Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Japan in 1929. She is best known for her repetitive compositions of brightly coloured polka dots, but her art encompasses an astonishing variety of media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, film, performance and immersive installation. Her extraordinary life has taken her from rural Japan between the wars to the 1960s New York art scene to contemporary Tokyo – a career in which she has continuously innovated and re-invented her style. Kusama has experienced hallucinations and severe obsessions since childhood and has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric institution for the last forty years. Kusama has often traded on her identity as an ‘outsider’ – as a female artist in a male-dominated society; as a Japanese person in the Western art world; and as a victim of her own neurotic symptoms. ‘If it were not for art’ she has said, ‘I would have killed myself a long time ago.’
The fourth child of a prosperous and conservative family, she entered senior class at Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1948. There she studied Nihonga painting – a rigorously formal style developed during the Meiji period. Kusama notoriously hated the rigidities of the master-pupil system and quickly began to break from its conventions. By 1950 she was depicting abstracted natural forms in watercolour and gouache and oil. Then, curiously, she began to paint surfaces – walls, floors, canvases – with repetitive polka dots. These vast fields of ‘infinity nets’ were taken directly from her hallucinations and soon became her signature.
Arriving in New York in 1958, Kusama established herself in the burgeoning avant-garde art scene. Her organically abstract paintings garnered comparisons with Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko., she quickly connected with other artists on the New York scene, including Donald Judd and Eva Hesse, Joseph Cornell, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol. A significant influence on many of them, her outlandish happenings in conspicuous spots such as Central Park garnered huge attention. Often involving nudity, these events were intended as protests against the Vietnam War as much as artistic expressions. She famously wrote an open letter to Richard Nixon offering to have vigorous sex with him if he brought the war to an end.
In 1966 Kusama began experimenting with room-sized, freestanding installations which incorporated mirrors, lights and music. She also began to cover items like ladders, shoes and chairs with white, phallic protrusions. Narcissus Garden – perhaps one of Kusama’s most notorious works, which she first exhibited at the 33rd Venice Biennale – comprised hundreds of mirrored spheres woven into a ‘kinetic carpet’. Kusama, dressed in a golden kimono, then initially attempted to sell the spheres for $2 each, but the organisers of the Biennale quickly put a stop to her enterprise. The piece was about both the promotion of artists through the media and the mechanisation and commodification of the art market.
In 1973 Kusama returned to Japan in ill health. Checking herself into the Seiwa Hospital, she eventually took up permanent residence there. In 1993, practically forgotten as an artist, she exhibited again at the Venice Biennale – a dazzling, mirrored room, filled with small pumpkin sculptures, in which she resided, dressed in colour-coordinated magician’s attire. Her installation, I’m Here, but Nothing (2000) is a simple, furnished room consisting of table and chairs, place settings, armchairs and rugs, but the walls are tattooed with hundreds of fluorescent polka dots, glowing in the UV light. The result is an infinite space where the self and everything in the room is obliterated by her endless ‘infinity nets’.