Yayoi Kusama: “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see.”

Yayoi Kusama is probably one of the most popular living artists in the world. Her works are well recognized across all sectors of society, and #yayoikusama is consistently trending on Instagram.

Yayoi Kusama is probably one of the most popular living artists in the world. Her works are well recognized across all sectors of society, and #yayoikusama is consistently trending on Instagram. Fans queue for hours to snap a selfie against the backdrop of her dazzling installations, but few bother to delve into the history or personal background of the artist and what she went through to achieve this success.

“My mother was against me being an artist. She just wanted me to marry a rich man.”

Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929 to an affluent family in rural Japan. The family grew flowers to sell all over the country. Yayoi showed artistic inclinations from the very beginning. As a child, she would sketch the violets, peonies, and zinnias. While sitting amongst the flowers, one day, Yayoi felt as if the flowers were crowding in and talking to her. This was the beginning of countless anxiety-inducing hallucinations Yayoi would experience throughout her childhood.

The hallucinations were only part of the emotional turmoil Yayoi faced as a young person. She was raised in an unhappy home. Her mother would send Yayoi out to spy on her philandering father, but when she came home, her mother would take out her rage on Yayoi.

Hers was a traditional, strict Japanese family and her mother vehemently disapproved of her painting. She would tear the canvases out of Yayoi’s hands and destroy them. Instead, Yayoi was expected to prepare for an arranged marriage, preferably to a wealthy man. Marriage was something Yayoi never showed any interest in, and she was determined to pursued her art.

“My art originates from hallucinations only I can see.”

Yayoi’s otherworldly art embraces light, polka dots, pumpkins, and bright flowers, all of which originated from her hallucinations. When she experienced these episodes, which she calls ‘depersonalizations,’ she would use drawing or painting to make sense of what she saw.

 The first pumpkin she ever saw spoke to her. The illusion frightened her, and so she painted it to help deal with the trauma. At 11 years old, that pumpkin won her her first prize in an art competition. Over 80 years later, pumpkins have become a recurring symbol in her art, and her large silver pumpkin sculptures have sold for around $500,000.

Yayoi felt as if her hallucinations were obliterating her. Once, while looking at a floral table cloth in her family’s kitchen, she began to imagine the pattern spreading across the room, following her up the stairs and engulfing her. These visions would later inspire famous installations, such as her Obliteration Room and Flower Obsession.

After stumbling across Georgia O’Keefe’s work in a small bookstore in her hometown, Yayoi wrote to the American artist for advice on making it as an artist. She sent her some of her watercolors, and O’Keefe became her first connection in the United States.

In 1958, 27-year-old Yayoi left her controlling family and arrived in New York. She carried just a few hundred dollars, some drawings, and 60 silk kimonos. She thought that if her paintings didn’t make it, she could sell her kimonos. Life in New York was a struggle. She recalls boiling fish heads for soup from scraps scavenged from fishmongers. She once carried an enormous canvas over 40 city blocks, only to be rejected by the gallery. Her determination was relentless.

“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’s compulsive use of repetitive patterns began in New York, and her first breakthrough was her Infinity Net paintings. She started on large canvases and gradually moved onto walls, windows, chairs, clothing, and even her own body. She sold her first Infinity Net paintings to fellow artists for $75 in 1962. In 2014, one of them sold for $7.1 million, the highest for any living female artist!

During the 1960s, Yayoi began to mingle in the progressive, experimental New York art scene with the likes of Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. Even in these avant-garde circles, Kusama was continuously breaking barriers.

Kusama uses dots to measure the unbound universe and her position in it. Her signature polka dots symbolize the moon, the sun, the countless stars, the Earth, and all the people on it. She explores the “unfathomable mystery and infinitude of the universe.”

The idea of infinity gave birth to her famous and now ‘instafamous’ mirror rooms, or Infinity Rooms. They create the illusion of a never-ending space. The installations encourage personal reflection in a place of endless visual reflection. She aims to absorb herself and her viewers into her art.

Her early encounters of her father’s sexual escapades traumatized the young Yayoi and led to a lifelong aversion to sex, something she also explores in her work. Her Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field (1965) is filled with hand-sewn, soft sculptures in the form of male body parts. She also began to cover objects, a rowboat, a table, chairs, and even shoes in countless fabric phalli.

In 1965, Kusama created quite a stir at the Venice Biennale. Her Narcissus Garden consisted of 1500 mirror balls. Wearing a gold kimono, Kusama put up the sign “Your narcissism for sale” and sold the balls to her audience for two dollars each. Perhaps it was a criticism of the commercialization of art, or maybe her crystal balls were predicting the narcissistic age of the selfie that would eventually bring her work to the masses. Nevertheless, she caused quite a controversy, and the organizers banned her from performing alongside her work. 

Kusama aimed to break down the barrier between art and audience. She absorbed herself and her viewers into her art. In 1967 in The Hague, her Polka Dot Lover Room included naked people painted in polka dots amongst polka-dotted sculptures.

More recently, in her Flower Obsession installation, viewers created the art by sticking pink flowers on a bare white apartment. Eventually covering every surface, from floor to ceiling and even the toilet bowl, an expression of one of Kusama’s earliest hallucinations in which the flowers engulfed her home and herself.

Kusama has always worked outside the box and never restricted herself to one medium. In addition to drawing, painting, sculpting, installation, and performance art, she was an avid writer. She’s written novels and an autobiography and published a magazine called KUSAMA orgy. In the late 60s, she created her first film, Kusama’s Self Obliteration. She became increasingly interested in fashion design. She even opened a fashion boutique on New York’s 6th Avenue and put on provocative rooftop fashion shows.  

“I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.”

Kusama has described every day as being a struggle for her and that her only solace is art. She says that every time she has a problem, she confronts it with “the ax of art.”

Her traumatic early life and disturbing hallucinations were a lifelong struggle for Yayoi, but her life in New York was no easier. She was shunned by much of the art world and was dismissed by many major galleries. It was not an easy time for female artists. For a Japanese woman who was constantly breaking boundaries, it was even more challenging. Just over a decade after World War II, many Americans still viewed Japan as the enemy. She faced both sexism and racism.

Kusama also maintains that her male contemporaries stole her ideas. Warhol’s repetitive wallpaper prints seem to be influenced by her, and Oldenburg seemed to have copied her technique of soft sculpture. It is even said that Oldenburg’s wife apologized to Yayoi for the betrayal. She had thought these artists to be her colleagues and friends, and the lack of recognition for her groundbreaking ideas demoralized her. Her struggle to find success in New York culminated in bouts of depression and a suicide attempt.

Although Yayoi never married or had children, she did have relationships. The closest was probably the artist Joseph Cornell. They were a good pair as neither of them expressed any desire for sex. His death in 1972 seemed to hit Yayoi hard.

In 1973, she returned to Japan after nearly 15 years abroad. She found herself a stranger in her own country and was rejected by the conservative Japanese art world. Her father’s death brought up her childhood trauma, and she eventually checked herself into a psychiatric institution in 1977. She has lived there voluntarily ever since. She continues to work from her studio nearby the hospital. She describes her life in the mental hospital and creating art day after day as peaceful. After a life of mental illness and turmoil, she seems to have found some peace.

“I want to be more famous. Even more famous.”

It was as if she had disappeared for a period, but in the late 1980s, a curator tracked her down, and her work began to reappear on the international stage.

In more recent years, millions of visitors have queued for a mere glimpse of her work. People are desperate to capture their selfies in Kusama’s dazzling wonderlands. In 2018, visitors queued for over two hours for the chance to experience the work for only 30 seconds! When the Broad Museum in LA sold 90,000 tickets in one afternoon, the LA Times wondered if Kusama was now “hotter than Hamilton?” If Kusama dreamed of becoming famous, she certainly achieved that!

Kusama’s love of, or rather need for art, verges on obsession. She paints from morning to night every day and sometimes through the night.  “I have a flood of ideas in my mind,” she explains. And so, she continues to pour these ideas out into the world.

“I want to live in secret, in the world between mystery and symbol,” Kusama wrote in her 2002 autobiography. The desire to be famous yet remain a mystery may seem in opposition, but Yayoi Kusama has managed to do just that.