yayoi kusama – the polka dot queen

I have a lot left inside. I believe my art will last 500 years, 1,000 years and forever. For me, art is everything. I will strive to create works of art until I die, in the hope that my work will continue to touch the hearts of people even after I have died.

The nine decades of Yayoi Kusama’s life have taken her from rural Japan to the New York art scene to contemporary Tokyo, in a career in which she has continuously innovated and re-invented her style. Yayoi Kusama is one of, if not the biggest-selling female artist in the world. And in her bright-red wig and quirky polka-dot ensembles, she is also one of the most instantly recognizable.

Turning Hallucinations into Art

Kusama was born in 1929 in the rural provincial town of Matsumoto, Japan and from a young age was determined to be a painter. However, her family were far from supportive. Kusama would carry her sketchbook down to the seed-harvesting grounds that her family owned, and sit among the flowers until one day she experienced the flowers crowding in and talking to her.

This was the first of a series of disturbing hallucinations – she calls them depersonalizations – that haunted her childhood. Her mother tried to stop Kusama from painting – tearing the canvas from her hands and destroying it, which may explain her obsessive creative drive to finish a piece once started. Her mother insisted that she studied etiquette in order to make a good arranged marriage but Kusama kept on drawing. It was her way of making sense of her hallucinations.

And in Georgia O’Keeffe She Found Peace

The second chapter of Kusama’s journey began when she first encountered the work of Georgia O’Keeffe in a bookshop in Matsumoto, her home town. She found O’Keeffe’s address in New Mexico and wrote to her for advice about how she could make her way in the New York art world. Kusama arrived in New York in 1958, aged 27, with a few hundred dollars sewn into the lining of her dresses, along with 60 silk kimonos and some drawings. Her plan was to survive by selling one or the other. It was not to be that easy.  The New York art world was male dominated to the extent that even many of the female dealers didn’t want to exhibit women. Real success eluded her. It made it all the more agonizing as she was forced to watch her male peers gain recognition for her ideas.

A Growing Awareness of Infinity

In 1963 she started making chairs and other objects covered, fungi-like, with white painted phallic forms made of stuffed fabric. She saw it as her own private version of sex therapy. Her technique of “soft sculpture” appears to have been adopted by Oldenburg, and her repetitive wallpaper prints by Warhol. She despaired at the way the men around her found fame with her ideas. But worse was to come.

In 1965 Kusama created the world’s first mirrored-room environment, a precursor to her Infinity Mirror Rooms, at the Castellane Gallery in New York. As man prepared to head for the moon, Kusama had uniquely grasped the public’s growing awareness of infinity. She confronted them with this unnerving concept through a seemingly endless environment. Only a few months later, in a complete change of artistic direction, avant-garde artist Lucas Samaras exhibited his own mirrored installation at the far more prestigious Pace Gallery.

The High Priestess of Flower Power

Distraught and dejected, Kusama threw herself from the window of her apartment. With the support of friends such as gallery owner Beatrice Webb, she managed to pull herself together and in a remarkable show of determination took herself to the 1966 Venice Biennale, without invitation, to show her Narcissus Garden.  A witty take on the commercialization of the art world, it comprised 1500 mirrored balls that she sold off at a few dollars a time – until officials put a stop to it.

She lost herself in other ways as the 1960s progressed. For one piece in 1966 she walked through some of the rougher neighbourhoods of the city, dressed in full Japanese national costume: kimono, white painted face, her plaited hair fixed with flowers and carrying an ornate parasol. Kusama wanted to present herself as an outsider and she wanted to project her singular identity as far and wide as she could.

Then the summer of love arrived, Kusama sought to position herself as a kind of high priestess of flower power, staging “Body Festivals” and “Anatomic Explosion Happenings” in which she painted naked partygoers with polka dots. On 25th November 1968 she staged – half a century ahead of its time – New York’s first “homosexual wedding”, for which she had created a “wedding dress for two”.

If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.

Media interest in her work had shifted from serious critical attention to exposés in the tabloids where her name became synonymous with skin painting and orgies. As the 70s backlash against 60s excesses began, and having become something of an outcast in New York, Kusama returned to Japan, where, without the support of family or friends and finding herself unable to paint, she once again attempted suicide. But it seems that Kusama’s desire to create was always greater than her desire to die. Miraculously, she managed to find a hospital where the doctors were interested in art therapy and checked herself in. In this secure environment she found herself able to make art again. Her first works were an uncharacteristically dark series of collages in which she embraced the imagery of natural life cycles, almost as if she was challenging herself to confront her demons.

And Japanese Art Was Changed Forever…

A retrospective of her work was held at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York in 1989, and four years later, the Japanese art historian, Akira Tatehata, managed to persuade the government that she should be the first solo artist to represent Japan at the 1993 Venice Biennale. The exhibition was a phenomenal success and led to a huge transformation in how she was received and recognized in Japan. Kusama’s astonishing rise in the intervening years owes much to social media.

An outsider in more than one way – a woman, and a Japanese woman. She just wasn’t recognized in the way the white male artists were. In retrospect, it is clear she was a very important figure both in minimalism and in pop art, as well as in feminism, without even trying to be.

The Courage to Show Female Power.

Yayoi Kusama is considered to be one of the most successful living female artist. This has translated to commercial success as well — Kusama boasts the highest auction prices of any living woman artist. Kusama’s work champions sexual liberation, and in her early career, she used her body as a canvas, a precursor to the feminist performance art movement in the next two decades. She embodies the refusal of male domination and the courage to show female power.

Feeling inspired by this badass woman? Shop the Yayoi Kusama Collection and wear your sisu socks with pride!

Zerina Čengić, writer at heart, avid graffiti-tag-hunter, coca-cola fanatic and serving up the best drinks and most beautiful smile at your favourite Sarajevo bar, Boardroom

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