Yayoi Kusama, known for her all-encompassing installations and polka-dots, is one of the most well-known and beloved artists alive today. She is the most famous living female artist and she was mentored by the world’s most successful woman artist, Georgia O’Keeffe.
Her most well-known work is her set of ‘Infinity Rooms,’ which feature rooms with mirrored walls and ceilings, giving the viewer the sense that they are within infinity itself. Despite her age (born in 1929), Kusama continues to produce art today. Below are some highlights of her life and artistic career, spanning over nine decades.
She is simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by sex
When she was a child, Kusama’s father undertook several philanderous affairs. Her mother often sent her to spy on such affairs, exposing her to content far more mature than she was ready for. This lead to a deep aversion to sexuality, the male figure and especially the phallus. Kusama considers herself asexual, but also holds an interest in sex, stating that “My sexual obsession and fear of sex sit side by side in me.”
At the age of 13, she worked in a military factory
During World War II, Kusama was sent to work in a factory for the war effort. Her tasks included the construction of Japanese army parachutes, which she sewed and embroidered. She recalls this as a time of both literal and figurative darkness and enclosure, as she was confined within the factory when she could hear air-raid signals and war aircrafts flying overhead.
She initially studied traditional Japanese art in Kyoto
Kusama left her hometown of Matsumoto in 1948 to train in nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. The school’s curriculum and discipline were extremely rigid and strict, which Kusama found to be oppressive. Her time studying in Kyoto added to her disdain for control and valuing of freedom.
Her most iconic work is based on a childhood hallucination
Kusama’s famous polka-dots were inspired by a psychotic episode during her childhood, after which she painted them. She described the experience as such: “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.” The polka-dot has since become Kusama’s most defining and well-recognized motif, appearing in her art throughout her career.
She moved to Seattle and then New York
Before Kusama moved to New York City in 1957, she visited Seattle, where she had an international exhibition at the Zoe Dusanne Gallery. She then obtained a green card and moved to New York City later that year. In New York, Kasuma was praised as a forerunner of avant-garde artists, reaching extreme productivity. In 1963, she reached her mature period with her signature Mirror/Infinity room installation series, which has since continued to define her oeuvre.
She was friends with other famous and influential artists
Kusama famously sustained a decade-long platonic relationship with artist Joseph Cornell. Although he was 26 years older, the two shared a close connection, sharing numerous letters and phone calls with one another. She also originally moved to New York after exchanging letters with friend and mentor Georgia O’Keeffe. After moving to New York, Kusama lived in the same building with Donald Judd, and the two became close friends. She was also known for being good friends with Eva Hesse and Andy Warhol.
Kusama used her art as a form of protest during the Vietnam war
Living in New York during the Vietnam War, Kusama used her art as a rebellion to the political climate. She notoriously climbed the Brooklyn Bridge in a polka-dot leotard and staged several nude art expositions in protest. The first of these was Anatomic Explosion in 1968, featuring naked dancers who gave out anti-capitalistic messages in the New York Stock Exchange. She also commissioned the nude Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead in 1969 in the MoMA sculpture garden.
She admitted herself to a mental institution in 1977
After her art dealing business failed in 1973, Kusama suffered an intense mental breakdown. She subsequently admitted herself into Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in 1977, where she still presently lives. Her art studio remains within a short distance, and she is still artistically active.
International interest in her art was revived during the 1990s
After a period of relative isolation, Kusama reentered the international art world in the Venice Biennale in 1993. Her dotted pumpkin sculptures were very successful and became a staple of her work from the 1990s to now. It came to represent a kind of alter-ego. She has continued to create installation art into the 21st century and her work has been exhibited worldwide.
Her work is meant to convey the joint connection and desolation with infinity
Kusama’s work exemplifies the experience of humanity within infinity: we are dually connected to infinity and lost within it. She states that after seeing her first polka-dot hallucination, “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.”