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Known for her polka-dot installation works and iconic ‘Infinity Rooms,’ Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is one of the biggest names in 20th Century art. Born in Matsumoto in 1929, Kusama is now one of the most well-known figures across Pop Art and Minimalist movements, and her experiments in performance, fashion, poetry and painting have been exhibited around the world. Notably, Kusama has been open about the way she uses art as a form of therapy. Following her rise to fame in the 1960s, Kusama has ensured her status as one of the most important contemporary artists from Japan in the 20th century.
Born in Matsumo in the Nagano region of Japan, Kusama’s parents were both seed farmers. Kusama had very little formal training, and only attended the Kyoto City Specialist School of Arts for a year in 1948, likely the result of her parents not being particularly supportive of her artistic pursuits.
She began working in a military factory at age 13 where she sewed parachutes for the Japanese army. Working here provided her with the realisation of the importance of personal freedom and creative licence, with escapism featuring as an important underlying element to her work.
As an artist, Kusama amassed considerable fame in Japan before her move to the United States, holding her first solo show in 1952. Upon her move to New York, her first commercial works were actually watercolours, such as The Woman (1953), which demonstrated her move towards American artistic influences such as abstraction. The work depicts a biomorphic form containing the dots that would then come to define the artist’s oeuvre.
By 1956 however, Kusama had expanded her painting from purely gouache, watercolours and oils on paper, to painting polka dots directly onto household surfaces, including the walls and the floors of rooms. This is when we also see her begin to paint directly onto naked assistants, which would also become a defining feature of her performance works in the following decade.
In terms of painting, Kusama became an immediate staple of the New York Avant Garde following her Infinity Net works that she began upon her arrival to the city. The obsessively repeated marks that define these paintings are considered a precursor to the minimalist movement, and in the 1960s her work was exhibited alongside big names such as Donald Judd, Andy Warhol and Clas Oldenburg.
The first of Kusama’s widespread internationally successful performance works was also in 1966, with Narcissus Garden. Unofficially displayed at the 33rd Biennale, the piece contained 1500 plastic reflective globes which, after being placed on the lawn outside the Italian pavilion, were then sold individually by the artist herself to visitors. Though the performance was shut down by Biennale officials, it has since been recommissioned and created in various international settings.
Perhaps Kusama’s most famous installations are her Infinity Rooms, with their hallucinatory, self-contained nature making them uniquely sensational and visually striking. In the 21st Century, they are the Instagrammer’s goldmine.
One of the most renowned of these rooms is Fireflies on the Water, (2002) which consists of a small, darkened, mirror-lined room that one traverses on a walkway over a water-covered floor. The effect is dazzling: space seems infinite and filled with countless suspended coloured lights. Reflections in both the mirrors and the surface of the water mean there is no beginning or end, top or bottom to the space, which, coupled with the viewer’s solitude creates a surreal yet calming experience.
Kusama started experiencing hallucinations during her childhood and these visions would usually involve fields of polka dots, which were to later become a defining motif in her work. She was also known for drawing pumpkins in her earlier childhood which again became an enduring subject. Describing these visions as “flashes of light, auras or dense fields of dots,” these visions provided an enduring influence over her artistic output.
The artist has also made no secret of the fact that art has played a significant role in her healing process in terms of mental health and in confronting her own personal phobias. A key example of this is found in her 1960s 'Soft Sculptures,' namely her Accumulation series. Here, Kusama transforms pieces of household furniture into sexualised objects covered in phallic forms, which she states are supposed to be confrontations of her sexual phobias and anxiety caused by exposure to her father’s philandering as a child.
Kusama’s now well-known style was not exactly the product of her original artistic training. Taught in the traditional Japanese style of Nihonga, she shifted towards abstraction and minimalism upon her move to the United States after becoming frustrated with its distinctively Japanese aesthetic. She also destroyed most of her early paintings upon this move.
Her soft sculptures of the 1960s led to critic Lucy Lippard dubbing her practice “Eccentric Abstraction,” and in works such as Sex Obsession Food Obsession Macaroni Infinity Nets Kusama, (1962) where Kusama inserts herself into her own installations, the artist’s association with the Feminist movement was solidified.
The product of a rather problematic and unhappy childhood, Kusama would hurry the work she created during her elementary years for fear that her disapproving parents would take it away. Her mother often forced Kusama to spy on her father’s extramarital affairs and was reportedly also physically abusive.
Following art school and after a stint living in Tokyo and France, Kusama moved to New York at age 27 where she lived with fellow artists Donald Judd and Eva Hesse. The 1960s were an extremely productive time for Kusama, and alongside the mass creation of paintings and installations, she was involved in multiple performance pieces and happenings during this period often in protest against the Vietnam War; one of which involved her writing an open letter, promising to have sex with president Nixon if he were to end it in 1967.
Kusama fell ill and moved back to Japan in the 1970s, and during this period wrote a vast number of surreal novels and poetry. This saw her recede from the spotlight of the art world during this decade.
She garnered a renewed following of her work in the 1980s as a result of a number of international solo and group exhibitions, including shows at New York’s MoMA and the LA County Museum of Art, and the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art in 1989. Kusama also represented Japan in the 1993 Venice Biennale, and since the 1990s has had a consistent string of internationally successful exhibitions of more recent sculptures. The black and yellow pumpkin motif, alongside the polkadots has particularly endured, and in the 21st century major designers such as Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton have collaborated with Kusama.
Kusama currently holds the record for the highest auction price for any living female artist, with her 1990 painting Pumpkin selling for £170,000 at Phillips auction house alongside a sizable £400,000 at Christies for her Infinity Nets from 2006. The most expensive Kusama work ever sold was her Interminable Net no.4, (1959) which brought in over $6.7million at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2019.
Image © Sotheby's / Interminable Net #4 © Yayoi Kusama 1959
Created during Kusama’s time in New York, Interminable Net #4 belongs to a body of work known as the Infinity Net paintings. Kusama attributes the inspiration for these artworks to a view she once had from an aeroplane window, where she ‘saw ever expanding nets on the ocean’. Indeed the layered, painterly effect created across the surface of this canvas is evocative of ripples across water. Interminable Net #4 sold for 62,433,000 HKD (£6,056,250) at Sotheby's Hong Kong in April 2019, among the highest values ever achieved for a Kusama artwork on the secondary market.
Image © Christie's / Pumpkin (LPASG) © Yayoi Kusama 2013
Kusama’s 2013 work Pumpkin (LPASG) shows a bright yellow gourd covered in black polka dots on a dark coloured, fractured background. The dots are a trademark motif of Kusama’s appearing throughout her work on naked bodies, across canvases and even in the artist’s own clothing and hair; here they both map out the contours of the three dimensional object and ‘obliterate’ its form, making it not one object but the sum of infinite elements. In December 2021 this artwork sold for 62,540,00 HKD (£6,013,295) at Christie's Hong Kong, one of the highest values achieved by any of Kusama’s works on the secondary market.
Image © Christie's / Pumpkin © Yayoi Kusama 2017
Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin sculpture stands at 180cm high by 180cm wide. Its yellow surface is covered in the artist’s trademark polkadots, expanding and contracting around the curves of the giant vegetable’s form. Kusama uses polkadots to ‘obliterate’ form and space, and when used on this scale the sculpture becomes an all consuming, immersive experience for the viewer.
Signed and dated ‘Yayoi Kusama 2017’ within one of the black polkadots, this artwork achieved 55,450,000 HKD (£5,347,542) at Christie's Hong Kong in 2021, one of the highest prices for any of of Kusama’s artworks at auction.
Image © Sotheby's / Pumpkin (Twpot) © Yayoi Kusama 2010