Arts and Entertainment

Yayoi Kusama: Great Art Explained

At the age of 10 Yayoi Kusama had her first 
hallucination which she described as flashes   of light auras or dense fields of dots. The dots 
would come to life and consume her and she would   find herself obliterated. Polka dots have been 
a lifelong obsession for her. For someone whose   work has crossed from art to fashion and from 
filmmaking to performance art, her continuing   exploration of the polka dot has remained the one 
consistent motif. So this is not a film about a   specific artwork. This is a film about the simple 
polka dot. A dot that has obsessed Kusama for   nine decades, from her struggle for recognition 
to her later years as an art world sensation. Yayoi Kusama was born in a rural provincial 
town in Japan to a wealthy family. That same   year the stock markets crashed and civil unrest 
in Japan was followed by intense militarism.   In 1941 Japan’s entry into the war found 
the 12-year old Kusama sewing military   parachutes in textile factories. A skill she 
would later utilize for her soft sculptures.   Her mother was extremely abusive and had planned 
an arranged marriage for Kusama and a life as an   obedient housewife. In fact she did everything 
in her power to stop Kusama becoming an artist…   or having any career at all, which she 
said would bring shame on the family.   But art was Kusama’s lifeline, it helped relieve 
her hallucinations, depression and anxiety which   she still suffers from today. Kusama has described 
how at times she feels her whole body functions   breaking down, with feelings of becoming “absorbed by”
or “dissolved” within her surrounding environment.  Art is a way for her to take back control, a way to 
fight her demons. Although she was starting to get   some attention in Japan, it was a small art scene 
then, and she was a woman living under a stifling   patriarchal society. Kusama needed to escape. 
A chance discovery in a second-hand bookshop   would change her life. American artist Georgia 
O’Keeffe was one of the most famous artists in   the world, and her works were in every major museum 
in the US, but she was pretty much unknown in Japan.   Yet somehow – miraculously – a book of her paintings 
found its way into the young Kusama’s hands in   rural Japan. It was a revelation! Kusama 
was stunned by O’Keeffe’s paintings   and would explore similar themes later, but she 
was also attracted to her achievements as a woman.   Kusama wrote to her in the US and sent her some 
drawings. In an incredible show of generosity   O’Keefe not only took the time to write back but 
then sent letters of introduction to important   people in the New York art world. In July 1956 
Kusama destroyed 2,000 old work she had created.   America would be a new beginning for the artist 
and she wouldn’t return to japan until 1973. Kusama arrived in New York with 
a suitcase full of drawings,   a determination to grab everything going in 
the city, and (in her own words) to become a star.   The first thing she did was go up to the top 
of the Empire State building and look down   at the city she planned to conquer. We mustn’t 
underestimate what a difficult task it was for   a young Japanese woman with no support, speaking 
little to no English to up sticks and moved to   New York from a small Japanese town – in the 
1950s! This required monumental determination.   She went from a wealthy life in Japan to living 
in abject poverty in New York surviving on a   diet of potatoes, onions, and black coffee. No 
wonder she often describes how she craved fame.   It is something artists rarely discuss but 
for Kusama it would be her driving force. The field of dots she experienced in her 
hallucinations developed into a visual device – the   polka dot. This image of her mother, by ten-year-old 
Kusama was the first time she would use the dot,  and it would become her “trademark”. We could 
make a comparison with Roy Liechtenstein   who was also using dots or Bridget Riley, who was 
exploring Op-Art, but for Kusama, dots came directly   from within. For her, dots were a form of healing, 
and repetition of them was a way to calm her mind,   and overcome her fear and anxiety. They 
were (as she said) a way to “self-obliterate”,   a way to disappear into her artwork. In New York, 
Kusama began applying the polka dot to animals,   paper, canvas, walls and naked bodies. From the 
beginning, Kusama played with her persona. She was a self-styled “outsider” in America, a female 
artist in an aggressively male dominated scene,   a Japanese person in the overwhelmingly white 
art scene, and a victim of neurosis and depression.  She refused to be categorized or put in a box, 
continuously innovating and reinventing herself.   As a critic once said: “Miss Kusama is an 
artist who fits in everywhere but stands alone” New York at the time was under the spell of 
Abstract Expressionism but Kusama’s first show   in New York consisted of what she called “Infinity 
net paintings”, starting the obsessive repetitive   work that would define her career. Kusama rejected 
the broad dramatic marks of Abstract Expressionism   and painted thousands of tiny semi-circles of 
paint repeated across huge canvases. Invisible   when seen at a distance, but up close form an 
undulating net with no beginning, middle or   end. Her work was calm and collected, in contrast 
to the emotional mark making of Jackson Pollock.   The dots and “nets” could be 
traced back to her early work,   but here they were huge – a physical 
embodiment of “self-obliteration”.   Her work was so groundbreaking, it anticipated 
the emerging Minimalist movement, and we can see   it as a bridge between Abstract Expressionism 
and Minimalism. It was a great start for Kusama.   Less than a year in the city, and her first solo 
show in 1959 created an immediate buzz. Kusama, always a workaholic spent every waking hour 
making net paintings, sometimes working through   the night, more and more of them, until her 
studio was full. Not surprisingly, she suffered   extreme hallucinations, and was rushed to Bellevue 
hospital for her obsessive compulsive neurosis. Installation is a term used to describe art 
that is often designed for a specific place   or for a temporary period of time, and Kusama 
would become a leading exponent of this art form.  In 1962, she began making soft sculpture phalluses 
out of cotton stuffed canvas. This was radical work   for a female artist, and these sculptures made over 
60 years ago still have the power to shock today,   because of the juxtaposition of humor and 
sexuality. Her first “official” installation was   in 1963. A rowboat which she covered in her soft 
phallic shapes, presented in a space where the   walls were covered in wallpaper reproductions 
of the same sculpture. It was totally unique,   and no one had seen anything like it in 
New York. Phalluses would become another   theme of Kusama who said that as a child she 
was forced by her mother to spy on her father, when she caught him making love to his 
mistress, it caused a lifelong aversion to sex One thing the art world rarely discusses is 
plagiarism between artists. That is unless   you are Yayoi Kusama, who in an unusual move, 
specifically addressed how her work was “co-opted”   by male artists, who then showed 
it in more established galleries.   Kusama would later say, it wasn’t the idea of 
being ripped off that bothered her but rather   the lack of acknowledgement. Claes Oldenburg 
was working with hard materials in the 1960s,   but just months after Kusama’s exhibition of 
soft sculptural works, he put on a show filled   with soft sculptures. It launched Oldenburg’s 
international career. Kusama’s innovation in the   art form received little recognition. Then there 
was Andy Warhol, a close friend of Kusama – or so   she thought. In an interview she said: “Andy Warhol 
came to the show and admired my wallpaper images.   He said “Wow. fantastic Yayoi, I like this so much” 
and then in 1966 he went on to cover the walls of   the Leo Castelli gallery with wallpaper. She sank 
into a depression and retreated to her studio,   covering all her windows so nobody could 
steal her ideas – and worked in secret. Then in 1965, kusama re-emerged with her first 
“Infinity room”, called “Phalli’s field” in which   she arranged hundreds of polka dotted 
soft phallic forms in a mirrored room.   Artists have always worked with perspective and 
infinity, but Kusama’s work was one of the earliest   installation artworks that encouraged viewers 
to enter and experience rather than passively   view a picture in a frame. The room enveloped the 
viewer and no longer is the viewer in control.   All artists to some extent control how we view 
their work, but for Kusama, a lack of control of   her health, meant she created work that controls 
EXACTLY how we the viewer perceive time and space.   Then just seven months after 
her infinity room failed to sell,   the artist Lucas Samaras showed a similar mirrored 
environment at the established Pace gallery.   He got rave reviews – and a sellout show. This 
was Samara’s first environment, and there is no   mistaking its similarity to Kusama’s mirrored room 
that preceded it. These mirror infinity rooms are   arguably her most popular works, and when we think 
of mirrored rooms today we only think of Kusama.   But after seeing Samara’s room, Kusama became 
so deeply depressed that she attempted suicide. In 1966, Kusama participated in the 33rd 
venice biennale, the most prestigious arts   festival in the world – the only problem was 
that she hadn’t been asked by the organisers,   she just gate-crashed the event! Without 
permission she showed “Narcissus garden”,   a witty take on the commercialisation of the 
art world, consisting of hundreds of mirrored   spheres – what she called a “kinetic carpet”. Then 
dressed in a gold kimono she proceeded to sell   each sphere for two dollars, until the biennale 
committee threw her out. There were many artists   who were aggressive self-promoters but none 
of them were women. Kusama had to really fight   just for her voice to be heard, and some people 
didn’t like that. They criticised what they   called “her excessive self-promotion and lust 
for publicity”, but as Kusama saw it, she was   a “living work of art”. Her work is deeply personal 
and so she places herself central to that work. Kusama had been a pioneer in minimalism, sculpture 
and installation art, and now she turned to   performance art. Some of Kusama’s earliest 
surviving paintings relate to the horrors of war,   and she had a strong political conscience. In 
1967 she began organising anti-war protests   and happenings known as “Atomic Explosions”. She 
painted her friends nude bodies with polka dots   and demonstrated on wall street, demanding the 
government bring back the troops from Vietnam.   For all her zany public persona, Kusama 
was completely serious about her   work, and as with much of her art, what on the 
surface seemed almost silly and lightweight,   made a powerful statement. Kusama 
was well placed to criticise war. Her youth had been marked by the effects of the 
Atomic bomb, and she was viscerally opposed to war.   She protested the only way she knew -through 
art – the work brought her more notoriety but   few financial benefits. In another revolutionary 
performance of 1968, Kusama even officiated at   the first “gay wedding” having formed her own church: 
“The church of self-obliteration”. Her performances   hit the news in Japan and caused a scandal, 
bringing shame on her deeply conservative family. In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan where 
she was virtually unknown and dismissed.   Then in 1977, after a lifetime of fighting anxiety 
and hallucinations, she checked herself into a   psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, and has lived 
there ever since. Kusama has been open about   her mental health and remains on medication 
to prevent depression and suicidal thoughts.   Every single day she commutes to her studio and 
works obsessively on her paintings from 9am to 6pm.   In 1989, Kusama reached 60 years old, an 
important birthday in Japanese culture,   that symbolises a new start. 
And it certainly was for Kusama!   Although she had a cult following, she was pretty 
much forgotten about by the art world, until   1989, unexpectedly The Centre for International 
Contemporary Arts in New York asked to stage a   retrospective of her art. It would relaunch her 
career – both internationally and in Japan. Then   in 1993 she returned to the Venice Biennale. This 
time she was invited as a representative of Japan. Kusama has finally achieved a worldwide success 
that had eluded her for so long. fuelled in some   part by social media. People queue up for hours 
for just 60 seconds in one of her Infinity room   installations. Each image they take of infinity, 
join millions more on the internet – itself   infinite. Today in her 90s, Kusama is as productive 
as ever. Often dismissed as “quirky” or “populist”, she   is in fact, one of the most radical female artists 
of all time, who made some of the most important   artworks of the 1960s. An innovator and a rule 
breaker. Many artists have famously struggled   with their mental health, and like them it is 
impossible to separate the art of Yayoi Kusama   from her mental health, but why should we? Artists 
like Kusama, make us question our understanding   of mental illness, and see it not as an “obstacle”, 
but as just another part of the human condition. These infinite repetitive works were originally 
designed to eliminate Kusama’s intrusive thoughts,   but now, as viewers, we can experience a small part   of her thoughts and feelings in the 
physical endlessness of “Kusama’s world”.
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