Yayoi Kusama (草間 彌生 or 草間 弥生 Kusama Yayoi, born March 22, 1929) is a Japanese artist and writer. Throughout her career she has worked in a wide variety of mediums, including painting, collage, sculpture, performance art and environmental installations, most of which exhibit her thematic interest in psychadelic colors, repetition and pattern.
Born in Matsumoto, Nagano into an upper middle class family, Kusama started creating art at an early age, going on to study Nihonga painting in Kyoto in 1948. Frustrated with this distinctly Japanese style, she became interested in the European and American avant-garde, staging several solo exhibitions of her paintings in Matsumoto and Tokyo during the 1950s. In 1957 she moved to the United States, settling down in New York City where she produced a series of paintings influenced by the abstract expressionist movement. Switching to sculpture and installation as her primary mediums, Kusama became a fixture of the New York avant-garde, having her works exhibited alongside the likes of Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and George Segal during the early 1960s, where she was often associated with the pop art movement. Embracing the rise of the hippie counterculture of the late 1960s, Kusama came to public attention after she organized a series of Body Festivals in which naked participants were painted with brightly colored polka dots.
In 1973, Kusama moved back to her native Japan, where she found the art scene far more conservative than that in New York. Becoming an art dealer, her business folded after several years, and after experiencing psychiatric problems, in 1977 she voluntarily admitted herself to a hospital, where she has spent the rest of her life. From here, she continued to produce artworks in a variety of mediums, as well as launching a literary career by publishing several novels, a poetry collection and an autobiography.
Yayoi Kusama said about her 1954 painting titled Flower (D.S.P.S) :
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. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.
Another quote of hers:
“…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.”
Her organically abstract paintings of one or two colors (the Infinity Nets series), which she began upon arriving in New York, garnered comparisons to the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. When she left New York she was practically forgotten as an artist until the late 1980s and 1990s, when a number of retrospectives revived international interest.
Following the success of the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1993 — a dazzling mirrored room filled with small pumpkin sculptures in which she resided in color-coordinated magician’s attire — Kusama went on to produce a huge, yellow pumpkin sculpture covered with an optical pattern of black spots. The pumpkin came to represent for her a kind of alter-ego or self-portrait.
Kusama’s later installation I’m Here, but Nothing, (2000–2008) is a simply furnished room consisting of table and chairs, place settings and bottles, armchairs and rugs, however its walls are tattooed with hundreds of fluorescent polka dots glowing in the UV light. The result is an endless infinite space where the self and everything in the room is obliterated.