Audio guide stop for Yayoi Kusama, Air Mail Stickers, 1962
NARRATOR: Air Mail Stickers has the physical presence of a painting. Its ground is a canvas, almost six feet square. Step back, and it seems like an abstraction—a jittery grid with jumpy cream-colored verticals and wavering red-and-black horizontals. Move closer, though, and this reading of the work becomes a kind of joke. As its title suggests, it’s a collage, covered in hundreds of airmail stickers. In the late fifties and early sixties it was not uncommon for critics to describe large-scale abstract paintings as “heroic.” By comparison, the act of applying stickers to a surface may seem simple, even childish. There’s something topsy-turvy about insistently repeating such a modest gesture. It’s anti-heroic—even comically dumb in its repetition—via air mail, via air mail—yet it’s intense and ambitious at the same time.
Kusama was never part of any artistic movement. Yet she was on the forefront of more than one. Her first Accumulation sculptures were in one of the earliest exhibitions of Pop artists. And with its grid-like structure and one-thing-after-another construction, Air Mail Stickers anticipates Minimalism.