Yayoi Kusama: A Creative Life of Infinite Struggles

Yayoi Kusama: A Creative Life of Infinite Struggles

Yayoi Kusama made her fame through her polka-dotted arts making her one of the most influential people / Photo by Susanne Nilsson via Flickr


“I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that allowed me to live,” Yayoi Kusama, an 89-year-old Japanese artist and Instagram sensation, says in Kusama: Infinity, a documentary about her life. In 2017, she was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the world’s most influential people, AJC says.

Even at almost 90 years old, she still stands out, not just for her art, but also for her distinct glowing red wig and polka-dotted outfits. Before Kusama reached the peak of fame as the biggest-selling female artist in the world, her life was painted with pain, criticism, and discouragement. In sculpting her way to the art world, she faced trauma, suffered mental illness, and watched as her ideas were snatched before her very eyes, which pushed her many times to want to end her life. Yet, it was during her darkest times when her polka-dotted art’s colors shone the brightest.

Today, she continues to create her signature works of art, mostly featuring her infinity mirror rooms and her favorite plants—pumpkins. Her most recent exhibition is currently being hosted by Victoria Miro Gallery in London.


A Polka-Dotted Universe at Victoria Miro Gallery

As with her previous exhibitions, the coveted tickets to her show at the Victoria Miro Gallery have been phased out. Her present exhibition showcases her polka-dot lanterns, pumpkins, paintings, and sculptures.  Pumpkins occupy a larger part of her exhibit, plants that she adores because of their “generous unpretentiousness” and their “solid spiritual balance”.

Featured art pieces include Infinity Mirror—My Heart Is Dancing Into the Universe, Flowers That Speak All About My Heart Given to the Sky, My Eternal Soul, and The Moving Moment When I Went to the Universe. It is said that the prices of her Infinity Rooms range from around $1 million and $2 million while her bronze pumpkins are being sold at approximately $1.5 million.

Connecting the Dots of Kusama’s Life

Yayoi Kusama was born to a rich yet deeply disturbed family in Matsumoto, Japan in 1829. Her family grew nurseries of pumpkins, peonies, and violets. One day, the young Kusama went to the flowerbeds bringing along her sketchbook with her. It was at this moment when she first experienced that it was as if the plants were trying to say something to her. From that time on, as Studio International narrates, whenever she went through altered visual or auditory states, she would express this through crayon drawings or through paintings.

At a tender age, she already dreamed of becoming a painter. Her early scribbles featured polka dots and nature. However, her mother was against her ambition and would always take away her drawings before she had the chance to complete them. What was worse was that her mother, because she was enraged by her father’s infidelity, made her to keep an eye on her father and his affairs that caused her to be traumatized.

Growing up, she became a fan of Georgia O’ Keefe’s works. In a letter, she asked her to guide her on how to pursue a painter’s path. O’Keefe replied, “In this country, an artist has a hard time making a living.” Even so, she convinced her to travel to the US, telling her to show it to someone who would be willing to give her creations a chance. Although Kusama was not well-versed in English back then, she still decided to take a risk. She flew to New York with dollar bills sewed into her kimono.

At that time, male artists reigned in the New York art scene, so much so that a majority of the female dealers would not feature female artists. Despite having prominent artists regarding her works highly, luck did not seem to be on her side. Little did she know this was the beginning of her heartaches, a domino of her male peers taking credit for her ideas one after the other.


Infinity mirror rooms and pumpkins were mostly the feature of Yayoi Kusama paintings / Photo by Vagner Carvalheiro via Wikimedia Commons


When she created the fabric phallic couch, Claes Oldenburg created an imitation that became his signature. Andy Warhol too, made a rip-off version of her One Thousand Boats and called it Cow Wallpaper. Then, in 1965, she made a prototype of her Infinity Mirrored Room, the first mirrored room environment in the world. She first put them on exhibition in Castellane Gallery. Lucas Samaras, who specialized in avant-garde art, created his own infinity room in a more reputable gallery. In exasperation, she leaped from her apartment window, but survived the fall.

After a year, she gathered the courage to pursue art again with the help of the gallery owner Beatrice Webb and other friends. Without any invitation, she attended the 1996 Venice Biennale where she showcased her Narcissus Garden. From that time on, she was not shackled by the gallery system anymore.

In the US, she started initiating body painting events. These involved much nudity, which caused her conservative family and some from the American press to shun her. She returned to her homeland, finding herself rejected by both friends and family and too discouraged to paint. Plunged in despair, she was on the verge of committing suicide again. Her life didn’t end but instead took a huge turnaround. Ironically, it was in a hospital when she was finally able to create her art peacefully as she went through art therapy.

In 1989, the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York hosted a retrospective of her masterpieces. Then, Akira Tatehata, a Japanese art historian, convinced the government to allow Kusama to represent Japan in the 1993 Venice Biennale. With her psychotherapist assisting her, she held an exhibit, which became a huge hit. Eventually, more retrospectives of her artworks were held, helping her continually heal from her trauma through art and somehow fulfilling her wish of creating a “Kusama World.”