Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929)
Considered one of the most important 20th century Japanese artists, and a major voice of the avant-garde, Yayoi Kusama was born March 22, 1929 in Matsumoto, Nagano. Still creatively vital at 89, Kusama has worked in several mediums across multiple movements during her long career. From her early staged “Happenings” in the 1960s, Kusama branched out to work in film, fashion and literature, but it’s her installations and sculpture that have earned her the greatest recognition.
From the start, raised on her parents’ flower farm, Kusama felt at odds with her affluent, conservative upbringing. She has candidly explained that as a child she suffered hallucinations and has spent her life trying to treat these psychic wounds through art. Additionally, an emphatic resistance to the male-dominated culture of Japan helped drive her from her homeland to the freedom of New York. From 1958 to 1973, Yayoi Kusama was an integral member of New York City’s avant-garde scene. Heavily influenced by Abstract Expressionism and the hippie culture of the 1960s, her work was exhibited alongside artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns.
Like Georgia O’Keeffe, one of her notable inspirations, Kusama carefully choreographed her public persona, appearing in anime wigs and expressing herself as an eccentric, typically photographed with her new work. Her “Happenings” of the late ‘60s, which at the time the New York Times dubbed as “part protest, part circus,” featured nude models painted with polka dots, a major motif that runs through her work to the present day.
The importance of polka dots in Kusama’s life and art began at around age ten, against the backdrop of World War II, when she says she began to experience hallucinations. The young Yayoi saw inanimate objects and patterns come to life and engulf her, an experience she has described as “self-obliteration.” In Kusama’s artwork, dots represent her life, “a single particle among billions,” as she wrote in her autobiography, Infinity Net.
Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Net” paintings and “Mirror Rooms” (which create the illusion of a never-ending space) play with this enveloping design concept, using the individual elements of dots and mirrors to create a larger cohesive whole. The artist creates a sense of infinite space for the audience through a play of reflections among the round shapes and the surrounding mirrors. The “Infinity Net” paintings allude to the artist’s hallucinations of being overcome by endless netting. The paintings’ meticulously rendered and repetitive forms are individually indiscernible when viewed at a distance, similar to the effect of an Impressionist painting, inviting the viewer to come closer for a private, personal experience.
In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan in a state of psychological crisis which fueled her tremendous artistic output. She began writing shockingly surrealistic novels, short stories and plays. She dabbled in art dealership. In 1977, she checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo (where she has taken up permanent residence; her studio is built nearby). Continually coping with mental health issues, Kusama told ArtReview in a 2007 interview, “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself years ago.”
In 1993, Yayoi Kusama participated in the Japanese Pavilion of the Venice Biennale to much critical acclaim, and since then she has exhibited internationally to expanding crowds of viewers. Retrospectives of her work have been held at arts institutions worldwide, including The Museum of Modern Art (1998), the Whitney Museum and the Tate Modern (2012), and the Hirshhorn Museum (2017). She earned the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art in 2006. In 2008, Christie’s New York sold a Kusama work for $5.1 million – setting a record at the time for highest price ever paid for a work by a living female artist.
Yayoi Kusama has remained artistically active into her ninth decade of life. In 2012, Kusama was commissioned by Mark Jacobs to design a collection of dot-patterned clothes and accessories for Louis Vuitton. The collection drew comparisons to Takashi Murakami, who received a similar contract in 2008, and whose brand of decorative Pop art owes a clear debt to Ms. Kusama. In 2015, the online resource artsy named Kusama one of the “Top 10 Living Artists.” In 2017 the Yayoi Kusama Museum was opened in Tokyo to great fanfare: according to the museum’s website, tickets are selling out months in advance.
Today, Kusama’s artworks and room installations are more popular than ever, providing Instagram-able moments for art lovers around the world.