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Yayoi Kusama

Princess of polka dots

Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.

Best known for her use of dense patterns of polka dots, as well as her intense, large-scale environments, Yayoi Kusama works in a variety of media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, film, performance, and immersive installation.

Over the past five years, more than 5 million art enthusiasts have queued for a brief glimpse of the work of Yayoi Kusama. The 92-year-old Japanese artist has had large-scale solo shows of her work in Mexico City, Rio, Seoul, Taiwan and Chile, as well as major touring exhibitions in the US and Europe. In 2017, she opened her own five-story gallery in Tokyo and in 2018 the Broad museum in Los Angeles sold 90,000 tickets to its Kusama exhibition in one single afternoon.

While many attribute her recent surge in popularity to the rise of social media, her artistic career was in fact much more complex and her successful advance in the art world should actually be aligned with that of Warhol and the likes.

Yayoi Kusama was born into a wealthy family in rural Japan that managed extensive plant nurseries, selling their flowers all over the country. From a young age, Kusama would carry her sketchbook down to the grounds and sit among the flowers until, one day she experienced the flowers leaning in and talking to her.

I had thought that only humans could speak, so I was surprised the violets were using words. I was so terrified my legs began shaking.

This was the first of a series of unsettling hallucinations that came to define her childhood. The episodes seem to have been connected to her growing up in a deeply unhappy family. Her father was a philanderer and her mother sent the young girl to spy on him with his mistresses. Her mother was also physically abusive and tried to stop Kusama from painting by tearing the canvas from her hands and destroying it, so Kusama would rush to finish her art before she could take it away. She insisted that Kusama studied etiquette in order to make a good wife, but Kusama kept on drawing. It was her way of making sense of her hallucinations:

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up, I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows, and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body, and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self­ obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space and be reduced to nothingness.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Kusama was 13, she was sent to work in a factory that produced fabrics for parachutes. In the evening, the young artists would go into a self-proclaimed ‘obsessional’ process of painting the same intricate flowers over and over, producing about 70 watercolors a day.

After limited success in her home country, Kusama became serious about making a living and achieving international fame as an artist when she encountered a book on the work of Georgia O’Keeffe in a local bookshop. She managed to find O’Keeffe’s address in New Mexico and wrote to her for advice on how to make it in the New York art world. O’Keeffe was initially puzzled why a young woman from rural Japan would want to do such a thing, but her curiosity developed into a kind of mentorship.

With little formal training, having studied art only briefly (1948–49) at the Kyōto City Specialist School of Arts, Kusama arrived in New York in 1958, with a few hundred dollars sewn into the lining of her dresses, some of her artworks and 60 silk kimonos, planning to sell one or the other. Before leaving Japan, she had destroyed many of her early works.

Her first breakthrough in New York came about with what she called her “infinity net” paintings. These works consisted of thousands of tiny marks endlessly repeated across large canvases and beyond, as if they continued into infinity. They were based on an earlier series of watercolours entitled Pacific Ocean, which she had made after seeing the waves on the surface of the sea when she had flown for the first time from Tokyo. The nets she painted were made from a repetitive singular gesture of impasto in little loops, like interlocking scales; the longest canvases measured 30ft. With these intricate pieces she explored both the physical and psychological boundaries of painting, creating an almost hypnotic sensation for the viewer. The first ones she sold to fellow artists Frank Stella and Donald Judd in 1962 for $75. In 2014, one of these canvases sold for $7.1m, a record for a living female artist.

Her paintings from that period anticipated the emerging Minimalist movement, but her work quickly began to take on the characteristics of Pop art and performance art as well, often navigating the boundaries between these different styles and disciplines. She soon became a central figure in the New York avant-garde world, and her work was exhibited alongside that of artists such as Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol.

Obsessive repetition continued to be the base of Kusama’s sculpture and installation art. The theme of sexual anxiety was central to much of her work in the early 60s. Installations from that time included Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (1965), a room with floors covered with hundreds of stuffed phalli painted with red dots. Mirrors extended this field into infinite planes – a landscape that would stretch endlessly in the eye of the beholder.

During the following years, Kusama was very prolific, and by 1966 she was experimenting with room-size, freestanding installations that incorporated mirrors, lights, and music. However, despite receiving enough attention, she still did not profit financially from her work. Around this time, Kusama was hospitalized regularly for being overworked and O'Keeffe persuaded her own dealer to purchase several works to help Kusama out.

Many of her male colleagues, however, copied her ideas; her technique of “soft sculpture”, for example, was adopted by Oldenburg, while her repetitive wallpaper prints were appropriated by Warhol, which made them famous, but not Kusama. Thus, she did not receive the recognition or the money she deserved. This frustration became so extreme that she attempted suicide. Glenn Scott Wright, co-director at Victoria Miro later stated:

She was doubly an outsider – a woman, and a Japanese woman. She just wasn’t recognized in the way the white male artists were. In retrospect, it is clear she was a very important figure both in minimalism and in pop art. Her work provided a link between the two, which was unique.

Reflecting the times, Kusama’s performance art of the following years explored anti-war sentiments and ideas of and free love. Her outlandish Happenings often involved public nudity, with the stated intention of disassembling boundaries of identity, sexuality, and the body. In one, she wore an open letter to Richard Nixon offering to have sex with him if he would stop the Vietnam war. In Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead (1969), Kusama painted dots on participants’ naked bodies in an unauthorized performance in the fountain of the sculpture garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. During this event, eight performers removed their clothing, stepped nude into a fountain, and assumed poses mimicking nearby sculptures by Picasso, Giacometti, and Maillol.

In 1966, Kusama participated in the 33rd edition of the Venice Biennale. Her Narcissus Garden, comprised of hundreds of mirrored spheres in which the viewer’s face was infinitely multiplied, formed a kind of "kinetic carpet". As soon as the piece was installed, Kusama, dressed in a golden kimono, began selling each individual sphere for 1,200 lire (US$2), “your narcissism for sale” read the sign, a gesture that seems to forebode the artwork as selfie. The Biennale organizers put an end to the performance as they objected to “selling art like hot dogs or ice-cream cones”.

In 1968, Kusama staged New York’s first “homosexual wedding” at the Church of Self-obliteration. For this occasion, she created a wedding dress for two. She also opened naked painting studios and a gay social club called the Kusama 'Omophile Kompany (kok)’. She established the Kusama Fashion Company Ltd and began selling avantgarde polka dot fashion in the "Kusama Corner" at Bloomingdales, with holes to reveal breasts and buttocks. This infused her notoriety in America, but also in her native – and deeply conservative – Japan. Media coverage of her work shifted from serious critical attention to articles in tabloids where her name became synonymous with public nudity.

Her private life had also spiralled. Kusama had found love with Joseph Cornell, a reclusive genius of the outsider art world, who, then in his 50s, had always lived with his mother. This complicated their relationship, which was romantic but not sexual in nature. His death in 1972 deeply affected her and prompted her return to Japan.

In 1977, Kusama checked herself into a hospital for the mentally ill in Tokyo, where she would eventually take up permanent residence. Eventually, Kusama found a way to manage her mania, and direct it toward her creativity by continuing to produce artworks in a variety of media in her studio, only a short distance from the hospital. She also pursued a career in literature by publishing several novels, a poetry collection, and an autobiography. At this time, her painting style had evolved into vibrant acrylics on large-scale canvasses.

When she left New York, she was practically forgotten as an artist - until the late 1990s when several retrospectives revived international interest. Between 1998 and 1999 a major retrospective of her works was shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

A new breakthrough success for the artist was the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1993, a mesmerizing mirrored room filled with small pumpkin sculptures. Kusama then went on to produce a huge, yellow pumpkin sculpture covered with her signature pattern of black dots, which came to represent a kind of alternative self-portrait. 

Now, in her 90s, Kusama has finally received the much overdue fame she deserves and is recognized as one of Japan’s most prominent contemporary artists. In 2006, she received the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for painting. In 2011, Kusama collaborated with Marc Jacobs on a very successful fashion range with Louis Vuitton. Her work was the subject of a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in 2012, and a traveling exhibition attracted record crowds at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 2017. This show featured one of Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Rooms, an installation comprised of a mirrored room with hundreds of colored lights, works that soon became some of her most popular pieces. That year she also opened a museum dedicated solely to her work in Tokyo, near her studio and the psychiatric hospital where she lives.

Today, Kusama is one of the most renowned living female contemporary artists and her work continues to appeal to and mesmerize an extremely diverse, global audience. When once asked about her recent swift rise to fame the artist said:

I want to become more famous, even more famous.


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Sources: Wikipedia, The Guardian, Whitney Museum of American Art, Tate, Britannica, Ajeworld