Many decades before scientist Carl Sagan famously described Earth as a pale blue dot, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama had already used this small round shape to interpret our world and everything in it.
As a little girl, Kusama experienced a hallucination. Sitting in a flower field, she suddenly saw flowers turning into dots surrounding her and talking to her. This experience, although terrifying, would be the source of inspiration for what would become her trademark: polka dots. “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity,” she later declared.
Born to a wealthy family in 1929 in the rural city of Matsumoto, Kusama grew up in an environment of repression and neglect. The youngest child of an unhappy marriage, Kusama would spy on her father and his mistresses at the bequest of her mother, who would then take it out on her. When she saw the young girl painting, she would take her canvas away and destroy it.
At age 13 after the Pearl Harbor attack, Kusama, like most women in her hometown, was forced to work at a military factory sewing parachutes. Her experiences and the hardships during the Second World War would make her abhor war for life.
Throughout and after the war, Kusama kept painting and drawing, imagining a life away from arranged marriages and children in the countryside. After convincing her mother to let her apply to art school, Kusama encountered the work of American painter Georgia O'Keeffe while browsing a bookshop. Enamored by her paintings, Kusama wrote to her in search of advice.
Surprisingly, O’Keeffe replied. Even more, the established artist tried to get Kusama in contact with some of her connections. Thus, in 1958 at age 27, Kusama arrived in New York ready to revolutionise the art scene. Life was hard at first. Kusama lived in poverty, even scavenging for food, but she painted every waking hour.
Kusama first became popular for her Infinity Net paintings. Inspired by the way the Pacific Ocean looked from the plane when she arrived in New York, Kusama started making huge paintings of what looked like nets. Both striking and mesmerizing, these paintings preceded what would become the minimalist movement. The body of work she produced over the next years was so groundbreaking that the fact that Kusama is not as well-known as other artists from that time is baffling.
In order to work through her aversion to sex — a result of seeing her father with other women as a child — she started making objects covered in soft sculptures of phallic forms. Two of her biggest pieces were an armchair titled Accumulation No. 1 — now currently on the permanent collection at MoMA — and a rowing boat titled Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show. The boat was part of an installation where the walls and floor were covered in wallpaper featuring a picture of that same boat — a technique later popularized by Andy Warhol who, incidentally, attended this exhibition.
Then came her first version of the infinity mirror rooms, which she filled with the phallic sculptures. Kusama also dabbled in performances: walking through the city in a traditional kimono while taking photographs; crashing the Venice Biennale in 1966 with a subversive piece in which she sold reflective balls for $2 (for which she was expelled); performing New York’s first homosexual wedding; painting dots on nude bodies and protesting the Vietnam War. Kusama was always good at creating art that would grab the public’s attention.
However, her identity was something the establishment could never accept. “She was doubly an outsider — a woman, and a Japanese woman. She just wasn’t recognised in the way the white male artists were,” says Glenn Scott Wright, co-director at Victoria Miro Gallery. Claims of plagiarism of Kusama’s work by the likes of Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Lucas Samaras have never been widely accepted by art historians, but the dates and the similarities makes it feel like some credit to Kusama was indeed due.
After a suicide attempt, disillusioned and depressed for the way art critics and fellow artists refused to recognize her work, and after a complicated relationship with artist Joseph Cornell, Kusama went back home to Japan in the early 70s. In 1977, deeply affected by the death of Cornell and then the death of her father, suffering from panic attacks and hallucinations, she checked into a psychiatric hospital where she has lived ever since.
It took a few more years until the Japanese art scene soon realized the brilliance of Kusama. She became the first Japanese woman to represent her country in the Venice Biennale in 1993, she now has her own museum in Tokyo, and her Infinity Mirror Rooms are incredibly popular all over the world. People wait in line for hours just to see them for a few seconds and share their pictures on social media.
Misunderstood, plagiarized, adored — the art of Yayoi Kusama has endured throughout the difficulties and now continues to inspire millions of people around the world. Her work is accessible and playful, but deeply personal and moving once you learn more about it. After so much trauma, her difficult life was brightened by the power of art, an example of its therapeutic capacities in the pursuit of Good Health and Well-Being, one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
“From the point of view of one who creates, everything is a gamble, a leap into the unknown,” states the artist in a quote at the beginning of the documentary Kusama: Infinity.
Now in her 90s, Kusama still works everyday at her workshop, two blocks away from the hospital. There, she gets the care she needs while she does what she loves most in the world — giving free reign to the creativity and the vision of a true artist.
You can check out the exhibit One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. until November 27, 2022. Also, the PHI Foundation in Montréal will host Yayoi Kusama: DANCING LIGHTS THAT FLEW UP TO THE UNIVERSE from July 6, 2022, through January 15, 2023. Finally, don’t forget to check out the amazing documentary by director Heather Lenz, Kusama: Infinity.