‘Oh No. The Midget’s an Undercover Cop’: Kusama’s Long History With 14th Street

Hoagland’s report on the 1968 happening reprinted in ‘The Tuscaloosa News.’ (Courtesy Google Books)

Earlier today, word came out that Yayoi Kusama will design netting for a condo construction site on West 14th Street, not far from the High Line. It goes up next week. It turns out that Ms. Kusama, who was born in Japan and lived in New York throughout the 1960s, until she moved back to Japan in 1973, has had a lengthy and rich relationship with 14th Street over the years.

The street was the site of Ms. Kusama’s first public performance in New York, in 1966, according to Midori Yoshimoto, who writes the following in her Into Performance book:

On the sidewalk outside her loft on East 14th Street, Kusama laid out a white mat filled with red-dot-patterned, stuffed phallic protuberances and lied down on top of it. Wearing a black one-piece dress possibly of her own design and her hair in long braids, she probably intended to present herself as a young girl out of a fairy tale. A sequence of slides indicates that she sometimes moved off the mat and laid her body on both sides of the mat at different times. [The photographer] Hosoe’s multiple-exposure technique records the movement of the passersby, most of who seem to have stopped for a moment to look at what Kusama was doing. A tourist bus also stayed for a while so that passengers could see the event.

Fred Wilson told New York Social Diary recently that he lives in the same building today.

Two years later, Ms. Kusama ended up on 14th Street after trying to stage a happening with naked participants on a subway leaving from 23rd Street and 7th Avenue. According to a report from The Washington Post‘s Jim Hoagland, the artist spotted a midget while waiting and remarked that he would have been a great participant in the happening. The midget apparently circled the group, and dancer James Galotta, thinking this odd, exclaimed, “Oh no. The midget’s an undercover cop.” (He was right: the policeman had been tipped off to the happening by a radio announcement.) There’s a great chase scene in the report.

Eventually Ms. Kusama and her gang escape (the police only wanted to chase them out of their precinct). According to The Post:

“The group descended at the 14th Street stop [at 6th Avenue] and picked a happening spot. On a mezzanine, two attractive girls in their late teens and three mid-20s men disrobed in 35 seconds flat and danced gracefully across the floor. … Miss Kusama painted their bodies with green polka-dots. They dabbed Day-glo on the subway walls…

Forty-four years later, she’s designing construction netting for luxury condos less than three blocks away.

‘Oh No. The Midget’s an Undercover Cop’: Kusama’s Long History With 14th Street