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Ten facts you need to know about Yayoi Kusama, The Queen of Polka-Dots.

Ten facts about Yayoi Kusama, the famous 91-year-old Japanese provocative painter, sculptor, filmmaker, and performer illustrate her unusual way of life and avant-garde work.

1. Although her red lips and wig never give out her age, Yayoi Kusama becomes 89 years this year.

The artist was born on March 22, 1929 in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan. Having spent much time in the USA, she currently lives and works in Tokyo. She is well recognized for her red wig and sparkling red lips as well as for her enormous artistic potential and provocative oeuvre.
Portrait of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert via Getty Images.
Visitors of museum exhibitions view Kusama’s work all over the world. Her spanned painting, drawing, collage, sculpture, performance, film, printmaking, installation and environmental art as well as literature, fashion work and product design were touring through North America, Mexico, Brazil, Agrentina, Chile, England, Norway, Sweden, France, Russian, China, Korea, and Japan during the past five years.

2. Yayoi Kusama began to paint and cover all surfaces with dots when she was about ten years old.

Kusama is called The Queen of Polka-Dots because the colored dots and nets she paints were her motifs right from the beginning through all her long life.
  • Yayoi Kusama in Yellow Tree furniture room at Aich triennale, Nagoya, Japan, 2010 (detail). Image courtesy Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo, © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.
  • Yayoi Kusama As Child, 1939. Image courtesy Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo, © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.
"One day I was looking at the red-flower patterns on the tablecloth — 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."

When Yayoi was 10 years old and lived with her family in Japan, she began experiencing hallucinations ― “flashes of light, auras or dense fields of dots.”

At first, she was filled with anxiety and dread, but eventually she confronted her obsessive delusions by giving them concrete form. She ushered them from fantasy into reality by painting the abstract images everywhere she could. "Since my childhood, I have loved the round image of dots. Over several decades, dots have created, working together with net patterns, various types of paintings, sculptures, events and installations. They have indeed been moving freely about in the heaven of forms and shapes. Dots have taught me the proof of my existence. They scatter proliferating love in the universe and raise my mind to the height of the sky. This mysterious dots obsession. Dots even enter my dreams with art playing a trick on them, art which I love so deeply." (Yayoi Kusama 2006)

3. Mother of Yayoi did not support her, instead she violently opposed her being an artist.

Frequently beaten by her mother, who insisted that Kusama marry some rich man and be a good housewife, the young artist took refuge in painting and producing paper cut-outs.

Kusama describes growing up in Matsumoto, Nagano as "Truly miserable… I was an unwanted child born of unloving parents." In her essay ‘Why do I create art?' Kusama writes that "If it hadn’t been for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago from an inability to stand the environment."

Early work of Kusama, as a student at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts, was well received by critics in 1952. Professor of psychiatry Dr. Shiho Nishimura noticed her art work and introduced it at psychiatric conferences. The doctor advised Kusama to get away from her abusive mother. So, young artist resolved to move to the United States, where her favorite artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived.

Left: Yayoi Kunama, Mother, 1939. Allegedly created after the first attack of hallucinations.

4. Having found her place as an avant-garde artist on the art scene of New York, Yayoi Kusama had a great influence on Andy Wahrol.

In 1960s new kind of avant-garde movement exploded the New York art scene. It pushed the limits of the ongoing sexual and cultural revolutions, experimenting with different media, such as sculpture, installation, performance, writing, and filming. Yayoi Kusama was a central figure of it. She became close friends and collaborated with other important artists, such as Donald Judd and Eva Hesse, and exhibited alongside Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol. As a precursory of Pop Art, she influenced Andy Warhol a lot, although he has never agreed on that.
  • Hervé Gloaguen, Saint Mark’s place, near the Dom (Third from the right is the artist Yayoi Kusama), NY 1967.
  • Flickr: nachoeuropa / Creative Commons

In one of her interviews, Kusama recounts, "After Warhol came to my ‘1,000 Boat' show, he called to ask permission to use my patterns in his silkscreens. But I refused. I had been working with repetition for years by that time, ever since my 1959 exhibition at the Brata gallery." Then she leans forward and smiles, "Warhol's repetitions came from me — But my repetitions came from my childhood."

Left: Photo by Hervé Gloaguen, Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground (With John Cale, Gérard Malanga, Nico), NY, 1966. Courtesy Galerie Arcturus and the artist.

5. Kusama has inspired Claes Oldenburg to create his soft-sculptures.

By the early 1960s, Kusama had switched to so-called soft sculptures. She covered everyday objects — sofas, ladders, shoes — with white sausage- or phallus-shaped objects. Hundreds of phalli made by Kusama filled a joint show with the artist Claes Oldenburg in June 1962.

The famous art-critic Professor Midori Yamamura states, that "following the show, inspired by what he called Kusama’s "psychotic art," Oldenberg entered into his own soft sculpture period, creating giant ice cream cones and huge hamburgers made from canvases." "She was sewing soft sculptures before he," Yamamura continues. And yet when Oldenburg was interviewed about Kusama in 1989, "he did not have the courage to say that he’d been influenced by this Japanese woman."
While experimenting with soft sculptures and focusing on sexuality, she made her displays Accumulation (1961−1962), Sex Obsession (1962−1964) and Compulsion Furniture (1964) in New York. Kusama’s theme, repetition, changes from replicating of net to phallus and then to dot. Associated with the terms "endlessness" and "nothingness" by the artist, the exhibits drift back into the state of non- or pre-sexual innocence or anonymity. Repetition for her means 'obliteration' for it removes an individual’s uniqueness yet gains the infinity in the universe.

6. Yayoi Kusama was an active participant of the hippie movement in 1960-s and held 'Happenings' in the antiwar sprit of the times, many of them involving mass nudity in public places.

  • Yayoi Kusama, Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA. Photo was published with an article “But Is It Art?” in New York Daily News, on August 25, 1969.
  • Yayoi Kunama, Naked Happening Orgy and Flag-burning, Brooklyn Bridge, New York, 1968.

The public performances directed by an exotic Oriental woman in a transparent dress painting polka-dots on the nude
The nude is the genre focused on the aesthetic aspect of the naked human body. The term traces its origin to the Latin nudus (“naked, bare”) and is cognate with the French nudité (“nudity”). Read more
models made a great story in the US media.

During her late New York yeas, Kusama directed provocative public performances, including ‘Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA,' ‘Obliterate the Horse by Polka-Dots' in the Central Park, other press happenings on the Washington Square, and on Wall Street. To escalate weirdness in public events, Kusama organized flag burnings, a ‘Nixon Orgy,' and even offered sex in a letter to Richard Nixon if he would end the Vietnam War.

Left: Yayoi Kusama, ‘Obliterate the Horse by Polka-Dots' or ‘Horse Play in Woodstock.' Happening, City Park, New York, 1967.

7. Yayoi Kusama has been living in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo for 40 years.

Talented artist, yet a fragile woman, she was overloaded with projects and work, constantly playing with the boundaries between life and art, sanity and madness, tangible and ephemeral.

Her 10-year romantic relationship with Joseph Cornell ended with Cornell’s death and she was left dangerously isolated. Kusama returned to Japan in 1973, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and was diagnosed with rijinsho — literally, "separate person syndrome". She experienced frequent hallucinations and bouts of severe depression and developed heart problems. Her father’s death two years later made her anxiety neurosis unmanageable despite her treatment. That’s why she entered the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo and eventually took up permanent residence there since 1977.
Yayoi Kusama with recent works in Tokyo, 2016. Photo by Tomoaki Makino. Courtesy of the artist © Yayoi Kusama.
The psychiatric hospital is a comfort zone rather than a prison for Kusama. She is able to come and go as she pleases. Ironically, the secure boundaries she has chosen to live in allow her to be free and happy. Kusama describes her 'home' as "very comfortable, very private, and very simple." "I like it," she says.
There is no furniture in Kusama’s hospital room, save a bed. A French-style bay window is the only luxury item in her 12 square-meter room. It looks out onto a small garden, and Kusama sometimes watches people playing tennis in a court that lies behind it.

8. Each day Kusama works in her studio, a short walk away from the hospital.

Kusama at her studio, 2015. Photo: Copyright Yayoi Kusama Studios Inc.
Every morning after her breakfast, Kusama takes a five-minute walk up the Gaien Higashi street in a busy suburban neighborhood in Tokyo to get to her studio to paint. It’s a very well appointed, flourescent-lit, 300 square meter premises where she has a team of assistants, a space for her activities, a library and an archive. She walks back to the hospital for her lunch, and then returns to the studio and works through the afternoon. Yayoi Kusama is a highly organized professional, working from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.

9. Kusama's career has come a full circle: from imperceptible existence to fame and glory, then again into obscurity, and to the triumphant revival.

After her return to Japan in 1973, Kusama has drifted into semi-obscurity, though she wrote poetry and fiction that won her a cult in her homeland in the 1970s and 1980s.

A real interest in her art revived only in 1989, when New York’s Center for International Contemporary Arts staged her retrospective. Since then, Kusama receives the overdue recognition she deserves.

In 1993, she was the only artist invited to design the Japanese pavillon at the Venice Biennale, where she created a mirrored room filled with the pumpkin sculptures that are now central to her repertoire. Today, her silver pumpkins cost around half a million dollars each.

Kusama has received her prize for the best gallery exhibition in both 1995/96 and 1996/97 by the International Association of Art Critics. In 1998 the LACMA displayed her large retrospective, which later traveled on to the MoMA in New York. That was the same location where she performed her "Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA" 30 years before and was stopped for her unauthorized happening.
In 2006 Yayoi Kusama was recognized with the Praemium Imperiale in Japan. Figures reported by The Art Newspaper for global museum attendance in 2016, show that she is the world’s most popular artist. In 2016 TIME Magazine listed her among the World’s 100 Most Influential People.

10. Yayoi Kusama is the most expensive living female artist today.

Yayoi Kusama, White No. 28 (1960). Photo: Courtesy of artnet.
Kusama continues to be the most expensive living female artist for almost a decade. The record for her work was set at a 2014 Christie’s New York for the White No. 28, (1960), sold for $7,109,000.

It seems that it will be another big year for Yoyoi Kusama because the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, right now mounts her major retrospective. The museum is expecting so many visitors that for the first time ever it has issued free timed tickets and hired more than 120 additional volunteers.
The most significant tour of Kusama’s work in nearly two decades will travel around the US in 2017 — 2018. It begins at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (23 February — 14 May 2017) before traveling to Seattle Art Museum (30 June — 10 September 2017), The Broad in Los Angeles (October 2017 — January 2018), Art Gallery of Ontario (March — May 2018) and the Cleveland Museum of Art (July — October 2018).
Written by Natalia Korchina on materials by Victoria Miro Gallery, artnet.com, Tate Gallery, The Huffington Post, GARAGE Magazine, BOMB Magazine, The Financial Times, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Artnet Worldwide Corp, The Japan Foundation Center for Cultural Exchange in Vietnam and other sources. Main illustration: Self-portrait of Yoyoi Kusama. Courtesy of the artist.
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