Yayoi Kusama (草間 彌生)
22 March 1929
Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan
Yayoi Kusama (草間 彌生, Kusama Yayoi, born 22 March 1929) is a Japanese contemporary artist who works primarily in sculpture and installation, but is also active in painting, performance, film, fashion, poetry, fiction, and other arts. Her work is based in conceptual art and shows some attributes of feminism, minimalism, surrealism, Art Brut, pop art, and abstract expressionism, and is infused with autobiographical, psychological, and sexual content. She has been acknowledged as one of the most important living artists to come out of Japan.
Kusama was raised in Matsumoto, and trained at the Kyoto City University of Arts in a traditional Japanese painting style called nihonga. Kusama was inspired, however, by American Abstract impressionism. She moved to New York City in 1958 and was a part of the New York avant-garde scene throughout the 1960s, especially in the pop-art movement. Embracing the rise of the hippie counterculture of the late 1960s, she came to public attention when she organized a series of happenings in which naked participants were painted with brightly coloured polka dots. Since the 1970s, Kusama has continued to create art, most notably installations in various museums around the world.
Kusama has been open about her mental health. She says that art has become her way to express her mental problems. She reported in the interview she did with Infinity Net "I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieved my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live."
Yayoi Kusama was born on 22 March 1929 in Matsumoto, Nagano. Born into a family of merchants who owned a plant nursery and seed farm, Kusama began drawing pictures of pumpkins in elementary school and created artwork she saw from hallucinations, works of which would later define her career. Her mother was not supportive of her creative endeavors; Kusama would rush to finish her art because her mother would take it away to discourage her. Her mother was also apparently physically abusive, and Kusama remembers her father as "the type who would play around, who would womanize a lot". The artist says that her mother would often send her to spy on her father's extramarital affairs, which instilled within her a lifelong contempt for sexuality, particularly the male's lower body and the phallus: "I don't like sex. I had an obsession with sex. When I was a child, my father had lovers and I experienced seeing him. My mother sent me to spy on him. I didn't want to have sex with anyone for years [...] The sexual obsession and fear of sex sit side by side in me." Her traumatic childhood, including her fantastic visions, can be said to be the origin of her artistic style.
When she was ten years old, she began to experience vivid hallucinations which she has described as "flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots". These hallucinations also included flowers that spoke to Kusama, and patterns in fabric that she stared at coming to life, multiplying, and engulfing or expunging her, a process which she has carried into her artistic career and which she calls "self-obliteration". Kusama's art became her escape from her family and her own mind when she began to have hallucinations. She was reportedly fascinated by the smooth white stones covering the bed of the river near her family home, which she cites as another of the seminal influences behind her lasting fixation on dots.
When Kusama was 13, she was sent to work in a military factory where she was tasked with sewing and fabricating parachutes for the Japanese army, then embroiled in World War II. Discussing her time in the factory, she says that she spent her adolescence "in closed darkness" although she could always hear the air-raid alerts going off and see American B-29s flying overhead in broad daylight. Her childhood was greatly influenced by the events of the war, and she claims that it was during this period that she began to value notions of personal and creative freedom.
She went on to study Nihonga painting at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1948. Frustrated with this distinctly Japanese style, she became interested in the European and American avant-garde, staging several solo exhibitions of her paintings in Matsumoto and Tokyo in the 1950s.
By 1950, Kusama was depicting abstract natural forms in watercolor, gouache, and oil paint, primarily on paper. She began covering surfaces—walls, floors, canvases, and later, household objects, and naked assistants—with the polka dots that would become a trademark of her work.
The vast fields of polka dots, or "infinity nets", as she called them, were taken directly from her hallucinations. The earliest recorded work in which she incorporated these dots was a drawing in 1939 at age 10, in which the image of a Japanese woman in a kimono, presumed to be the artist's mother, is covered and obliterated by spots. Her first series of large-scale, sometimes more than 30 ft-long canvas paintings, Infinity Nets, were entirely covered in a sequence of nets and dots that alluded to hallucinatory visions.
On her 1954 painting Flower (D.S.P.S) Kusama has said:
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. As I realised it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs spraining my ankle.
After living in Tokyo and France, Kusama left Japan at the age of 27 for the United States. She has stated that she began to consider Japanese society "too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women". Before leaving Japan to the United States, she destroyed many of her early works.In 1957, she moved to Seattle, where she had an exhibition of paintings at the Zoe Dusanne Gallery. She stayed there for a year before moving on to New York City, following correspondence with Georgia O'Keeffe in which she professed an interest in joining the limelight of the city, and sought O'Keeffe's advice. During her time in the US, she quickly established her reputation as a leader in the avant-garde movement and received praise for her work from the anarchist art critic Herbert Read.
In 1961 she moved her studio into the same building as Donald Judd and sculptor Eva Hesse; Hesse became a close friend. In the early 1960s Kusama began to cover items such as ladders, shoes and chairs with white phallic protrusions. Despite the micromanaged intricacy of the drawings, she turned them out fast and in bulk, establishing a rhythm of productivity which she still maintains. She established other habits too, like having herself routinely photographed with new work and regularly appearing in public wearing her signature bob wigs and colorful, avant-garde fashions.
Since 1963, Kusama has continued her series of Mirror/Infinity rooms. In these complex infinity mirror installations, purpose-built rooms lined with mirrored glass contain scores of neon-colored balls, hanging at various heights above the viewer. Standing inside on a small platform, an observer sees light repeatedly reflected off the mirrored surfaces to create the illusion of a never-ending space.
During the following years, Kusama was enormously productive, and by 1966 she was experimenting with room-size, freestanding installations that incorporated mirrors, lights, and piped-in music. She counted Judd and Joseph Cornell among her friends and supporters. However, she did not profit financially from her work. Around this time, Kusama was hospitalized regularly from overwork, and O'Keeffe persuaded her own dealer Edith Herbert to purchase several works to help Kusama stave off financial hardship. Many male artists copied her creativity, which made the men famous, but not Kusama. Thus, she was not able to make the money she believed she deserved. This frustration became so extreme that she attempted suicide.
In the 1960s, Kusama organized outlandish happenings in conspicuous spots like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, often involving nudity and designed to protest the Vietnam War. In one, she wrote an open letter to Richard Nixon offering to have sex with him if he would stop the Vietnam war. Between 1967 and 1969 she concentrated on performances held with the maximum publicity, usually involving Kusama painting polka dots on her naked performers, as in the Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at the MoMA (1969), which took place at the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art. During the unannounced event, eight performers under Kusama's direction removed their clothing, stepped nude into a fountain, and assumed poses mimicking the nearby sculptures by Picasso, Giacometti, and Maillol.
In 1967, Jud Yalkut made a film of Kusama titled Kusama’s Self-Obliteration.
In 1968, Kusama presided over the happening Homosexual Wedding at the Church of Self-obliteration at 33 Walker Street in New York and performed alongside Fleetwood Mac and Country Joe and the Fish at the Fillmore East in New York City. She opened naked painting studios and a gay social club called the Kusama 'Omophile Kompany (kok). The nudity present in Kusama's art and art protests was severely shameful for her family. This made her feel alone, and she attempted suicide again.
In 1966, Kusama first participated in the Venice Biennale for its 33rd edition. Her Narcissus Garden comprised hundreds of mirrored spheres outdoors in what she called a "kinetic carpet". As soon as the piece was installed on a lawn outside the Italian pavilion, Kusama, dressed in a golden kimono, began selling each individual sphere for 1,200 lire (US$2), until the Biennale organizers put an end to her enterprise. Narcissus Garden was as much about the promotion of the artist through the media as it was an opportunity to offer a critique of the mechanization and commodification of the art market.
During her time in New York, Kusama had a brief relationship with artist Donald Judd. She then began a passionate, but platonic, relationship with the surrealist artist Joseph Cornell. She was 26 years his junior – they would call each other daily, sketch each other, and he would send personalized collages to her. Their lengthy association would last until his death in 1972.
In 1973, Kusama returned in ill health to Japan, where she began writing shockingly visceral and surrealistic novels, short stories, and poetry. In 1977, Kusama checked herself into a hospital for the mentally ill, where she eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital since, by choice. Her studio, where she has continued to produce work since the mid-1970s, is a short distance from the hospital in Tokyo. Kusama is often quoted as saying: "If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago."
From this base, she has continued to produce artworks in a variety of media, as well as launching a literary career by publishing several novels, a poetry collection, and an autobiography. Her painting style shifted to high-colored acrylics on canvas, on an amped-up scale.
Her organically abstract paintings of one or two colors (the Infinity Nets series), which she began upon arriving in New York, garnered comparisons to the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. When she left New York she was practically forgotten as an artist until the late 1980s and 1990s, when a number of retrospectives revived international interest. Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective was the first critical survey of Yayoi Kusama presented at the Center for International Contemporary Arts (CICA) in New York in 1989, and was organized by Alexandra Munroe.
Following the success of the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1993, a dazzling mirrored room filled with small pumpkin sculptures in which she resided in color-coordinated magician's attire, Kusama went on to produce a huge, yellow pumpkin sculpture covered with an optical pattern of black spots. The pumpkin came to represent for her a kind of alter-ego or self-portrait. Kusama's later installation I'm Here, but Nothing (2000–2008) is a simply furnished room consisting of table and chairs, place settings and bottles, armchairs and rugs, however its walls are tattooed with hundreds of fluorescent polka dots glowing in the UV light. The result is an endless infinite space where the self and everything in the room is obliterated.
The multi-part floating work Guidepost to the New Space, a series of rounded "humps" in fire-engine red with white polka dots, was displayed in Pandanus Lake. Perhaps one of Kusama's most notorious works, various versions of Narcissus Garden have been presented worldwide venues including Le Consortium, Dijon, 2000; Kunstverein Braunschweig, 2003; as part of the Whitney Biennial in Central Park, New York in 2004; and at the Jardin de Tuileries in Paris, 2010.
In her ninth decade, Kusama has continued to work as an artist. She has harkened back to earlier work by returning to drawing and painting; her work remained innovative and multi-disciplinary, and a 2012 exhibition displayed multiple acrylic-on-canvas works. Also featured was an exploration of infinite space in her Infinity Mirror rooms. These typically involve a cube-shaped room lined in mirrors, with water on the floor and flickering lights; these features suggest a pattern of life and death.
In 2015-2016 the first retrospective exhibition in Scandinavia, curated by Marie Laurberg, travelled to four major museums in the region, opening at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark and continuing to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter Museum, Norway, Moderna Museet in Sweden, and Helsinki Art Museum in Finland. This major show contained more than 100 objects and large scale mirror room installations. It presented several early works that had not been shown to the public since they were first created, including a presentation of Kusama's experimental fashion design from the 1960s.
In 2017, a 50-year retrospective of her work opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. The exhibit featured six Infinity Mirror rooms, and was scheduled to travel to five museums in the US and Canada.
On 25 February 2017, Kusama's All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins exhibit, one of the six components to her Infinity Mirror rooms at the Hirshhorn Museum, was temporarily closed for three days following damage to one of the exhibit's glowing pumpkin sculptures. The room, which measures 13 square feet (1.2 m2) and was filled with over 60 pumpkin sculptures, was one of the museum's most popular attractions ever. Allison Peck, a spokeswoman for the Hirshhorn, said in an interview that the museum "has never had a show with that kind of visitor demand", with the room averaging more than 8,000 visitors between its opening and the date of its temporary closing. While there were conflicting media reports about the cost of the damaged sculpture and how exactly it was broken, Allison Peck stated that "there is no intrinsic value to the individual piece. It is a manufactured component to a larger piece." The exhibit was reconfigured to make up for the missing sculpture, and a new one was to be produced for the exhibit by Kusama. The Infinity Mirrors exhibit became a sensation among art critics as well as on social media. Museum visitors shared 34,000 images of the exhibition to their Instagram accounts, and social media posts using the hashtag #InfiniteKusama garnered 330 million impressions, as reported by the Smithsonian the day after the exhibit's closing. The works provided the perfect setting for Instagram-able selfies which inadvertently added to the performative nature of the works.
Also in 2017, the Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in Tokyo, featuring her works.
On 9 November 2019, Kusama's Everyday I Pray For Love exhibit was shown at David Zwirner Gallery until 14 December 2019. This exhibition incorporated sculptures and paintings. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue published by David Zwirner books containing texts and poems from the artist. This exhibition also included the debut of her INFINITY MIRRORED ROOM - DANCING LIGHTS THAT FLEW UP TO THE UNIVERSE, 2019.
In January 2020, the Hirshhorn announced it would debut new Kusama acquisitions, including two Infinity Mirror Rooms, at a forthcoming exhibition called One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection. The name of the exhibit is derived from an open letter Kusama wrote to then-President Richard Nixon in 1968, writing: "let’s forget ourselves, dearest Richard, and become one with the absolute, all together in the altogether."
Curator Mika Yoshitake has stated that Kusama's works on display are meant to immerse the whole person into her accumulations, obsessions, and repetitions. These infinite, repetitive works were originally meant to eliminate Kusama's intrusive thoughts, but she now shares it with the world. Claire Voon has described one of Kusama's mirror exhibits as being able to "transport you to quiet cosmos, to a lonely labyrinth of pulsing light, or to what could be the enveloping innards of a leviathan with the measles".
Creating these feelings amongst audiences was intentional. These experiences seem to be unique to her work because Kusama wanted others to sympathise with her in her troubled life. Bedatri D. Choudhury has described how Kusama's lack of feeling in control throughout her life made her, either consciously or subconsciously, want to control how others perceive time and space when entering her exhibits. This statement seems to imply that without her trauma, Kusama would not have created these works as well or perhaps not at all. Art had become a coping mechanism for Kusama.
In Yayoi Kusama's Walking Piece (1966), a performance that was documented in a series of eighteen color slides, Kusama walked along the streets of New York City in a traditional Japanese kimono while holding a parasol. The kimono suggested traditional roles for women in Japanese custom. The parasol, however, was made to look inauthentic, as it was actually a black umbrella, painted white on the exterior and decorated with fake flowers. Kusama walked down unoccupied streets in an unknown quest. She then turned and cried without reason, and eventually walked away and vanished from view.
This performance, through the association of the kimono, involved the stereotypes that Asian-American women continued to face. However, as an avant-garde artist living in New York, her situation altered the context of the dress, creating a cross-cultural amalgamation. Kusama was able to highlight the stereotype in which her white American audience categorized her, by showing the absurdity of culturally categorizing people in the world's largest melting pot.
In 1968, Kusama and Jud Yalkut's collaborative work Kusama's Self-Obliteration won a prize at the Fourth International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium and the Second Maryland Film Festival and the second prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. The 1967 experimental film, which Kusama produced and starred in, depicted Kusama painting polka dots on everything around her including bodies.
In 1991, Kusama starred in the film Tokyo Decadence, written and directed by Ryu Murakami, and in 1993, she collaborated with British musician Peter Gabriel on an installation in Yokohama.
In 1968, Kusama established Kusama Fashion Company Ltd, and began selling avantgarde fashion in the "Kusama Corner" at Bloomingdales. In 2009, Kusama designed a handbag-shaped cell phone entitled Handbag for Space Travel, My Doggie Ring-Ring, a pink dotted phone in accompanying dog-shaped holder, and a red and white dotted phone inside a mirrored, dotted box dubbed Dots Obsession, Full Happiness With Dots, for Japanese mobile communication giant KDDI Corporation's "iida" brand. Each phone was limited to 1,000 pieces.
In 2011, Kusama created artwork for six limited-edition lipglosses from Lancôme. That same year, she worked with Marc Jacobs (who visited her studio in Japan in 2006) on a line of Louis Vuitton products, including leather goods, ready-to-wear, accessories, shoes, watches, and jewelry. The products became available in 2012 at a SoHo pop-up shop, which was decorated with Kusama's trademark tentacle-like protrusions and polka-dots. Eventually, six other pop-up shops were opened around the world. When asked about her collaboration with Marc Jacobs, Kusama replied that "his sincere attitude toward art" is the same as her own.
In 1977, Kusama published a book of poems and paintings entitled 7. One year later, her first novel Manhattan Suicide Addict appeared. Between 1983 and 1990, she finished the novels The Hustler's Grotto of Christopher Street (1983), The Burning of St Mark's Church (1985), Between Heaven and Earth (1988), Woodstock Phallus Cutter (1988), Aching Chandelier (1989), Double Suicide at Sakuragazuka (1989), and Angels in Cape Cod (1990), alongside several issues of the magazine S&M Sniper in collaboration with photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Her most recent writing endeavor includes her autobiography Infinity Net published in 2003 that depicts her life from growing up in Japan, her departure to the United States, and her return to her home country, where she now resides. Infinity Net also includes some of the artist's poetry and photos of her exhibitions.
To date, Kusama has completed several major outdoor sculptural commissions, mostly in the form of brightly hued monstrous plants and flowers, for public and private institutions including Pumpkin (1994) for the Fukuoka Municipal Museum of Art; The Visionary Flowers (2002) for the Matsumoto City Museum of Art; Tsumari in Bloom (2003) for Matsudai Station, Niigata; Tulipes de Shangri-La (2003) for Euralille in Lille, France; Pumpkin (2006) at Bunka-mura on Benesse Island of Naoshima; Hello, Anyang with Love (2007) for Pyeonghwa Park (now referred as World Cup Park), Anyang; and The Hymn of Life: Tulips (2007) for the Beverly Gardens Park in Los Angeles. In 1998, she realized a mural for the hallway of the Gare do Oriente subway station in Lisbon. Alongside these monumental works, she has produced smaller scale outdoor pieces including Key-Chan and Ryu-Chan, a pair of dotted dogs. All the outdoor works are cast in highly durable fiberglass-reinforced plastic, then painted in urethane to glossy perfection.
In 2010, Kusama designed a Town Sneaker styled bus, which she titled Mizutama Ranbu (Wild Polka Dot Dance) and whose route travels through her hometown of Matsumoto. In 2011, she was commissioned to design the front cover of millions of pocket London Underground maps; the result is entitled Polka Dots Festival in London (2011). Coinciding with an exhibition of the artist's work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2012, a 120-foot (37 m) reproduction of Kusama's painting Yellow Trees (1994) covered a condominium building under construction in New York's Meatpacking District. That same year, Kusama conceived her floor installation Thousands of Eyes as a commission for the new Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law, Brisbane.
In 1959, Kusama had her first solo exhibition in New York at the Brata Gallery, an artist's co-op. She showed a series of white net paintings which were enthusiastically reviewed by Donald Judd (both Judd and Frank Stella then acquired paintings from the show). Kusama has since exhibited work with Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns, among others. Exhibiting alongside European artists including Lucio Fontana, Pol Bury, Otto Piene, and Gunther Uecker, in 1962 she was the only female artist to take part in the widely acclaimed Nul (Zero) international group exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
Kusama's work is in the collections of museums throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix; Tate Modern, London; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, UT; and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
In 2017, a fifty-year retrospective of Kusama's work opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. That same year, the Yayoi Kusama Museum was inaugurated in Tokyo. Other major retrospectives of her work have been held at the Museum of Modern Art (1998), the Whitney Museum (2012), and the Tate Modern (2012). In 2015, the website Artsy named Kusama one of its top 10 living artists of the year.
Kusama has received many awards, including the Asahi Prize (2001); Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2003); the National Lifetime Achievement Award from the Order of the Rising Sun (2006); and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women's Caucus for Art. In October 2006, Kusama became the first Japanese woman to receive the Praemium Imperiale, one of Japan's highest honors for internationally recognized artists. She also received the Person of Cultural Merit (2009) and Ango awards (2014). In 2014, Kusama was ranked the most popular artist of the year after a record-breaking number of visitors flooded her Latin American tour, Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Obsession. Venues from Buenos Aires to Mexico City received more than 8,500 visitors each day.
The octogenarian also gained media attention for partnering with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to make her 2017 Infinity Mirror rooms accessible to visitors with disabilities or mobility issues; in a new initiative among art museums, the venue mapped out the six individual rooms and provided handicapped individuals visiting the exhibition access to a complete 360-degree virtual reality headset that allowed them to experience every aspect of the rooms, as if they were actually walking through them.
Kusama's work has performed strongly at auction: top prices for her work are for paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s. As of 2012, her work has the highest turnover of any living woman artist. In November 2008, Christie's New York sold a 1959 white Infinity Net painting formerly owned by Donald Judd, No. 2, for US$5.1 million, then a record for a living female artist. In comparison, the highest price for a sculpture from her New York years is £72,500 (US$147,687), fetched by the 1965 wool, pasta, paint and hanger assemblage Golden Macaroni Jacket at Sotheby's London in October 2007. A 2006 acrylic on fiberglass-reinforced plastic pumpkin earned $264,000, the top price for one of her sculptures, also at Sotheby's in 2007 Her Flame of Life – Dedicated to Tu-Fu (Du-Fu) sold for US$960,000 at Art Basel/Hong Kong in May 2013, the highest price paid at the show. Kusama became the most expensive living female artist at auction when White No. 28 (1960) from her signature Infinity Nets series sold for $7.1 million at a 2014 Christie's auction.