#L’Artiste: Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama (草間 彌生,  born March 22, 1929) is a contemporary Japanese artist of numerous art genres, including painting, sculpture, film and installation. At the beginning of her work, Kusama moved to New York in 1958 and quickly established herself as an important member of the avant-garde alongside Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Eva Hesse. Kusama is a super-star of the art world, a seismographer of the Zeitgeist, a critic of power structures, an innovative thinker.

Her childhood and youth in the parental home were marked by strictness and authority. At that time, Japan was a fascist military state. Her mother wanted her daughter to grow up traditionally. Constant pressure, rejection, and alienation from her mother could have led to Kusama’s illness, which had already begun in her childhood, which was reflected in having optical hallucinations. She saw dot and net patterns and feared being dissolved in them. She saw the dots of her kimono spread over the walls of the room. She saw the net pattern of the tablecloth climb through the whole room. And when she closed her eyes, she saw in her brain blooming the flowers and ripening gourds that her parents cultivated in the greenhouse.

Since childhood, Kusama suffers from anxiety and hallucinations, including fear of phallic objects, sexuality, eating. Her personal perception and their visions are the sources of her inspiration. Nevertheless, in the coming years, Kusama had nine exhibitions, her first single exhibition was in 1952 at the Matsumoto Civic Hall, the citizen center of her hometown. Many pictures from this period were destroyed by the artist before she went to New York. At the same time, she began with a psychiatric treatment. She was never ashamed of her illness and went around with it openly. After her works were exhibited at the 18th Biennial at the Brooklyn Museum in 1955, she decided to move to New York. Her parents gave her money for the flight on condition that she may never return home. After a short stint living in Seattle, she lived in New York from 1957 onwards.

Once in New York, Georgia O’Keeffe, Donald Judd and Joseph Cornell were among her most important friends and supporters. With abstract dots and allusions to nature, she succeeded in achieving a sense of infinity. Her fantasies of a complete dissolution of the boundaries between the individual and his/her surroundings are fulfilled in mirror installations and space-filling environments. Soon phallic shapes and snakes thrived, she began spreading her dots from performances in Central Park over to the naked skin of young hippies. And she created sculptures made of shiny plastic, giant dotted pumpkins and comic-like tulips that grew in parks and shopping streets, museums and hotel lobbies in Europe, Japan and the United States.

Left to Right: Ennui, 1976; Accumulation, 1962-64; Red Stripes, 1965; Arm Chair, 1963

In 1962 with a series of sculptures called the “Accumulation Sculptures”, she became the feminist representative of the Pop-Art. Everything can be covered with penises by Kusama: armchairs, stools, ironing boards, dresses, high-heeled shoes, canvases or even the whole woman’s body. Penises are tightly packed and ubiquitous. Metaphorically an undeniable clue to the distribution of power also in the art business and the dominant gender. The Accumulation Sculptures serve as important precursors to her Infinity Mirror Rooms. These works point to a crucial development that eventually transformed her process-based production from physical repetition to photographic reproduction to instantaneous reflection.

Installation View of Infinity Mirror Room — Phalli’s Field, 1965, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

In 1965, Kusama began utilizing mirrors to transcend the physical limitations of her own productivity and achieve the repetition that is crucial to her paintings and Accumulations. Sculptural, architectural, and performative, these installations blur the line between artistic disciplines and create a participatory experience by casting the visitor as the subject of the work. Over the course of her career, the artist has produced more than twenty distinct Infinity Mirror Rooms, and the Hirshhorn’s exhibition—the first to focus on this pioneering body of work—is presenting six of them, the most ever shown together. Ranging from peep-show-like chambers to multimedia installations, each of Kusama’s kaleidoscopic environments offers the chance to step into an illusion of infinite space.

Left to Right: Living on the Yellow Land, 2015; My Adolescence in Bloom, 2014; Welcoming the Joyful Season, 2014; Surrounded by Heartbeats, 2014; Unfolding Buds, 2015; Story After Death, 2014

On her dots, Kusama has an artistic copyright, almost like Beuys on the material felt or Yves Klein on the color blue. The fact that she now also covers Louis Vuitton travel bags and accessories with her signature pattern is only the conclusion of an aesthetic that seems to come from the deepest depths of her psyche. Yayoi Kusama is one of the artists whose work can be extended seamlessly into the product range of museum shops. There are dog shaped iPhone chargers in the Kusama dot pattern, and the artist is her own advertising medium in the polkadot dresses she is wearing publicly.

Pumpkin, 2016, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Following the success of the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1993, a dazzling mirrored room filled with small pumpkin sculptures in which she resided in color-coordinated magician’s attire, Kusama went on to produce a huge, yellow pumpkin sculpture covered with an optical pattern of black spots. The pumpkin came to represent for her a kind of alter-ego or self-portrait.

Kusama has received numerous awards, including the Asahi Prize (2001); Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2003); and the National Lifetime Achievement Awards, the Order of the Rising Sun (2006). In October 2006, Yayoi Kusama became the first Japanese woman to receive the Praemium Imperiale, one of Japan’s most prestigious prizes for internationally recognized artists.[63] Also she received the Person of Cultural Merit (2009) and Ango awards (2014).

Infinity Mirrored Room – the Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

In 2014, Kusama was ranked the most popular artist of the year after a record-breaking number of visitors flooded her Latin American tour, Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Obsession. Venues from Buenos Aires to Mexico City received over 8,500 visitors each day.

Kusama also gained media attention for partnering with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to make her 2017 Infinity Mirror rooms accessible to visitors with disabilities or mobility issues; in an unprecedented initiative among art museums, the venue mapped out the six individual rooms and provided handicapped individuals visiting the exhibition access to a complete 360º virtual reality headset that allowed them to experience every aspect of the rooms, as if they were actually walking through them.

Images by Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York, © Yayoi Kusama