Yayoi Kusama
Kusama with Pumpkin

I have to admit I was barely familiar with Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) before I watched Kusama: Infinity. And after seeing the movie and spending some time researching this post, I became fascinated with her life and work – her story is so inspiring and her point of view is so profound and original.

Here’s a quick recap of what I learned: Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929 in Japan. Working in painting, sculpture, installation art, performance art, poetry, and literary fiction, Kusama is highly prolific, obsessively creating day and night since childhood.

In front of paint brushes and canvas, my hands react to them and make my work before I think of anything. Then, when the piece is completed, I look at it, and am surprised by the result—always.

Yayoi Kusama
Drawing by Yayoi Kusama,Endless Life of People. 2010
Yayoi Kusama, Endless Life of People. 2010

Although her art is not planned or intentional, Kusama’s work is a response to her internal struggles. Psychologically wounded by a traumatic childhood in a conflict-ridden family in WWII Japan, Kusama has had hallucinations or “depersonalizations” throughout her life.

She became an artist against her family’s wishes. After some initial success in her native Japan, she enlisted the advice of Georgia O’Keefe and moved to New York with ambitions of setting the art world on fire.

You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that Kusama was an integral part of the pop art scene in New York in the 1960s, and her contemporaries included Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and her lover Joseph Cornell, the artist famous for box art assemblage.

She was also part of the free love moment in the late 60s and early 70s, and Yoko Ono has long cited her as an influence. At the time, she received as much press attention as Andy Warhol. Still, she constantly faced rejection and became depressed, eventually attempting suicide.

In the 1970s, she returned to Japan and has voluntarily resided in a mental hospital in Tokyo since 1977, while still working feverishly in her nearby studio. Kusama has called her way of working “art medicine” and she describes how it helped her survive.

I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.

Yayoi Kusama, 2016
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets OPYTSDB (Gold). 2007 via Artsy.com
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets OPYTSDB (Gold). 2007 via Artsy.com

Kusama’s greatest contribution to art is her exploration of the concept of infinity. The polka dots symbolize both the outer world of earth and stars and the inner world of cells; they represent a process of obliterating the self and finding freedom and peace within the universe.

With just one polka dot, nothing can be achieved. In the universe, there is the sun, the moon, the earth, and hundreds of millions of stars. All of us live in the unfathomable mystery and infinitude of the universe.

Yayoi Kusama

For many years, Kusama was written out of art history books. In her 2018 film, Heather Lenz documents her life, work, and indomitable spirit. Lenz spent over 10 years making the film, and she compassionately recounts how Kusama overcame so many challenges to become the top-selling female artist in the world. I loved this movie, and if you are interested, you can check out the trailer here, or stream it.

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