Yayoi Kusama at 90: How the ‘undiscovered genius’ became an international sensation

Written by Alexandra Munroe

Alexandra Munroe is the Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 1989, she organized Yayoi Kusama’s first retrospective in the US. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

Yayoi Kusama turns 90 this month. And the Japanese artist has much to celebrate. She is the most famous living female artist in the world. Time magazine named her on its “100 Most Influential People” list, and a feature-length documentary about her remarkable life has been making the festival rounds.

Tickets to a recent exhibition at The Broad in LA, which featured two of her popular “Infinity Mirror Rooms,” sold out within an hour. More than 5 million people have visited her shows since 2014 — and once inside, they flood Instagram with mesmerizing images of art that feel more culturally relevant than ever.

Her popularity has also translated into commercial success, and Kusama is consistently among the best-selling names in the global art market. Last year, her work netted more than $108 million at auction, more than any other female artist, according to figures from the Artnet price database.
Sporting a vermillion wig and, often, clothes printed with her own paintings, Kusama is one of the art world's most recognizble figures.

Sporting a vermillion wig and, often, clothes printed with her own paintings, Kusama is one of the art world’s most recognizble figures. Credit: yayoi kusama

At 90, Kusama relishes her fame. But earning it has never come easy.

Crises, fears of psychiatric breakdown and her frenetic drive have all shaped a long and colorful career. Kusama may have claimed the ultimate victory, but her life story has been one of a trailblazing outsider who prevailed in the face of setbacks and mental illness.

‘One polka dot among millions’

Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929 in a provincial castle town in Japan’s Nagano prefecture. She grew up amid the country’s doomed imperialist campaign and a grim world war, during which she was forced to work in a military factory producing parachutes. Even in peacetime, conservative forces in Japanese society would threaten to stifle her, especially in the realms of gender roles and modern art.

Kusama experienced a form of psychosis in her childhood, causing vivid hallucinations that would shape her art. Patterns around her came to life, multiplying endlessly and threatening to subsume her in waves of infinity and nothingness.

She began to draw and paint at ferocious speed, and with intense concentration, as if making art and giving form were a matter of survival. Defying her parents’ wishes and escaping their abuse, she attended art school and began attracting attention from key critics. The young artist then set her defiant sights on New York City, where she moved in 1958.

Kusama pictured inside her work "Infinity Mirror Room -- Phalli's Field" in 1965. The floor of the installation was covered with stuffed polka-dot phalluses.

Kusama pictured inside her work “Infinity Mirror Room — Phalli’s Field” in 1965. The floor of the installation was covered with stuffed polka-dot phalluses. Credit: Hirshorn Museum

Undaunted, she took on the American, male-dominated world of Abstract Expressionism, subverting its gestural and colorful swagger with a series of large-scale paintings composed of laboriously applied, tiny impasto arcs of paint on an all-over surface wash. She called them “Infinity Nets,” alluding to her visions of proliferating dots that would dissolve her being in their wake.

Within a year of her arrival, and with a Greenwich Village studio filled with shimmering all-white canvases, Kusama held her first solo show in New York. In an influential review, her contemporary Donald Judd described her as “an original painter” (he also bought one of her works for himself).

Judd was right to recognize that this furtive 30-year old eccentric, whose identity was increasingly tied to what she called her “obsessive” disorder, was at the cusp of inventing whole new expressions, forms and methods of contemporary art. By the early 1960s, Kusama was not at the center of the international avant-garde — she was a few steps ahead of it.

In New York, her work intersected with Pop Art, Op Art, Psychedelia and Minimalism, and in Europe with monochrome painting and the Zero, Dutch Nul and Nouveaux Réalisme movements. She posed and performed in her own environments — either nude, in a kimono or in the monkey-fur coat that became her trademark — presaging feminist performance and body art. Known as the “Priestess of Polka Dots,” she reveled in the spiritual and cosmic aspect of her obliteration fantasy, once proclaiming: “Our Earth is only one polka dot among millions of others… We must lose ourselves in the ever-advancing stream of eternity!”

As the 1960s progressed, Kusama kept pace with Andy Warhol in producing counterculture “happenings” with the gay and free-love underground. In 1968, the year she wrote an open letter to Richard Nixon offering to sleep with him if he ended the Vietnam War, Kusama claims to have won more publicity than Warhol did.

A 2006 painting from Kusama's ongoing "Infinity Nets" series.

A 2006 painting from Kusama’s ongoing “Infinity Nets” series. Credit: Courtesy David Zwirner/OTA Fine ARTS

Kusama was always a fearless disruptor. At the 1966 Venice Biennale she took over a lawn outside the main exhibition hall and covered it with thousands of mirrored balls. She titled the work “Narcissus Garden” and started selling the balls, for $2 each, until the police drove her away. Independent, uncompromising and strikingly beautiful, she was both canny and utterly uninhibited when it came to asserting her ambition. With each new series of paintings, sculptures, environments, performances or films, Kusama forged an art that was connected to the culture of her time, but whose sources lay outside the dominant movements.

Besides being a foreign women of color from a chastened Asian power, the psychological content of her work set her identity apart from the Western mainstream that wrote the first histories of the 1960s avant-garde. Suddenly irrelevant to the national reckoning around Watergate, and out-of-step with the ascendance of obtuse conceptual art, Kusama moved back to Japan in 1973 and was gradually dismissed by the art establishment.

Until 1989, that is.

An evolving legacy

I was in my 20s when I first met Kusama in Tokyo. We immediately connected, and she agreed to work with me on an exhibition — her first ever retrospective and her first New York show since fading into obscurity in Japan.

We spent a year sorting through boxes, suitcases and trunks of archival materials that she’d kept from her years abroad — mounds of press notices, thousands of photographs, invitations and posters to every show she’d been part of, receipts from Amsterdam coffee shops, expired passports and visas, and collaged love letters from the artist Joseph Cornell, with whom she remained in close contact until his death. As I carried some of these materials back to the US for research, customs tried to prevent me on the grounds I was bringing pornography into the country. “But it’s art history!” I protested.

The author and Yayoi Kusama pictured together in 1989, the year of her influential first retrospective.

The author and Yayoi Kusama pictured together in 1989, the year of her influential first retrospective. Credit: Alexandra Munroe

“Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective” opened at New York’s Center for International Contemporary Arts in September 1989. It was just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded a newly global world, and the time was right for a rigorous reappraisal of modern Euro-centric and gender-biased art history that integrated Kusama’s work into a more expansive view of postwar and contemporary culture.

Together with scholar Reiko Tomii, we had compiled and published the first documented chronology of her life. The show was a sensation, landing Kusama on the cover of Art in America magazine, an unprecedented level of recognition for a contemporary Japanese artist. Judd was at the opening, his white 1959 “Infinity Nets” painting on display and probably insured, at the time, for a few thousand dollars (it would be worth several million today). Other artist friends came to pay overdue tribute, including Frank Stella, Richard Oldenburg, Arman, Otto Piene and Carolee Schneemann.

Dotted pumpkin sculptures have become one of Kusama's signature creations.

Dotted pumpkin sculptures have become one of Kusama’s signature creations. Credit: Cathy Carver/Hirshhorn Museum

Four years later, Kusama was selected to represent her country at the Venice Biennale. No longer a gatecrasher at the art world’s most prestigious international event, she transformed Japan’s pavilion into a mirrored polka-dot environment reflecting infinitely expanding images of yellow pumpkin sculptures. Venice cemented her reputation as an artist of enormous historical importance and contemporary urgency. After everything, Kusama had triumphed.

But while we now better understand the forces that prevented Kusama from gaining her due recognition, we must also ask ourselves: Why has her work become so wildly popular in recent years?

Kusama’s story resonates with young people around the world. She is the female abuse victim who never married and emerged victorious in spite of ongoing mental illness (she has lived, voluntarily, in a psychiatric hospital since the late 1970s). Patriarchy, sexism, fascism, racism — she slew them all.

Kusama's "Infinity Mirror Rooms" have been installed at galleries and museums around the world, attracting millions of visitors.

Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Rooms” have been installed at galleries and museums around the world, attracting millions of visitors. Credit: Collection of Museum MACAN

She is the undiscovered genius whose late fame is justly deserved. She is the self-identified psychotic whose difference we champion. She is also the creator of bright, immersive and spectacular art that is uncannily suited to Instagram, the neural network of contemporary influence.

And, in spite of all her tribulations, her art is enormously generous — transcendent even — refracting our tiny selves through a pulsing eternity.

Kusama is watching and counting. She tracks record-breaking attendance to her museum shows and follows every tick of the auction bids. Some still criticize Kusama, the celebrity, for what the Village Voice once called her “lust for publicity.” But in fact, her ambition has always been linked to her very real and intense drive to be — and feel — both alive and worthy. Making art and being Kusama are inseparable destinies

In the catalog for her 1989 show, I quoted Susan Sontag. “It’s well known,” the essayist wrote of modern artists, “that when people venture into the far reaches of consciousness, they do so at the peril of their sanity, that is, of their humanity.”

Yayoi Kusama has ventured far and deep. Her risks compel our love.

This article originally appeared here