Childhood & Early Life
Yayoi Kusama was born on March 22, 1929, into an affluent merchant family in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan. Her family life was disturbed as her father was a womanizer who wanted nothing to do with his wife, and her mother was temperamental and physically abusive to her.
With her mother instructing her to spy on her father’s dalliances, she developed a deep-rooted contempt for male sexuality and an aversion to sex that would make a lasting impact on her art.
At the age of 13, Kusama went to work in a defense factory where she sewed parachutes for the Japanese army engaged in the Second World War, which influenced her greatly and opened her eyes to the concepts of personal and creative liberty.
In 1948, despite her parents’ opposition, she enrolled at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts, where she learned the traditional ‘Nihonga’ painting style of Japan. However, frustrated with the restrictions of the style, she expressed interest in the European and American avant-garde, and participated in several painting exhibitions in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Matsumoto.
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By 1950, Yayoi Kusama had already developed her own distinctive style depicting natural forms in abstraction in watercolor, oil, and gouache, principally on paper. She also commenced using her trademark polka dots on virtually every surface that she could find; floors, walls, canvases, and later household objects, and even on the bodies of nude assistants.
In 1955, she participated in the ‘International Watercolor Exhibition: 18th Biennial’ at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Attracted by the creative environment in America, she engaged in correspondence with Georgia O’Keeffe, a leading American modernist painter, asking for advice whether she should move to America to pursue her artistic career.
In 1957, at the age of 27, she emigrated to the United States of America and arrived in Seattle, where she had her first American solo exhibition of her paintings at the ‘Zoe Dusanne Gallery’.
In 1958, she moved to New York City, where in 1959, she had a solo exhibition at the ‘Brata Gallery’. Her creation, ‘Infinity Nets’, especially, received very good reviews, including one by Donald Judd, who was an art critic before he became an artist.
In 1960, Kusama participated in her first European exhibition, ‘Monochrome Malerei’ that was held at the ‘Städtisches Museum Schloss Morsbroich’, a museum of modern art in Leverkusen, Germany.
Kusama shifted her studio to the same building where Donald Judd and Eva Hesse worked. Already good friends with Judd, she also became very close to Hesse.
Kusama began painting household furniture like chairs, ladders, and even shoes with white phallic protrusions that created a sensation. She participated in one of the first pop art exhibitions at New York’s ‘Green Gallery’ along with Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol. She also exhibited ‘Infinity Nets’ at the ‘Stedelijk Museum’, Amsterdam in the exhibition ‘Nul’.
Despite having a prodigious output, she found it very difficult to make her art profitable and had to be regularly hospitalized due to exhaustion from overwork and long-standing complaint of hallucinations.
In 1963, Kusama exhibited her first installation, ‘Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show’ in New York’s ‘Gertrude Stein Gallery’. The next year, she created a sensation at the New York’s ‘Richard Castellane Gallery‘ with her ‘Driving Image Show’ featuring objects and the floor covered with macaroni.
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Kusama showed her first mirror installation in 1965 at the ‘Richard Castellane Gallery’ with ‘Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field’ that experimented with mirrored surfaces and light to create the illusion of a never-ending space. She also had her first solo show in Europe when she organized ‘The Inner and Outer Space’ at Stockholm’s ‘Moderna Museet’.
Kusama participated in the celebrated ‘Venice Biennale’ for the first time in 1966 in its 33rd edition with her ‘Narcissus Garden’ featuring countless mirrored balls.
The Hippie movement and the other protest movements of those times also influenced Kusuma, who started organizing body paint festivals and public happenings in New York, many of which, involved nudity during 1967-68 to protest against the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Her film, ‘Kusama’s Self-Obliteration’ won a number of awards at several experimental film festivals.
Most of her public events were geared to attract the maximum publicity, an exceptional example being the ‘Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead’ held in 1960 at the ‘Sculpture Garden’ of the ‘Museum of Modern Art’ that featured nude performers posing in classical statuary stances in the fountain.
She went to Tokyo in 1970 and organized a nude happening for which, she was promptly arrested. After spending just three months in Japan, she returned to America. However, in 1973, an ailing Kusama returned, this time for good.
Kusama began writing short stories, novels with shocking instinctual content and surrealistic themes, and poetry. She also tried her hand at dealing in art, however, the venture failed in a few years.
In 1977, convinced that she was mentally unwell, she got herself admitted into the ‘Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill’ in Tokyo, where she lives even now.
Yayoi Kusama’s new large paintings and sculptures were exhibited in 1982 at the ‘Fuji Television Gallery’ in Tokyo and she also had a solo exhibition the same year in ‘Naviglio Gallery’ in Milan that marked her return to a European gallery after a long gap.
Because of her relocation to Japan, she had been more or less forgotten as an artist in the United States until there was a resurgence of interest in her works following several exhibitions of retrospectives, the first of which, took place in 1989, at the ‘Center for International Contemporary Arts’ in New York.
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She represented Japan in 1993, at the ‘Venice Biennale’ with selected works covering her entire artistic career.
During the period 1995–98, Kusama participated in a number of international exhibitions in which, she showed both new creations and retrospectives.
In the new millennium, Matsumoto, Kusama’s hometown, hosted a retrospective, in which, nearly 300 of her works were shown. ‘Infinity Net’, her autobiography in Japanese was also published.
In 2004, the ‘Mori Art Museum’ in Tokyo hosted her exhibition, ‘Kusamatrix’ that also included ‘Dots Obsession’, a large room installation. In 2009, she commenced work on a series of 100 large canvases, ‘My Eternal Soul’.
In 2011, a large retrospective of her works was shown first at the ‘Museo Reina Sofia’ in Madrid and then at the ‘Centre Pompidou’ in Paris, after which, in the following year, it travelled to the ‘Tate Modern’, and concluded at the at the ‘Whitney Museum of American Art’ in New York.
In 2017, the ‘Hirshhorn Museum’ in Washington organized a retrospective of her works in the last 50 years that will travel to five more museums in American and Canada. The ‘Yayoi Kusama Museum’ opened in Tokyo the same year.