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.
Yayoi Kusama, Queen of Polka Dots, Opens Museum in Tokyo
Photo: Motohiko Hasui for The New York Times
TOKYO — Even the restrooms are covered in polka dots.
Yayoi Kusama, the celebrated Japanese artist whose compulsively repetitive images have drawn huge crowds and critical acclaim around the world, is opening a museum in Tokyo that could only be hers. The unmistakable touches include large red polka dots and mirrors in the elevators and a bulbous mosaic pumpkin sculpture on the top floor.
“Until now, I was the one who went overseas,” Ms. Kusama, 88, said, sitting in a wheelchair in front of her painting “I Who Have Arrived In The Universe” at a media preview of the Yayoi Kusama Museum on Tuesday. “But I now recognize that there are more people coming to Japan to come to see my work,” she said, reading from a statement in a binder covered in — what else? — red polka dots. “And that is why I decided to establish a place for them to see my work.”
Ms. Kusama, who lived and worked in New York for 16 years at the beginning of her career and was friends with the artists Frank Stella, Donald Judd and Joseph Cornell, with whom she had a relationship, has had retrospectives at the Whitney Museum in New York and the Tate Museum in London.
The museum dedicated to her work, operated by a foundation she created to support the display of her paintings and immersive installations even after her death, officially opens on Sunday. Tickets for timed entry slots went on sale online last month and are already sold out through November.
No surprise there: Last spring, when Ms. Kusama’s work was exhibited at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, the show attracted record numbers of visitors who stood in long lines for the chance to spend 20 or 30 seconds in each mirrored room.
In an effort to limit crowds in the new Tokyo museum, only 50 visitors will be admitted at a time for one of four 90-minute slots per day.
The building, designed by the architectural firm Kume Sekkei, stands five stories high in Shinjuku, a residential neighborhood close to Ms. Kusama’s studio and the psychiatric hospital where she has lived voluntarily since 1977.
Designed as five large cubes stacked on top of each other, the museum features galleries with high ceilings, pristine white walls and curved corners. White polka dots are stenciled onto glass panels lining the front of the building. Museum staff declined to say how much it had cost to build.
Ms. Kusama selected all of the art that appears in the inaugural exhibition, “Creation Is a Solitary Pursuit, Love Is What Brings You Closer to Art,” which includes mostly recent work and runs until Feb. 25. Exhibitions will be rotated every six months.
“It will probably be a mecca for Kusama,” said Yasuaki Ishizaka, the former head of Sotheby’s in Japan and now an art adviser. “She is one of the first Japanese — the only Japanese perhaps — who has a really popular worldwide following, whether it’s Asia, Europe or the States, or whether it’s with elderly or younger people.” Ms. Kusama said she creates her works during a process of obsessive concentration and hallucinations.In 2014, one of her works, “White No. 28,” sold for $7.1 million, with premium, at Christie’s.
The new exhibition includes 45 pieces, 16 of which are part of the series “My Eternal Soul” — large, electric-colored acrylic paintings that Ms. Kusama has been working on since 2009 and that were exhibited at the National Art Center in Tokyo earlier this year.
Ms. Kusama has continued to work on the series, producing a painting every day or two; four works that have never been shown in public before are displayed in a large open room on the museum’s third floor.
One of her signature mirror-lined rooms, with rows of yellow and black pumpkins reflected into infinity, is installed on the fourth floor. A large gold and pink mosaic-tiled pumpkin sculpture sits in a room on the top floor overlooking a vista of apartment blocks, with the laundry drying on the balconies across the street offering a prosaic backdrop to Ms. Kusama’s mesmerizing work.
Summing up her philosophy of art, Ms. Kusama said, “I hope that you will continue to understand my spirit and that this is for the benefit of world peace and love.”
In an interview in her studio after the media preview, Ms. Kusama, dressed in a yellow and black polka-dot print caftan, a fiery red wig and a streak of red paint splashed on her right shoe, continued the theme of world peace.
Although she did not address specific current events like the nuclear crisis in North Korea, she said she wanted her art to contribute to “happiness for human beings and a world without war.”
Ms. Kusama, who was born in 1929 in the mountain town of Matsumoto, began painting from hallucinations she experienced as a young girl. Some of her antiwar sentiments stem from the fact that she lived through World War II in Japan, going to work at a military factory to sew parachutes when she was just 13 years old.
She was abused by her mother and has spoken openly about her mental neuroses. In an interview with Tamaki Saito, a Japanese psychiatrist, in his 2008 book, “Artists Dance on the Borderline,” she recalled that she had undergone six years of Freudian analysis in New York but that the treatment had stymied her creativity.
“Ideas stopped coming out no matter what I painted or drew,” she said, “because everything was coming out of my mouth.”
Asked at her studio about the relationship between her psychiatric condition and her art, her handlers suggested the question was “too sensitive.”
But Ms. Kusama insisted on answering. “Since I was 10 years old I have been painting every day,” she said. “And even now there is not a day that I do not paint.” She added, “I still see polka dots everywhere.”
Her goal, she said, sitting in front of two new works in her studio, is to keep going. “I am just trying to struggle, always,” she said. “Art is everything for me and I have been struggling for art.”
She said she frequently hears from museums around the world wanting to stage exhibitions of her work. “I am just trying to concentrate on painting,” she said.
An assistant rolled her back to a table where a large sky-blue canvas rested. Ms. Kusama picked up a small brush from a dish of black acrylic paint, and carried on painting columns of catlike eyes that she had started that morning.
Yayoi Kusama: 'My mind is full of paintings'
87-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is celebrated as an avant-garde visionary, known for her iconic polka dot spectacles and immersive environments. She has a history of mental illness and has used art as a form of therapy. Simultaneous exhibitions opened this week in Washington and Tokyo, celebrating her career and the different way she sees the world.
How Yayoi Kusama Predicted The Power Of The Internet
The exhibition "Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors" opened Thursday at Washington D.C.'s Hirshhorn Gallery. The show features 70 years of the iconic Japanese artist's work, including six of her buzzy "infinity rooms." The mirrored, enclosed spaces are meant to be experienced alone to give the viewer an impression of entering a boundless realm with surfaces reflecting one another back and forth, forever.
Every day, thousands of museum visitors are expected to wait in line to enter these profoundly trippy rooms for approximately one minute at a time. Often, patrons will commemorate this minute with a photograph. The photos will likely, then, be uploaded to various social networks. Each digital image, itself a snapshot of infinite reflected images, will join an endless stream of so many more. As the museum hashtag aptly calls it, #InfiniteKusama.
So even if you never see "Infinity Mirrors" in person, you'll surely see it spread across your various timelines and feeds. As images of the exhibition disperse wildly across the web, Kusama's work operates in a state of in-between, with one foot in the material museum space and another in the immaterial world of the internet.
When Kusama began creating art as a child in 1930s Japan, there was, of course, no such thing as the internet. And yet–through her paintings, sculptures and, most of all, "infinity room" installations–the artist seems to divine the future of a sprawling space where our immaterial selves can proliferate, congregate, mutate and network.
Yayoi Kusama, the 'Infinity Mirrors' visionary
Don't ask Yayoi Kusama what's been the highlight of her career. She might be 87 years old, internationally renowned and about to have major, simultaneous exhibitions in the United States and Japan, but she's not done yet.
"It's still coming. I'm going to create it in the future," said Kusama, often described as Japan's most successful living artist, at her studio in central Tokyo, paint in her red wig and on her glasses.
Kusama, who has a history of neurosis and has lived as a voluntary resident at a mental hospital a block away for about four decades, had been up at 3 a.m. painting, partly because she couldn't sleep and partly because she wanted to squeeze in time for work before the engine of Yayoi Kusama Inc. started up for the day.
"I'm old now, but I am still going to create more work and better work. More than I have in the past," she said. "My mind is full of paintings."
The Unstoppable Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama Gives Philip Johnson's Glass House a Polka Dot Makeover
The Glass House, architect Philip Johnson's semi-transparent former home, has a way of disappearing into the landscape of its surrounding 49 green acres in New Canaan, Connecticut. This month, though, it's wearing a party hat: The Glass House is the latest target of Yayoi Kusama's Pepsi red polka dots, an installation series called "Dots Obsession" that’s marking what would be Johnson's 110th birthday, and 10 years of the site being open to the public.
During her late-career resurgence, Kusama has been leaving her polka-dotted mark on everything and everyone from Airbnb beds to George Clooney. In late 2014, the team at the Glass House began dredging the property's pond, a nearly year-long process whose completion curator Irene Shum decided merited a celebration. It's a tricky space for an art intervention–the meadow covers over half of the property–but Kusama's "Narcissus Garden" installation, first orchestrated 50 years ago at the 1966 Venice Biennale, immediately came to Shum's mind. She reached out to Kusama's studio in Japan directly, and "they were game," Shum recalled.
Freshly made over, the pond was soon filled with 1,300 of Kusama's floating, stainless steel orbs, a takeover of the lower half of the estate announced near the entrance with another Kusama trademark–a giant, reflective pumpkin. But the ever ambitious artist, who's now 87, wasn't finished; she asked Shum if she could show more recent work, too. Kusama was itching to try out her window installations, which started out as a commercial venture with Louis Vuitton at Selfridges in London, in a place that would lend itself more to a site-specific installation.
What better place to test things out than a house made entirely of glass?
On the Glass House's Pond, Yayoi Kusama's Clattering Polka Dots
Thirteen-hundred glimmering spheres float on the pond below Philip Johnson's Glass House, in the Lower Meadow on the renowned architect's 49-acre estate.
Just under a foot in diameter, the stainless steel orbs reflect the environment, creating seemingly endless echoes of the towering trees, the changing skies and the multiple arches of the pavilion Johnson designed at the pond's edge. Hollow, the spheres weigh less than a pound each, so when the wind blows, they drift, sometimes in groups, sometimes one by one. When they touch, they clatter gently, like a chorus of muffled typewriters.
This is the newest iteration of "Narcissus Garden," by Yayoi Kusama, an 87-year-old Japanese artist whose lifetime of works–paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints, installations, performance "happenings"–have been defined by compulsively repetitive patterns, most famously polka dots. On the Glass House website, Ms. Kusama is quoted as saying: "The single dot is my own life, and I am a single particle amongst billions."
"Narcissus Garden" was first realized 50 years ago as a land installation at the 33rd Venice Biennale and has since been reinstalled internationally in numerous configurations; its last appearance on water in the United States was in Central Park as part of the 2004 Whitney Biennial. At the Glass House, it is one of three pieces that make up "Yayoi Kusama: Narcissus Garden," organized to commemorate the 110th anniversary of Johnson's birth and the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Glass House to the public.
TIME 100 | Artists: Yayoi Kusama
I first met Yayoi Kusama in 2006 when I visited her studio in Tokyo. I'd been told she was quite a special person, and it was incredibly true. She arrived to meet me in a colored wig and a caftan-like creation of hers with all her signature spots. Her eyes never left mine, and she held my hand often as she talked to me. She kept repeating certain phrases: "We must create, we must create, it's important that we create." We spent a few hours together, and every time I tried to leave, she’d pull me back in. It made perfect sense with the art she creates—the intensity, the repetition. She just felt like the embodiment of what she makes.
This is a woman who's been around for a very long time, who’s done some really radical and revolutionary things in the art world. I admire her unapologetic dedication to her vision, which still allows for plenty of growth and change. When people look back at her work decades from now, they’ll see that her idea of creation and infinity has an eternal endurance.
Inside Yayoi Kusama's New Exhibit, 'Give Me Love'
New York’s most popular open house this weekend was in Chelsea, where a line stretched down the block Saturday morning for Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's newest exhibition, "Give Me Love," at the David Zwirner gallery.
The scene inside the vast garage-like gallery space resembled an (albeit very hip) children's birthday party, as toddlers and adults alike wandered Ms. Kusama's large-scale model of a suburban home with sheets of bright polka-dot stickers. The installation, called "The Obliteration Room," premiered in 2002 and comes complete with an American flag and plastic lawn furniture out front.
Crowds are standard at the artist's blockbuster exhibitions. In a study of museum attendance released in April, the Art Newspaper named Ms. Kusama one of the most popular artists of last year. Touring shows through Asia and South and Central America drew crowds in the thousands. Her touring retrospective, "Infinite Obsession," which features more than a hundred works and is currently on view in Santiago, Chile, has been seen by over two million people, according to the study.
She’s no less popular in New York. Her 2013 show at David Zwirner, "I Who Have Arrived in Heaven," drew close to 2,500 people per day, with wait times of up to eight hours, said the gallery. The show featured two popular mirrored "Infinity Rooms," where visitors would line up to snap an otherworldly selfie they could then share on social media.
The gallery is hoping for more of the same with "Give Me Love." Inside the yellow house (No. 9393), visitors were invited to apply polka-dot stickers to the completely whitewashed furniture. Blank picture frames, a neatly-set table, and a dog bed—all white—sported clusters of bright polka-dots applied by the over 1,300 visitors on Saturday. Polka-dots peppered the leaves of a houseplant, the spines of books on a shelf, the keys of a laptop computer and magnets on a refrigerator. Several visitors walked out with a souvenir polka-dot or two on their person as well.
Along with "The Obliteration Room" installation, the show features 17 colorful new paintings from the artist’s "My Eternal Soul" series, and several large-scale pumpkin sculptures. The stainless steel pumpkins are enormous—up to 70 inches high—and feature mirrored surfaces and (you guessed it) polka-dots.
The show will be on display at David Zwirner's 19th Street galleries until June 13.
Lights, Mirrors, Instagram! #ArtSensation
Yayoi Kusama’s 'Mirrored Room' at David Zwirner Gallery
Adam Friedman emerged from the twinkling lights and reflecting water of Yayoi Kusama’s "infinity room" and groped for the right words. "Ethereal," he said. Pause. "Calming." Another pause. "Calming, ethereal and meditative, all at the same time."
These were hard-won adjectives under the circumstances. Mr. Friedman, a 28-year-old computer salesman from Highland Park, N.J., had just spent nearly three hours in line at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, pelted intermittently by sleet and rain, inching slowly toward a very brief reward: 45 seconds in a mirror-lined room hung with 75 colored LED bulbs that flickered and pulsed in a celestial celebration. On a typical day, about 2,500 people turn out to take this brief trip to Ms. Kusama's private cosmos. Almost from the moment that her multipart exhibition, "I Who Have Arrived in Heaven," opened on Nov. 8, "Infinity Mirrored Room — The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away" has become an art-world attraction to rival "Rain Room," the immersive installation presented at the Museum of Modern Art this year.
"We had lines at the opening," said Anita Ragusa, the manager of David Zwirner's 19th Street galleries. "Once it hit social media, and people told their friends about it, everyone wanted to make sure to see it."
The line usually begins forming about an hour before the gallery opens at 10 a.m. Throughout the day, it moves at a snail's pace, as docents, hired to manage the flow, admit one or two people at a time to the twinkling-lights chamber, with the slow, steady regularity of a drip feed. About 1,000 will make it in. The show closes Dec. 21.
It is not the usual gallery crowd. Social media, especially photographs on Instagram, have spread the word to a broad, mostly young, demographic: tourists, students, followers of Ms. Kusama's work, who saw her installation "Fireflies on the Water" at the retrospective of her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art last year.