Who Is Yayoi Kusama?

Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist known for her signature use of polka dots.

Aug 1, 2023By Maria Kruglyak, MA History of Art, BA History
who is yayoi kusama


Yayoi Kusama is probably the world’s most famous living female artist. Although a pioneer in the post-war New York art scene, she gained international fame as a 60-year-old woman. To this day, her work remains subversive and fascinating, often garnering criticism and admiration in equal measures. Let’s take a deep dive into Kusama’s story of childhood hallucinations reworked into art and activism.


Yayoi Kusama’s Early Life

yayoi kusama dots obsession 2012
Kusama with her piece Dots Obsession, 2012, via AWARE


Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan during a time of rising nationalism. She grew up on a seed farm that her family owned. It was here that she had her first hallucinations when everything around her began turning into a carpet filled with red polka dots.


When she was 10 years old, Kusama started putting her hallucinations down on paper in order to control them. Later, this pattern formed the core of her artistic practice and drove her political ideology of losing oneself in self-obliteration. Only by obliterating ourselves, she would argue, can we achieve peace and understanding. Another recurring hallucination was the polka-dot pumpkin she would recreate in her art.


Kusama’s parents were strict, conservative, and unhappily married. Ordered by her mother to spy on her father, she caught him in the midst of a love affair. This sparked her fear of men and sex which only became worse from the preventive disciplinary lectures her parents gave her. In an interview with Midori Yoshimoto, Kusama said that her phobia of men became increasingly severe, resulting in extreme fear of anything phallic. This fear created further hallucinations of phallic symbols instead of polka dots. Thirty years later, she brought these visions to life in her Accumulations series.


World War II and Art Education

yayoi kusama compulsion furniture accumulation 1964
Compulsion Furniture (Accumulation) by Yayoi Kusama, c. 1964, via Queensland Art Gallery

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In 1942, then 13-year-old Kusama was sent to a military factory to sew parachutes. This was typical at the time as school-aged girls from all over Japan were made to join the country’s military force during the Second World War. After the war, Kusama began to exhibit in group shows despite her family’s opposition to her choosing an artistic path. Nonetheless, she persisted and soon enrolled in a Nihonga, a Japanese-style modern art degree at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. She did not like the course, however. In several memoirs, Kusama refers to Japanese art education as limiting, out-of-date, and boring.


Feeling increasingly limited by the Japanese art world, Kusama’s desire to leave Japan grew even further. In 1955, she wrote a letter to Georgia O’Keeffe. The famous artist responded, encouraging Kusama to move to New York and show her artwork there. Two years later, Kusama was on a plane heading for Seattle.


Moving to New York City

yayoi kusama eternal love pumpkins 2016
All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins by Yayoi Kusama, 2016, via Dezeen


Kusama was only 27 when she came to New York after spending a brief time in Seattle. At the time, New York City was the hub of subversive and alternative art movements. Kusama soon fell in with its art crowd. Among her acquaintances were Andy Warhol, who she accused of stealing her ideas, and Donald Judd, the first critic that wrote positively about her work.


Kusama held her first exhibition in the United States at the artist-run Brata Gallery. At that point, she’d been in New York for a year and established galleries were still refusing to show any of her work. This show was a small breaking point, showing large-scale net paintings that brought conceptual abstraction to its extreme. In Kusama’s own words, the paintings were without beginning, end or centre. It was these works that Donald Judd wrote so positively about in his ART News review and New York finally became aware of Yayoi Kusama’s art.


A Pioneer of Installation Art

usama untitled 1966 reclining accumulation
Untitled (Kusama reclining on Accumulation no. 2) by Yayoi Kusama, c. 1966, via Twitter


By 1961, Yayoi Kusama’s net paintings slowly began moving into the three-dimensional sphere. Soft sculpture pieces became whole environments as she started working on her Accumulation series. In this work, the artist covered everyday objects with stuffed textiles shaped into phallic forms. Several exhibitions followed, ending with the 1964 solo exhibition titled Driving Image Show. It featured all of Kusama’s Accumulation pieces placed in one room, creating a claustrophobic environment. These artworks made Kusama a pioneer of installation art.


Kusama promoted the Driving Image Show exhibition with a series of photographs of herself, naked, covered in polka dots, lying on Compulsion Furniture sculptures. By placing herself as both the subject and the artist, Kusama rejected the role of women as just muses and she made a controversial statement by lying naked in a sea of phallic sculptures.


Performance Art and Political Activism

yayoi kusama narcissus garden 1966 venice biennale
Yayoi Kusama with Narcissus Garden, Venice Biennale, 1966, via Public Delivery.


In the late 1960s, Kusama’s work became increasingly political. She was at the forefront of artists criticising the Vietnam War, art institutions, and capitalism. Her works began to address free love, LGBT rights, and freedom which garnered widespread media attention. She seemed to be everywhere at once, hosting happenings in public and in her studio and continuing to crash parties, art events, and biennales. She even went to the Venice Biennale 1966 with Narcissus Garden.


Kusama’s first anti-war performance was Anatomic Explosions, which formed the groundwork for her self-obliteration ideology. Its manifesto read: Forget yourself and become one with nature. Lose yourself in the ever-advancing stream of eternity. Kusama will cover your body with polka dots. Another anti-war performance was the 1968 Nixon orgy hosted in her studio with an open message to the United States President to stop the Vietnam War.


kusama anti war self obliteration brooklyn bridge
Anti-War by Yayoi Kusama, 1968, Brooklyn Bridge, via ARTnews


These free love happenings were early works of performance art, seen best in the context of the 1960s hippie culture and fierce anti-war resistance all over the United States. This is when Kusama’s signature polka dots began to play an even bigger role as a tool of self-obliteration. Covering the bodies of the participants, the performances made an impression of a live-action installation filled with moving polka dots.


Returning to Japan

yayoi kusama happening 1970
Happening by Yayoi Kusama, 1970, New School for Social Research, via Phaidon


Kusama’s activism landed her TV and magazine cover appearances, but despite the media attention her works did not sell. Few galleries were willing to work with her, and she continued to accuse fellow artists of stealing her ideas. With Pearl Harbor fresh in everyone’s memory, Japanese people faced strong prejudice in the United States, Japanese women even more so.


In 1972, her friend and sometimes partner Joseph Cornell passed away from heart failure. A year later, seeing her mental health declining, Kusama decided she’d had enough of fighting for recognition in New York. She returned to Japan and checked herself into Seiwa Hospital, a mental institution in Tokyo, where she lives to this day. However, she never stopped making artworks. One of her key works from this time is a series of anti-war collages that combined news cut-outs with watercolors and pastels.


By the 1970s, Kusama’s name was quickly forgotten. In Europe, the situation was slightly different and her works were slowly beginning to sell. The real breakthrough, however, came twenty years later, when curator Alexandra Munroe tracked down the artist. Munroe’s search was driven by  curiosity about the artist that her Japanese friends in New York spoke so highly of but whose works were nowhere to be found.


Success and International Fame

yayoi kusama yellow tree mobiliar 2002
Kusama in Yellow Tree Mobiliar (2002), Aichi Triennale, 2010, via Gropius Bau


Alexandra Munroe was Kusama’s ticket to international fame. It was 1989 and Kusama had just turned 60 years old when Munroe curated the exhibition Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York. Suddenly, everything changed. In 1993, Kusama represented Japan at the Venice Biennale. Shortly after that, she was invited to organize a retrospective at MoMA called Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968. A year later, Kusama made one of the most famous pieces of public art: Yellow Pumpkin, a huge (6 x 8 feet) pumpkin on the art island of Naoshima in Japan.


By the 2000s, Kusama had become one of the world’s most famous contemporary artists. Polka dots, pumpkins, and infinity mirrors appeared all over the world. She collaborated with designers and published artist books, memoirs, and even an edition of Alice in Wonderland. The world was ready for Yayoi Kusama.


Yayoi Kusama and Louis Vuitton

yayoi kusama louis vuitton harrods 2023
Louis Vuitton x Yayoi Kusama collaboration, 2023, via Louis Vuitton


In the end, Yayoi Kusama’s art reached the international art world. The acclaim this pioneering artist deserved was finally there, but this didn’t come without criticism. Her memoirs continue to be criticized for over-capitalizing on personal traumas, just like her earlier photographs of herself were labeled as egotistical. The polka dot universe earned her the nickname Dotty, referring to her mental health issues, her hallucinations, and her OCD.


Kusama’s life and work continue to be the cause of much debate. Even her latest collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2023 has faced criticism. It’s not her first collaboration with Vuitton, nor is it her first stab at fashion. Kusama started her first fashion studio during the 1970s, making clothes with holes that leave the breasts, bottom, and genitalia naked.


The collaboration with Vuitton titled Creating Infinity isn’t quite as radical. It primarily features bags, clothes, and accessories covered in multi-colored polka dots. It also features a giant statue of Yayoi Kusama leaning over a polka-dotted Harrods. While some are amazed by the direction, others are critical. Has Kusama suddenly turned her back to her anti-capitalist activism and fallen for consumer culture? Or is this yet another infinity world parody inviting us to obliterate our everyday objects in a universe of Kusama polka dots? Perhaps it is this very public controversy that is the driving force behind Kusama’s continued fame and unique artistic direction.

Author Image

By Maria KruglyakMA History of Art, BA HistoryMaria is an art researcher, writer, and editor specializing in contemporary and modern art. Her research focuses on community and activist art practices, East Asian art histories, and the use of language concerning marginalized and cross-cultural art movements. She holds an MA in History of Art and Archeology from SOAS, University of London, and a BA in History specializing in Intellectual History from King’s College London. Maria is the founder and editor of Culturala, an independent art and cultural theory journal.