Yayoi Kusama is an original. Born in 1929, her career as an artist spans six decades, two continents, various seminal art movements, painting, sculpture, installations, fashion, film, performance art, text and one recurring motif: the dot.

Original image : : copyright Yayoi Kusama

Polka-dots become movement … Polka dots are a way to infinity.
Yayoi Kusama 1978

Kusama explained her fascination – her obsession – with dots in her book Manhattan Suicide Addict: “…a polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity.”

Yayoi Kusama, 草間彌生, is a talented and complex artist. Given to hallucinations and suicidal thoughts as a child – the former the inspiration of her earliest works; the latter likely connected to her choosing to live voluntarily in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital. Japan’s avant-garde pop artist is an original; her distinctive paintings, sculptures, performance pieces and installations formed of her hallucinations and obsessions – polkadots, reflections, repetition, self-obliteration and concepts of infinity.

A recipient of Japan’s prestigious Order of the Rising Sun, 旭日章, Kusama’s work can be found in some of the world’s leading museums: New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. She is associated with minimalism and Pop and is often mentioned in the same breath as artists like Rothko and Pollock; she has exhibited with Warhol and Oldenberg, whose work she has influenced; and her paintings have sold for many millions of dollars on the international art market.

Beginnings in Japan

Growing up in the mountainous region of Nagano on Honshu, which was to become famous for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympic Games, Kusama began painting in her early teens. She was driven to become an artist from a young age and first exhibited her work in 1952. She was educated at Kyoto’s Arts and Crafts School and although she studied traditional Japanese nihonga, 日本画, ink and wash style painting, her own works soon evolved from traditional subjects to the experimental and abstract, based, she says, on hallucinations that she interprets and gives form to – during this time, she experienced a nervous breakdown and began psychiatric treatment. She began exhibiting works both in Japan and in the United States.

To America

She moved to Seattle and then New York City in 1958, and only a year later made an impact on the art world with her imposing 10 meter wide Infinity Net canvases, which heralded her fascination with pattern, repetition and finely detailed, almost hallucinogenic abstract ‘fields’. Kusama thrived in New York throughout the 60s, creating a prolific body of innovative work: paintings ,sculptures and installations and performance art pieces – happenings, as they were termed then; body festivals or anatomic explosions, as Kusama labeled them. Her sculptural works were organic and primal with works like Accumulation and Compulsive Furniture evoking coral, mushrooms and phalluses. Her performance pieces, staged in the US and Europe, fitting for an avant-garde artist, were controversial and showed her talent for self promotion, such as when she famously started selling off the 1500 mirrored spheres of her Narcissus Garden installation at the 1966 Venice Biennale for a couple of dollars each. She also experimented with film, producing and featuring in the prize-winning Kusama’s Self-Obliteration in 1968. She tried her hand at textile and fashion design and even opened a fashion boutique in 1969.

Back to Japan 

Despite her successes in the United States, illness convinced Kusama to move back to Japan in 1973, where not long after she was treated for depersonalization syndrome. She settled into a tranquil life, but she continued, however, to create art and added literature that was far from tranquil to her repertoire, writing more than a dozen novels, poems and other texts over the ensuing years, most famously Manhattan Suicide Addict (1978), the award-winning The Hustlers Grotto of Christopher Street (1983) and Violet Obsession (1998). In 1975, on the advice of her psychiatrist, she chose to become a resident of Seiwa Hospital, where she continues to live when she’s not traveling with her art. She continues to create works in studio space near the hospital. 


Kusama has held countless exhibitions over the decades and been the subject of many retrospectives. Notable shows include her 1962 Accumulation soft sculptures at New York’s Green Gallery; the psychedelic 1965 Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field installation at her Floor Show exhibition at the Castellane Gallery, also in New York, which initiated her fascination with reflection, light and the concept of infinity, that continued in other installations such as Kusama’s Peep Show (1966) and Fireflies on the Water, I’m here but nothing (2000); the public body festivals in New York in the 1960s, when ‘High Priestess’ Kusama painted polka dots on nude models in a ritual of self obliteration – another of her themes; Ascension of Polkadots on the Trees, for the 2006 Singapore Biennale, where she conceived to cover a stretch of the majestic trees of Orchard Road with polka dot fabric; and last year’s 2011 Yayoi Kusama Retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris – images of which can be seen in the video below.

In Tokyo, tomorrow is the last chance to get a taste of the grande dame of pop at the current exhibition, Kusama’s Body Festival in 60s, at Watari-um , the funky gallery bookstore in Aoyama. The show focuses on Kusama’s New York years through the 1960s. Various fun polkadot memorabilia is also available for purchase. 

For a look at what drives Kusama’s art, Grady Turner’s fascinating 1999 in-depth interview with Yayoi Kusama for BOMB is a great read.

yayoi kusama watari-um