10 Facts to Help You Get to Know Yayoi Kusama 

Yayoi Kusama, image courtesy of Susanne Nilsson via Flickr. Yayoi Kusama, image courtesy of Susanne Nilsson via Flickr.

Affectionately referred to by some as “the princess of polka dots”, Yayoi Kusama channelled childhood hallucinations of flowers speaking to her into a life of conceptual art infused with Feminism, Minimalism, Surrealism, Art Brut, Pop Art, and Abstract Expressionism. Today she is the world’s top-selling female artist and she has influenced a generation of artists, including Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. 

“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 can’t stay alone; like the communicative life of people, two or three polka dots become movement…polka-dots are a way to infinity”

Yayoi Kusama

A world-famous icon of contemporary art, Yayoi Kusama is the biggest-selling female artist in the world, whose polka dots are as immediately identifiable as her bright-red wig and quirky spotty outfits. 

Astonishingly prolific throughout her career, Kusama became a central figure in the New York Avant-Garde (1950s and ’60s). She rose to international attention in the 1960s with her wide-ranging creative approach. Born in in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama split her life between her homeland and the US, and divided her art between ideas of Pop Art, Minimalism, and Psychedelia through paintings, performances, presentations, installations, literature, and films during her long and influential career. Her early work in New York centred on her Infinity Net paintings, but it’s her polka dot-smothered art that catapulted her to international fame and proved to be a hypnotic sensation for both the viewer and the artist in a career spotted with an abundance of highs and lows. 

Yayoi Kusama – No 2.

Yayoi Kusama – No 2. Sold for $5,794,500 via Christie’s (November 2008).

1. Kusama is the world’s highest grossing female artist

Not limiting herself to breaking artistic boundaries, Kusama’s art has also broken records throughout her career. In 2014, she was the most popular artist of the year after a record-breaking number of visitors saw her Latin American tour, Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Obsession. It’s at auction, though, that Kusama’s art has set the most impressive records.

Yayoi Kusama - Interminable Net #3.

Yayoi Kusama – Interminable Net #3. Sold for $5,850,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2015).

As of January 2020, the total turnover for Kusama’s works topped a staggering $194,977,508, with the majority of her art being sold for between $100k and $500k at auction, making her the top-selling female artist. The top prices for her work are for paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s, when she first moved to New York from Japan. The records began snowballing in November 2008, when Christie’s sold a 1959 white Infinity Net painting formerly owned by Donald Judd, No. 2, for $5.7 million, which was then a record for a living female artist. Kusama became the most expensive living female artist at auction when White No. 28 (1960) from her Infinity Nets series sold for $7.1 million at Christie’s in 2014. Her status has been confirmed by her art appearing in Invaluable’s price archive over 2,300 times, with Interminable Net #3 commanding $5,850,000 at Sotheby’s in May 2015.

2. Art was an escape from her family 

Kusama’s home life was far from supportive where her prodigious artistic tendencies were concerned. Her mother was abusive and would snatch drawings from her before she finished them, and her father’s extramarital affairs would have a lasting effect on her mental health. These two factors combined could well explain her obsessive creative drive to finish a work before it’s taken from her.

Yayoi Kusama - Waves on the Lake.

Yayoi Kusama – Waves on the Lake. Sold for ¥7,000,000 via Mallet Auction (October 2007).

Unsurprisingly, Kusama sought to escape this hostile environment through her art. Although Japanese society at the time expected her to get married and have children, she defied expectation – and the will of her parents – by enrolling at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1948. Here she studied Nihonga painting, a traditional Japanese art.

3. The dots are part of something far greater

Yayoi Kusama – Dot Obsession.

Yayoi Kusama – Dot Obsession. Sold for HKD6,930,000 via Sotheby’s (April 2022).

Polka dots and Kusama have become inextricably linked, but they’re not merely a decorative device. She first used polka dots at the tender age of 10 years old, when she drew a woman in traditional Japanese dress (thought to be her mother) covered in polka dots. By adding these dots to her paintings, drawings, sculptures, and clothes Kusama aims to make them, and even herself, melt, and become one with the universe. 

“Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos,” she explained of her trademark approach. “Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.”

4. Georgia O’Keefe encouraged Kusama’s move to New York 

Kusama was 27 years old when she made the biggest decision of her career and left Japan for Seattle, where she would stay for a year, before making her name in New York. But the move and subsequent success might not have happened if it weren’t for the encouragement of fellow artist Georgia O’Keefe, with whom she had been in correspondence. “I’m only on the first step of the long difficult life of being a painter. Will you kindly show me the way?” she asked.

In 1957, she moved to Seattle for an exhibition of her paintings at the Zoe Dusanne Gallery. It was here that she established her reputation as a leader in the Avant-Garde, before moving to New York a year later. The move to the US was a metaphorical artistic fresh start for Kusama, as well as a literal one, as she destroyed many of her early pieces before making the daunting voyage across the Pacific. Kusama also spoke very little English and had to sew dollar bills into her clothing, as it was prohibited to send money from Japan to the US.

5. The Pointillism of Seurat and Signac was an influence

She’s a master of dotty art, but Kusama’s work wasn’t strictly Pointillism. Her patterns don’t make up full images or blend color spots into a fuller range of tones, as was typical of the late 19th century branch of Impressionism, as pioneered by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.

Paul Signac - Arrière du Tub.

Paul Signac – Arrière du Tub. Sold for $11,688,000 via Christie’s (May 2007).

Kusama’s dot paintings did, however, have their development and inspiration rooted in the works of Pointillist masters like Seurat and Signac. She covered canvases in polka dots, created dot-filled installations, and made polka dot covered clothing as part of her own fashion brand, Kusama Fashion Company Ltd. She even she designed a pink dotted phone in a dog-shaped holder, called Handbag for Space Travel, My Doggie Ring-Ring.

6. Her work drew imitators that drove her to attempted suicide

Yayoi Kusama - Infinity Nets, 1962.

Yayoi Kusama – Infinity Nets, 1962. Sold for ¥437,000 via Est-Ouest Auctions Co.,Ltd (November 2010).

Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol were both great admirers. However, their admiration spilled into imitation at the expense of recognition of her own work.  Inspired by her fabric phallic couch, Accumulation, Oldenburg created the soft sculptures that would elevate him to worldwide fame, while Andy Warhol copied her One Thousand Boats installation, which featured repeated images for his Cow Wallpaper. That concept served Warhol Fairly well.

Then, in 1965, Kusama created the world’s first mirrored-room installation at the Castellane Gallery in New York. This was a precursor to her Infinity Mirror Rooms, but only a few months later, Avant-Garde artist Lucas Samaras exhibited his own mirrored installation at the more prestigious Pace Gallery. Distraught and dejected, Kusama threw herself from the window of her apartment. She survived the incident, but upon her recovery she returned to her native Japan, where she checked herself into a psychiatric institution, where she has resided ever since. 

7. A pioneer of Happenings that mirrored the times

Not just a polka dot perfectionist, Kusama’s artistic reach was broad and mirrored the times through performance art that explored anti-war, anti-establishment, and free love ideas. Known as Happenings, Kusmama’s live action performances often involved public nudity, with naked participants painted in brightly colored polka dots, to help dismantle boundaries around identity, sexuality, and the body. 

Yayoi Kusama – Pumpkin.

Yayoi Kusama – Pumpkin. Sold for HKD62,540,000 via Christie’s (December 2021).

It was the late 1960s and Kusama embraced the hippy counterculture of the time, as expressed in Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead (1969), during which she painted dots on participants’ naked bodies in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Critics were divided; some accused her of intense self-promotion. But it worked, as Grand Orgy appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News.

8. Sexual anxiety was a repeated theme 

The repeated theme can be traced to her father’s extramarital affairs, which instilled within her a lifelong contempt for sexuality. “The sexual obsession and fear of sex sit side by side in me,” she said. Together with obsessive repetition, sexual anxiety linked much of her work. Kusama covered the surface of objects, including an armchair for Accumulation No. 1 (1962), with small soft phallic sculptures made of white fabric. 

Phalluses were a feature of her work, as in her Phalli’s Field (1965) installation, which featured a mirrored room with the floor covered by hundreds of stuffed polka dot phalli. Like in her Infinity Rooms, mirrors created infinite planes in her installations, and in this case, infinite phalluses.

9. Choosing to live in psychiatric facility didn’t stunt her productivity

By 1977 Kusama decided to return to Japan and by her own choice, she decided to live in a psychiatric facility. This wasn’t the end of her story though. Far from it. She continued to produce art at the same prodigious pace and even wrote surreal poetry and fiction, including The Hustlers Grotto of Christopher Street (1984) and Between Heaven and Earth (1988). 

She announced her return to the international art world in 1989 with shows in New York City and Oxford, England. Then in 1993, she represented Japan at the Venice Biennale with Mirror Room (Pumpkin), a mirrored room installation featuring pumpkin sculptures covered in polka dots, which have proved very popular at auction. 

10. She celebrates 60 years of Mirror/Infinity Rooms

Since 1963, Kusama has mesmerized and enchanted audiences with her Mirror/Infinity room installations. These purpose-built rooms are lined with mirrored glass and contain hundreds of neon-colored balls hanging at various heights above the audiences’ head to allow them to see light repeatedly reflected off the mirrored surfaces to create the hypnotic illusion of a never-ending space.

The immersive installations that transport people into Kusama’s unique vision of endless reflections have proved immensely popular and the Tate Modern in London, England will celebrate the installation’s 60th birthday with an exhibition running until May 2023. Permanent installations can be also be found in the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona, The Broad, Los Angeles, California, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Massachusetts.


Sources: Tate | BBC | The Art Newspaper | The Broad | Widewalls | Lifeandstyle | NY Times | Britannica | MyModernMet