Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) is an internationally popular artist whose works have delighted, entranced, and entertained people for decades. She was born in Matsumoto, Japan to wealthy parents. By the age of 10, she was experiencing what she described as “flashes of light, aura, or dense fields of dots.” These visual and aural hallucinations were diagnosed as obsessional neurosis and depersonalization. Obsessional neurosis, visions and sounds, recurred against Kusama’s will, but her ability to reason and remain lucid remained. They had an enormous impact on her art. As a child she wanted to study art, and she made a deal with her mother to study art if she also went to etiquette school. Kusama began to study Japanese Nihonga in 1948.
Nihonga is as much a philosophy as it is a style. The word Nihonga means empty space (ma). Outlines are emphasized, images are two-dimensional, and gold is frequently used. The image is not intended to be seen as solid, and beauty can be found in impermanent things. Nihonga also brought back several aspects of traditional Japanese art. “The Hill” (“A (No. 30”) (1953) (gouache, pastel, oil on wax paper), an early drawing by Kusama, allows the viewer to begin to understand how Kusama’s mental condition appeared in her art. The painting is abstract, an imaginary space that allows multiple interpretations. The title “The Hill” was given later. The flat black space can be thought of as the night sky. The gold ground between the black is crisscrossed with green lines containing repeated triangles, which suggest rows of evergreen trees. However, some triangles point upward and others downward, creating an inconsistent visual space. Over everything are light green dots, the beginning of Kusama’s signature polka dots.
After Kusama saw the work of Georgia O’Keeffe in 1955, she sent her a letter. O’Keeffe responded, offering advice and encouragement. She suggested Kusama come to America. Kusama arrived in Seattle, Washington, in 1957. Following an exhibition of her work there, she moved to New York City. In the 1960’s she participated in Viet Nam War protests and protests for marriage and gender equality. She dressed in polka dot clothing and frequently dressed other participants in dots. She initiated several “Happenings.” Andy Warhol and Claus Oldenburg spoke of Kusama as influential in the development of Assemblage art, environmental art, and performance art. She experimented with soft sculptures, and in 1965 she began to experiment with mirrors, music, and light. Polka dots always were included.
“Phalli Field” (1965) was Kusama’s first mirrored room. It was filled with white soft sculptures with red polka dots. Viewers could look into the room and engage with the multiple reflections of themselves and the sculptures. “Phalli Field” was the beginning of what Kusama calls Infinity Rooms. The following year, Kusama performed in the room, renaming it “Peep Show or Endless Love Room,” at the Castellane Gallery in New York City. The “Phalli Room” in these photographs has been installed several times. It was purchased in 2016 by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
Kusama’s work became immediately popular. “Narcissus Garden” was included in the 1966 Venice Biennale where she placed hundreds of mirrored globes on the ground. Like “Phalli Fields” and other of her works, “Narcissus Garden” has been commissioned several times. The photo here is of “Narcissus Garden” at the New York Botanical Garden in 2021.
Kusama returned to Japan in 1975, and two years later she checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital, a psychiatric institution. Her mental conditions were diagnosed, and she realized that documenting her hallucinations was a way to learn to deal with them: “Recording them helped to ease the shock and fear of the episodes. That is the origin of my pictures…particularly of my mental disease… painting pictures has been a therapy for me to overcome the illness.” She is a voluntary resident at the hospital, leaving when her work takes her away. She purchased a building next door to serve as her studio.
Depersonalization, Kusama’s second diagnosed condition, is described as a feeling of being an observer, outside yourself. She commented, “I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space.” “Obliteration Room” (2002) was first created in the Queensland Gallery, Australia, and it was immediately popular. The room was originally entirely white including the furniture. Kusama thought of it as a project for children. Visitors to the room were given sheets of circular stickers of various colors and sizes and told to put them anywhere. After a period of time, as this photograph shows, the room covered with dots does begin to disappear. When installed at the Hirshhorn Museum in 2017, “Obliteration Room” attracted thousands of visitors who covered it with over 800,000 stickers.
Kusama recalls her childhood experience that influenced “Obliteration Room: “One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up, I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows, and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body, and the universe.” A film titled “Self-Obliteration, made in1968 with Jud Yalkut, won prizes that year at the Fourth International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium, the Second Maryland Film Festival, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival.
Pumpkins are another image that Kusama includes in her works: “I love pumpkins because of their humorous form, warm feeling, and a human-like quality and form. My desire to create works of pumpkins still continues. I have enthusiasm as if I were still a child.” Kusama’s family owned a nursery and seed farm. Pumpkins were a part of her childhood.
Kusuma created an Infinity Room with pumpkins at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Pumpkins have become another of her signature images in sculptures, paintings, and prints. The Hirshhorn Museum held a major exhibition of her work in 2016. “All the Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins” was a new Infinity Room. Kusama’s popularity is evidenced in the number of visitors to this exhibition. When it went on tour in 2017, four of the six museums on the tour reported the highest attendance records in their histories.
“My Heart is Dancing in the Universe” (2018) features colorfully lit paper lanterns covered with dots and mirrored walls that allow visitors to wander through an enchanted world, viewing their reflections while the colors gradually change around them.
The Hirshhorn Museum has collected Kusama’s work since1966. “My Heart is Dancing in the Universe” was first shown at the Museum in 2018. It acquired the work in January 2022. One with Eternity is the title of the current Kusama exhibition at the Hirshhorn. It was scheduled to close at the end of 2022, but the popularity of her work caused the Museum to extend the exhibition until Spring 2023. “Phalli Field” and “My Heart is Dancing in the Universe” are two Infinity Rooms in the current exhibition, along with “Pumpkin” (2016), “The Hill” (1953), as well as sculptures and photographs by the artist. Also in the exhibition are a few Kusama paintings, begun in 2009 and continuing to the present. These paintings are from her series My Eternal Soul, which now numbers over 800 works.
Kusama has received numerous commissions to create large scale sculptures of pumpkins, flowers, and biomorphic shapes in sculpture gardens world-wide. She collaborated with Coca-Cola, BMW, Selfridges of London, and Louis Vuitton in New York and London. In 2020 a painting sold for 6.8 million dollars. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art (2006). The prestigious Art Newspaper named her “the most popular artist in the world” based on museum attendance in 2014. The Yayoi Kusama Museum was opened in Tokyo in 2017.
Yayoi Kusama will by 94 years old on March 22, 2023. She faced many difficulties but overcame them to lead an amazing life. Her art has brought so much pleasure to the world. In response to the COVID-19 epidemic, she felt the need to send the following message to the world.
A MESSAGE FROM YAYOI KUSAMA TO THE WHOLE WORLD
Though it glistens just out of reach, I continue to pray for hope to shine through
Its glimmer lighting our way
This long awaited great cosmic glow
Now that we find ourselves on the dark side of the world
The gods will be there to strengthen the hope we have spread throughout the universe
For those left behind, each person’s story and that of their loved ones
It is time to seek a hymn of love for our souls
In the midst of this historic menace, a brief burst of light points to the future
Let us joyfully sing this song of a splendid future
Embraced in deep love and the efforts of people all over the world
Now is the time to overcome, to bring peace
We gathered for love and I hope to fulfil that desire
The time has come to fight and overcome our unhappiness
NOTE: One with Eternity at the Hirshhorn is free to the public. However, timed passes are necessary as a result of the enormous response. Go to https://hirshhorn.si.edu for all information.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.