top of page
Yayoi Kusama - Biography
(草間 彌生 or 弥生 Kusama Yayoi, born March 22, 1929)
is a Japanese artist and writer. Throughout her career she has worked in a wide variety of media, including painting, collage, soft sculpture, performance art, and environmental installations, most of which exhibit her thematic interest in psychedelic colors, repetition, and pattern. A precursor of the pop art, minimalist and feminist art movements, Kusama influenced, and exhibited alongside, her contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and George Segal.
In 1957, she moved to the United States, settling in New York City, where she produced a series of paintings influenced by abstract expressionism. Switching to sculpture and installation as her primary media, Kusama became a fixture of the New York avant-garde during the early 1960s when she became associated with the pop-art movement. Embracing the rise of the hippie counterculture of the late 1960s, Kusama came to public attention when she organized a series of happenings in which naked participants were painted with brightly colored polka dots. Although largely forgotten after departing the New York art scene in the early 1970s, Kusama is now acknowledged as one of the most important living artists to come out of Japan, and an important voice of the avant-garde.
Kusama's 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. Kusama is also a published novelist and poet, and has created notable work in film, and fashion design. Major retrospectives of her work have been held at the Museum of Modern Art (in 1998), the Whitney Museum and the Tate Modern (in 2012), and the Hirshhorn Museum (2017). In 2006, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women's Caucus for Art. In 2008, Christie's New York sold a work by her for $5.1 million, at the time the record price paid for a work by a living female artist. In 2015, the website Artsy named Kusama one of the Top 10 Living Artists of the year.
Early success in Japan: 1950–1956
By 1950, Kusama was depicting abstracted natural forms in watercolor, gouache, and oil, 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.
Of her 1954 painting Flower (D.S.P.S), Kusuma 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 realized 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 straining my ankle.
New York City: 1957–1972
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." 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 bobbed anime 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 convinced her own dealer Edith Herbert to purchase several works in order to help Kusama stave off financial hardship.
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 vigorous 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 1968, Kusama presided over the happening Homosexual Wedding at the Church of Self-obliteration in 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)
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 organisers 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 mechanisation 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 twenty-six years his junior - they would call each other daily, sketch each other, and he would send personalised collages to her. Their lengthy association would last until his death in 1972.
Return to Japan: 1973—1977[
Yayoi Kusama's Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees at the Singapore Biennale 2006 on Orchard Road, Singapore
In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan in ill health, where she began writing shockingly visceral and surrealistic novels, short stories, and poetry. She became an art dealer, but her business folded after several years and in 1977 Kusama checked herself into the Seiwa 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 Shinjuku, 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.
Narcissus Garden (2009), Instituto Inhotim, Brumadinho, Brazil
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 2017, a 50-year retrospective of her work opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. The exhibit featured six Infinity Mirror rooms, and is scheduled to travel to five museums in the US and Canada. On February 25, 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 is filled with over 60 pumpkin sculptures, is 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 over 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.
bottom of page