Yayoi Kusama's extraordinary survival story
Yayoi Kusama is the biggest-selling female artist in the world. And in her bright-red wig and quirky polka-dot ensembles, she is also one of the most instantly recognisable. At almost 90 years old she is still astonishingly prolific. Her upcoming show at the Victoria Miro gallery in London is bound to draw crowds around the block, desperate to be photographed inside her new, fabulously Instagrammable Infinity Room.
But before reaching this exalted position Kusama had to endure childhood trauma, and watch as her ideas were brazenly stolen by her male peers, events which led to mental illness and suicide attempts. Her extraordinary story of survival is told in a fascinating new documentary, Kusama: Infinity.
Kusama was born in 1929 in the rural provincial town of Matsumoto, Japan and from a young age was determined to be a painter. Her early works reveal what was to become an enduring fascination with both natural forms and polka dots, the latter allegedly appearing to her in a vision. However, her family were far from supportive. As Heather Lenz, the producer and director of Kusama: Infinity explains, it was simply not the thing for a woman at that time to have career ambitions. “The expectation was that she would get married and have kids – and not just get married but have an arranged marriage,” she tells BBC Culture.
Her mother snatched drawings from her before she was able to finish them, which may explain her obsessive creative drive as she rushes to finish a work before it can be taken from her. Frustrated at her husband’s infidelity Kusama’s mother would force her daughter to spy on him with his lovers. She found the experience so traumatic that she developed a lifelong aversion to sex.
Unsurprisingly, Kusama began to think of a means of escaping her stifling home environment. A great admirer of Georgia O’Keefe, in whose fantastical, dreamlike depictions of nature she saw a kindred spirit, she took the extraordinarily bold step of writing to her for advice. “I’m only on the first step of the long difficult life of being a painter. Will you kindly show me the way?” she asked.
She must have been ecstatic when O’Keefe wrote back, even if it was to warn her that “In this country an artist has a hard time making a living.” All the same, she advised Kusama to come to the US and show her work to anyone who might be interested.
At the time Kusama spoke very little English, and it was prohibited to send money from Japan to the US. Undaunted, she sewed dollar bills into her kimono and set off across the Pacific determined to conquer New York and make her name in the world.
Infinity and beyond
It was not to be that easy. The New York art world was male dominated to the extent that even many of the female dealers didn’t want to exhibit women.
Although Kusama won the praise of Donald Judd, a notable artist and critic, in an early review of her work, and even though the painter Frank Stella was an admirer, real success eluded her. A fact made all the more agonising as she was forced to watch her male peers gain recognition for her ideas.
Claes Oldenburg was ‘inspired’ by her fabric phallic couch to start creating the soft sculpture for which he would become world famous, while Andy Warhol would copy her innovative idea of creating repeated images of the sole exhibit in her One Thousand Boats installation for his Cow Wallpaper.
But worse was to come. In 1965 Kusama created the world’s first mirrored-room environment, a precursor to her Infinity Mirror Rooms, at the Castellane Gallery in New York. As man prepared to head for the moon, Kusama had uniquely grasped the public’s growing awareness of infinity. She confronted them with this unnerving concept through a seemingly endless environment.
Only a few months later, in a complete change of artistic direction, avant-garde artist Lucas Samaras exhibited his own mirrored installation at the far more prestigious Pace Gallery.
Distraught and dejected, Kusama threw herself from the window of her apartment.
With the support of friends such as gallery owner Beatrice Webb, she somehow managed to pull herself together and in a remarkable show of determination took herself to the 1966 Venice Biennale, without invitation, to show her Narcissus Garden. A witty take on the commercialisation of the art world, it comprised 1500 mirrored balls that she sold off at a few dollars a time – until officials put a stop to it.
“At this point she’s no longer going to be a slave to the gallery system and have someone decide when and where she’ll show her art,” says Lenz.
Confronting her demons
Back in the US, Kusama began staging happenings in newsworthy locations such as Central Park and the grounds of MoMa, often with the intention of promoting peace or criticising the art establishment. But the fact that many of these events involved nudity caused scandal back home in Japan and great shame to her conservative family. Even some elements of the US press criticised what they saw as her endless desire for publicity.
Increasingly disillusioned and depressed she returned home to Japan where, without the support of family or friends and finding herself unable to paint, she once again attempted suicide.
But it seems that Kusama’s desire to create was always greater than her desire to die. Miraculously, she managed to find a hospital where the doctors were interested in art therapy and checked herself in.
In this secure environment she found herself able to make art again. Her first works were an uncharacteristically dark series of collages in which she embraced the imagery of natural life cycles, almost as if she was challenging herself to confront her demons.
By this point Kusama had been virtually forgotten both at home and abroad but showing her enduring creative drive and determination she began to re-establish herself from scratch, and gradually her work began to be re-evaluated. A retrospective of her work was held at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York in 1989, and four years later, the Japanese art historian, Akira Tatehata, managed to persuade the government that she should be the first solo artist to represent Japan at the 1993 Venice Biennale.
Although a delicate Kusuma had to be accompanied by a psychotherapist, fearful of a nervous breakdown, the exhibition was a phenomenal success and led to a huge transformation in how she was received and recognised in Japan.
Further retrospectives followed while increasing recognition and her supportive environment allowed Kusama to continue to transform her trauma into art. However, when Lenz began work on her documentary in 2001 Kusama’s global reputation was still in its infancy. “Ironically I thought the film was going to bring her greater success,” she laughs.
Kusama’s astonishing rise in the intervening years owes much to social media but one hopes that the documentary will encourage people to put down their phones and take time to properly reflect on her work next time they go to see it. Whether viewing pumpkins, polka dots or immersed in one of her awe-inspiring Infinity Rooms, what visitors are looking at is nothing less than the redemptive power of art.