeiro's Centro Cultural, which on Saturday launched a three-month major exhibit entitled "Infinite Obsession".

The Matsumoto-born painter and sculptor found her niche in the heady days of the 1960s and early 1970s in New York, after quitting a Japan whose social strictures she found suffocating.

Young Americans admired her free-spiritedness, but her visual radicalism went down disastrously in Japan, especially when, during one visit home, a television interview had to be halted after she started to strip off.

Mental malady inspires art

Kusama, now 84, has said she realized from childhood she had a mental disorder. Yet in art she found, if not a cure, then the means to "treat" her obsessive-compulsive condition.

Everywhere, she saw polka dots: on furniture, in the environment around her, even on her own skin.

"I went to see a doctor because of my illness. I told him I was making art and painting a lot," she once said. "And he said it's great for me."

Kusama achieved rapid fame with her spectacular, yet minimalist and surrealist paintings.

While much of her work has a radically sexualized element, her illness ensured a compulsive focus on infinite rows of dots, and the media promptly dubbed her the Polka Dot Princess.

"She happily adopted the nickname -- she's a huge self-publicist," explained Morris.

The artist's fascination with public nudity, as well as with polka dots, won her legions of fans as the hippy generation came of age.

But the public "nude-ins," often in conservative New York locales, like Wall Street and the United Nations headquarters, shocked the older generation to the core.

"But is it art?" asked the Daily News in August 1969 after a nude-in at the New York Museum of Modern Art, which followed an Alice in Wonderland-themed similar stunt in Central Park.

The artist and writer also exhibited a passion for politics.

The Vietnam War preyed heavily on her mind and 1968 also saw her write an open letter to her "my hero" Richard Nixon -- now on display in Rio.

"You can't eradicate violence by using more violence. Gently, gently, dear Richard. Calm your manly fighting spirit," the letter urged Nixon, who held the White House between 1969 and 1974.

Kusama retreats but remains relevant

By 1973, with the hippy movement having passed its zenith, Kusama elected to return to Japan. In 1977, she chose to live in a psychiatric institution.

Nevertheless, "she retains this ability to wrap art around you. The institution gives her security. There things are calm, ordered, peaceful," Morris told AFP.

Morris insists that Kusama's art remains relevant, as her work has evolved with the changing times.

"The sex and the politics are no longer there. She is hugely popular now in Japan, whereas before (she returned) the press was very negative," the London curator said.

Kusama's more recent art still features polka dots.

One work in Rio, "I'm Here, but Nothing," dating from 2000, features a room full of furniture and covered in colored dots -- including the unwatched television.

The exhibition also includes photographs of Kusama with Warhol and also assemblage artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell.

While sex continues to be a dominant theme, the artist told New York Scenes Magazine she was personally "not interested in sex" per se, just its artistic portrayal.

"She's still a flower child at heart," Morris said.

"But today she is not out to shock. She has given up the political struggle, but has shifted her 'weapons' -- using art objects which interface with real life to make people happy."

 

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