The fourth and final artist in our series for Women’s History Month is Yayoi Kusama. Her work consists mainly of sculptures and large installations, but also includes paintings, screenprints, performances, films, fashion, poetry, fiction, and other arts. Most of Kusama’s work is conceptual, with attributes of feminism, minimalism, surrealism, Art Brut, pop art, and abstract expressionism, and is infused with autobiographical, psychological, and sexual content. Kusama’s art is formally unified with her consistent use of repetitive dots, pumpkins, and mirrors, with her saying, “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. Pursuing the philosophy of the universe through art under such circumstances has led me to what I call stereotypical repetition.”
Kusama is a Japanese artist who was born in Matsumoto City in 1929. She studied art at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1948 but was not interested in the more traditional art styles. Kusama was interested in the European and American avant-garde, and in 1958 moved to New York City after holding a few small exhibitions in Japan. During the early 1960s, Kusama began to create her Infinity Mirror Rooms. These purpose-built rooms are lined with mirrored glass and contain scores of neon-colored balls, hanging at various heights above the viewer. Standing inside on a small platform, an observer sees light repeatedly reflected off the mirrored surfaces to create the illusion of a never-ending space. Despite her hard-work, Kusama’s art was copied by male artists who succeeded more than she, which left her struggling both financially and mentally.
Throughout the 1960s, Kusama organized and performed various artistic happenings, which often involving nudity and were designed to protest the Vietnam War. One such happening took place at the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art. During the unannounced event, eight performers under Kusama’s direction removed their clothing, stepped nude into a fountain, and assumed poses mimicking the nearby sculptures by Picasso, Giacometti, and Maillol. For the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966, Kusama created the Narcissus Garden which was comprised of hundreds of mirrored spheres outdoors in what she called a “kinetic carpet”. When the event started, Kusama, dressed in a golden kimono, sold the individual spheres for 1,200 lire (US$2) until the Biennale organizers put an end to her enterprise.
In 1967, Jud Yalkut released the film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration. According to Gregory Zinman, “[the film was] not merely a recording of the [Kusama’s] performance, but rather a discursive meditation on the performance’s themes, using multiple dissolves and additional superimpositions to transform Kusama’s polka-dot painted subjects, including writhing dancers, a horse, and lily pads, into a treatise on community and interconnectivity”. The film won a prize at the Fourth International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium and the Second Maryland Film Festival and the second prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival.
Kusama returned to Japan in 1973 for mental health reasons. She began writing shockingly visceral and surrealistic novels, short stories, and poetry, and in 1977 she checked herself into a hospital for the mentally ill. By choice, Kusama took up permanent residence in the hospital and has been living there since she checked herself in. She has an art studio near the hospital where she has continued to produce artworks in a variety of media, like screen printing. Kusama also launched a literary career by publishing several novels, a poetry collection, and an autobiography. From 1998-1990, the first critical survey of Kusama’s work, Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective, was presented at the Center for International Contemporary Arts (CICA), New York. The show and its scholarly catalog established the international field of study on Kusama’s art, focusing on her distinct output of paintings, soft sculptures, installations, and happenings of the 1960s. This survey helped bring Kusama’s work into the public eye again, as she had almost faded into obscurity after she left New York City.
Throughout the 2000s, Kusama’s work was featured in multiple solo exhibitions, and she won several awards including the Asahi Prize (2001); Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2003); the National Lifetime Achievement Award from the Order of the Rising Sun (2006); the Person of Cultural Merit (2009); the Ango awards (2014); and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art. In 2006, Kusama became the first Japanese woman to receive the Praemium Imperiale, one of Japan’s highest honors for internationally recognized artists. The first retrospective exhibition in Scandinavia, Yayoi Kusama: In Infinity, traveled to four major museums in the region in 2016. This show contained more than 100 objects and large-scale mirror room installations. It presented several early works that had not been shown to the public since they were first created, including a presentation of Kusama’s experimental fashion design from the 1960s.
In 2017, a 50-year retrospective of Kusama’s work opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. The exhibit featured six Infinity Mirror Rooms and traveled to five museums in the US and Canada. The exhibition also included a selection of her other key works, including a number of paintings from her My Eternal Soul series that had never been shown in the US. Kusama’s large Pumpkin, which is yellow and covered in black polka-dots, was also on display in the gardens of the Hirshhorn Museum. Pumpkins are used frequently by Kusama in her art, and she once wrote, “Pumpkins bring about poetic peace in my mind. Pumpkins talk to me.” The Infinity Mirrors exhibit became a sensation among art critics as well as on social media. Museum visitors shared 34,000 images of the exhibition to their Instagram accounts, and social media posts using the hashtag #InfiniteKusama garnered 330 million impressions, as reported by the Smithsonian the day after the exhibit’s closing. The works provided the perfect setting for Instagram-able selfies which inadvertently added to the performative nature of the works. In 2017, Kusama also opened her own museum. The Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in Tokyo with the aim of spreading and promoting Kusama’s art, exhibiting her works and related materials to contribute to the development of art as a whole. Kusama’s works are presented in two exhibitions each year, together with lectures and various other events. The museum’s goal is to share the message of world peace and love for humanity that Kusama has promoted, while also engaging people from all backgrounds with contemporary art.
Kusama continues to create art in her Toyko studio, while her art travels around the world in various exhibitions. You can see her art permanently installed in multiple museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, UT. She also has ten permanently installed Infinity Mirror Rooms in the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark; The Broad, Los Angeles, California; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, and several other cities, and in 2020 the Hirshhorn announced it would debut new Kusama acquisitions, including two Infinity Mirror Rooms.
On March 19, 2021, the Smithsonian announced that early works which were kept in private hands for six decades will be exhibited and sold this year. The works will be exhibited publicly for the first time ever, in Hong Kong from April 7–22, and then exhibited in New York before being auctioned on May 12 at Bonhams. The three paintings and eight works on paper were created by Kusama and gifted to her doctor, Teruo Hirose. Kusama began seeking help from Hirose in the late 1950s in Manhattan, as he was one of only two Japanese-speaking doctors on the island at the time. Hirose often provided inexpensive or pro bono medical care to fellow Japanese immigrants, and so Kusama gave him a number of artworks as a token of gratitude. After her return to Japan in the 1970s, Kusama and Hirose continued to stay in contact and remained friends until his death in 2019. Bonhams expects the three paintings and eight works on paper to sell for between $8.8 million and $14 million.
We hope that you have enjoyed this series for Women’s History Month! If you did, please let us know, and tell us what else you would like to see on our blog.
“Biography.” Yayoi Kusama, yayoi-kusama.jp/e/biography/index.html.
“Yayoi Kusama.” Artnet, www.artnet.com/artists/yayoi-kusama/.
“Yayoi Kusama.” Toki No Wasuremono / Waranuki Inc, tokinowasuremono.com/e/artist-a08-kusama/index.html.
“Yayoi Kusama.” Whitney Museum of American Art, whitney.org/exhibitions/yayoi-kusama.
“Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.” Hirshhorn Museum, https://Hirshhorn.si.edu/Kusama/the-Exhibition/.