Biography of Yayoi Kusama, Japanese Artist

Portrait of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama
Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama sits in front of one of her newly finished paintings in her studio, on January 25, 2012 in Tokyo, Japan. Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Getty Images

Yayoi Kusama (born March 22, 1929 in Matsumoto City, Japan) is a contemporary Japanese artist, best known for her Infinity Mirror Rooms, as well as her obsessive use of colorful dots. In addition to being an installation artist, she is a painter, poet, writer, and designer. 

Fast Facts: Yayoi Kusama

  • Known For: Considered one of the most important living Japanese artists and the most successful female artist of all time
  • Born: March 22, 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan
  • Education: Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts
  • Mediums: Sculpture, installation, painting, performance art, fashion
  • Art Movement: Contemporary, pop art
  • Selected Works: Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (1965), Narcissus Garden (1966), Self Obliteration (1967), Infinity Net (1979), Pumpkin (2010)
  • Notable Quote: "Every time I have had a problem, I have confronted it with the ax of art."

Early Life 

Yayoi Kusama was born in the provincial Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, to a well to do family of seed merchants, who owned the largest wholesale seed distributor in the region. She was the youngest of four children. Early childhood traumas (such as being made to spy on her father’s extra-marital affairs) cemented in her a deep skepticism of human sexuality and have had lasting impact on her art. 

The artist describes early memories of being enveloped by endless flowers in a field on their farm as a young child, as well as hallucinations of dots covering everything around her. These dots, which are now a Kusama signature, have been a consistent motif in her work from a very young age. This feeling of obliteration of the self by repetition of a pattern, in addition to anxiety about sex and male sexuality in particular, are themes that appear throughout her oeuvre. 

PARIS: YAYOI KUSAMA EXHIBITION AT 3 VENUES
Yayoi Kusama. Sygma / Getty Images

Kusama began painting when she was ten, though her mother disapproved of the hobby. She did, however, allow her young daughter to go to art school, with the ultimate intention of getting her to marry and live the life of a housewife, not an artist. Kusama, however, refused the many proposals of marriage she received and instead committed herself to the life of a painter. 

In 1952, when she was 23 years old, Kusama showed her watercolors in a small gallery space in Matsumoto City, though the show was largely ignored. In the mid-1950s, Kusama discovered the work of American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, and in her enthusiasm for the artist’s work, wrote to the American in New Mexico, sending along a few of her watercolors. O’Keeffe eventually wrote back, encouraging Kusama’s career, though not without cautioning her to the difficulties of the artistic life. With the knowledge that a sympathetic (female) painter was living in the United States, Kusama left for America, but not before burning many paintings in a rage.

UK - Liverpool - Festival of Contemporary Art
A visitor looking at "Gleaming Lights of the Soul" a mixed media installation by veteran Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, on display at Pilkington's one of the venues for the 2008 Liverpool Biennial, the UK's largest contemporary international arts festival. Corbis / Getty Images

The New York Years (1958-1973) 

Kusama arrived in New York City in 1958, one of the first post-war Japanese artists to take up residence in New York. As both a woman and a Japanese person, she received little attention for her work, though her output was prolific. It was during this period that she began painting her now iconic “Infinity Nets” series, which took inspiration from the vastness of the ocean, an image that was particularly resplendent to her, as she had grown up in an inland Japanese city. In these works she would obsessively paint small loops onto a monochrome white canvas, covering the entire surface from edge to edge. 

Preview of YAYOI KUSAMA: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow
A visitor stands in front of Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama acrylic on canvas painting during a media preview at National Gallery Singapore on June 6, 2017 in Singapore. Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow exhibition features over 120 works spanning 70 years of Kusama's artistic practice. Suhaimi Abdullah / Getty Images

Though she enjoyed little attention from the established art world, she was known to be savvy in the ways of the art world, often strategically meeting patrons she knew could help her and even once telling collectors her work was represented by galleries that had never heard of her. Her work was finally shown in 1959 at the Brata Gallery, an artist-run space, and was praised in a review by the minimalist sculptor and critic Donald Judd, who eventually would become friends with Kusama. 

In the mid 1960s, Kusama met the surrealist sculptor Joseph Cornell, who immediately became obsessed with her, incessantly calling to speak on the telephone and writing her poems and letters. The two were involved in a romantic relationship for a short period, but Kusama eventually broke it off with him, overwhelmed by his intensity (as well as his close relationship to his mother, with whom he lived), though they maintained contact. 

In the 1960s, Kusama underwent psychoanalysis as a way of understanding her past and her difficult relationship to sex, a confusion that probably resulted from an early trauma, and her obsessive fixation on the male phallus, which she incorporated into her art. Her “penis chairs” (and eventually, penis couches, shoes, ironing boards, boats and other commonplace objects), which she called accumulations,” were a reflection of this obsessive panic. Though these works did not sell, they did cause a stir, bringing more attention to the artist and her eccentric persona. 

Hippie Having Body Painted
Hippie Martha Melnyk, of Philadelphia, lets New York artist Yayoi Kusama paint her at a Body Festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1967. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Influence on American Art 

In 1963, Kusama showed Aggregation: 1000 Boats Show at the Gertrude Stein Gallery, where she exhibited a boat and a set of oars covered in her protrusions, surrounded by wall paper printed with a repeating image of the boat. Though this show was not commercially successful, it did make an impression on many artists of the time. 

Kusama’s influence on post-war American art cannot be underestimated. Her use of soft materials may have influenced sculptor Claes Oldenburg, who showed work with Kusama, to begin working with the material, as her working in plush predates his. Andy Warhol, who praised Kusama’s work, covered the walls of his gallery show in a repeated pattern, much the way Kusama did in her One Thousand Boats show. As she began to realize how little credit she received in the face of her influence on far more successful (male) artists, Kusama became increasingly depressed. 

Yayoi Kusama Retrospective Exhibition Opening Reception
Works by Yayoi Kusama on display at the Yayoi Kusama Retrospective Exhibition Opening Reception at The Whitney Museum of American Art on July 11, 2012 in New York City. J. Countess / Getty Images

This depression was at its worst in 1966, when she showed the groundbreaking Peep Show at Castellane Gallery. Peep Show, an octagonal room constructed of inwardly-facing mirrors into which the viewer could stick her head, was the first immersive art installation of its kind, and a construction the artist has continued to explore to widespread acclaim. 

And yet, later that year the artist Lucas Samaras exhibited a similar mirrored work at the far larger Pace Gallery, the similarities of which she could not ignore. Kusama’s deeping depression lead her to attempt suicide by jumping out a window, though her fall was broken, and she survived. 

Space Shifters Exhibition Opens At The Haywood Gallery
The stainless steel spheres which make up 'Narcissus Garden' 1966- by Yayoi Kusama are pictured during a media preview for the Space Shifters exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on September 25, 2018 in London, England. Jack Taylor / Getty Images

With little luck in the United States, she began showing in Europe in 1966. Not formally invited to the Venice Biennale, Kusama showed Narcissus Garden in front of the Italian Pavilion. Composed of numerous mirrored balls laid on the ground, she invited passers-by to “buy their narcissism,” for two dollars a piece. Though she received attention for her intervention, she was formally asked to leave. 

When Kusama returned to New York, her works became more political. She staged a Happening (an organic performance intervention in a space) in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden and conducted many gay weddings, and when America entered the war in Vietnam, Kusama’s Happenings turned to anti-war demonstrations, in many of which she participated naked. The documentation of these protests, which were covered in New York papers, made its way back to Japan, where her hometown community was horrified and her parents deeply embarrassed. 

Return to Japan (1973-1989) 

Many in New York criticized Kusama as an attention seeker, who would stop at nothing for publicity. Increasingly dejected, she returned to Japan in 1973, where she was forced to start her career over. However, she found that her depression prevented her from painting. 

Matsumoto City Museum of Art, Japan.
Matsumoto City Museum of Art is a museum dedicated to showcasing the work of artists associated with the city. The museum's main attraction is its collection of works from the world famous Matsumoto-born artist Kusama Yayoi. Olivier DJIANN / Getty Images

Following another suicide attempt, Kusama decided to check herself into the Seiwa Mental Hospital, where she has lived ever since. There she was able to begin making art again. She embarked on a series of collages, which center on birth and death, with names such as Soul going back to its home (1975). 

Long Awaited Success (1989-Present) 

In 1989, the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York staged a retrospective of Kusama’s work, including early watercolors from the 1950s. This would prove to be the beginning of her “rediscovery,” as the international art world began to take note of the artist’s impressive four decades of work. 

In 1993, Kusama represented Japan in a solo pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where she finally received the attention she had been seeking, which she has enjoyed ever since. Based on museum admissions, she is the most successful living artist, as well as the most successful female artist of all time. Her work is held in the collections of the world’s largest museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Modern in London, and her Infinity Mirrored Rooms are extremely popular, drawing lines of visitors with hour-long waits. 

Gallery Visitors Make Their Mark On Yayoi Kusama's 'The Obliteration Room'
Visitors make their mark on Yayoi Kusama's 'The obliteration room' at Auckland Art Gallery on December 9, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. The white walls, ceiling, furniture and objects in room will be obliterated over time by the mass build-up of dots as visitors apply brightly coloured stickers in various sizes to every surface. Hannah Peters / Getty Images

Other notable works of art include the Obliteration Room (2002), in which visitors are invited to cover an all white room with colorful polka dot stickers, Pumpkin (1994), an oversized pumpkin sculpture located on the Japanese island of Naoshima, and the Anatomic Explosion series (begun 1968), Happenings in which Kusama acts as the “priestess,” painted dots on naked participants in significant locales. (The first Anatomic Explosion was held in Wall Street.) 

Family in front of Yayoi Kusama red pumpkin, Seto Inland Sea, Naoshima, Japan...
Family in front of Yayoi Kusama red pumpkin, Seto Inland Sea, Naoshima, Japan on August 24, 2017 in Naoshima, Japan. Corbis / Getty Images

She is jointly represented by David Zwirner Gallery (New York) and Victoria Miro Gallery (London). Her work can be permanently seen at the Yayoi Kusama Museum, which opened in Tokyo in 2017, as well as in her hometown museum in Matsumoto, Japan. 

Kusama has won numerous prizes for her art, including the Asahi Prize (in 2001), the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (in 2003), and 18th Praemium Imperiale award for painting (in 2006). 

Sources

  • Kusama, Yayoi. Infinity Net: the Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama. Translated by Ralph F. McCarthy, Tate Publishing, 2018.
  • Lenz, Heather, director. Kusama: Infinity . Magnolia Pictures, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8mdIB1WxHI.