Who is Yayoi Kusama?
Known for her Infinity Rooms that made small rooms transcend space, Yayoi Kusama innovated the art world and transformed Pop Art and Minimalism in a time when the art industry was run by men. Over the course of her nearly 80 year career, she has created paintings, installations, sculptures, and performance pieces using themes from her struggle with mental health, including hallucinations, to create artwork that allows viewers to see the world as she does and to use art as therapy.
Yayoi Kusama is 94 years old and is still making art in the psychiatric hospital she has voluntarily lived in since 1977 in Tokyo, Japan. Though she was very successful in the 1960's, the artist reached large-scale, international success in her 80's. Considered the world’s best-selling living female artist, Kusama's most expensive piece sold for $10,496,000 USD in 2022 in New York. Throughout her career, she has paved the way for female artists and opened the floor to discussions about mental health.
Not a reader? No worries — here's our kid-friendly Yayoi Kusama Illustration and Biography video.
Yayoi Kusama's Early Life: The Beginning of Her Artistic Journey
Yayoi Kusama was born on March 22, 1929 in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan. She was the youngest daughter of a family of merchants who cultivated plant seeds. As a child, Kusama was drawn to the arts, but her mother didn’t approve. Though her drawings were torn apart, Kusama continued to make more using mud, old sacks, and materials found around her home.
During WW2, Kusama (and other children her age) had to work in factories, but the young artist continued to draw on the side.
Mental Health and Art as Therapy: Yayoi Kusama's Personal Struggles and Inspirations
At ten years old, Kusama began having hallucinations. This included visions of flowers, polka dots, and patterns that moved and expanded. She began to paint what she saw and this went on to inspire a lot of the work that the artist is most known for today. Her art practice was and continues to be a form of art therapy, as she struggled with her mental health throughout her life.
Yayoi Kusama’s Fight to the Top: The Artist’s Emergence into the Art World
Despite her parents’ disapproval, Kusama attended art school to learn painting in Kyoto. She soon realized that traditional education was not for her, but knew that she wanted to be an artist. She began arranging solo exhibitions in her home town in the 1950s.
By 1955, she was not reaching the success she hoped for, so she wrote a letter to Georgia O’Keeffe asking for advice. To Kusama’s surprise, O’Keeffe wrote back and told her to travel to New York and show her work “to anyone [...] interested.” Kusama did just that, and a year and a half after her arrival, she had her first US solo show at Brata Gallery in New York.
At the beginning of her career in New York, Kusama struggled as a female artist in an industry that was mostly made up of men. Many of her male peers were “inspired” by her work and ended up stealing some of her ideas and innovations.
Polka Dots and Pumpkins: The Iconic Evolution of Yayoi Kusama's Art
Although Kusama is most known today for her infinity room installation art, that’s not where her career began. Her work includes installation, performance, paintings, and a variety of other mediums. Here are some of the phases of her art journey:
This series of paintings began in 1958 and lasted for ten years. These oil paintings featured repeated curved markings to create an abstract image and innovated the Minimalist style that later grew in popularity. She worked on these pieces for 40-50 hours at a time. This was a form of art therapy for Kusama, as she found that creating infinite repetitions helped her escape the ones that existed in her head.
Taking place in the 60s, this series included everyday objects and surfaces covered in motifs and protrusions. The protrusions were sewn and painted, sometimes in monochromatic colours or in the polka dots that have become a symbol of Kusama's work.
Infinity Mirror Rooms
Kusama made her first mirrored-room at the Castellane Gallery in New York in 1965. This work began what we know her infinity rooms to be today. Now, they work to create an immersive environment that helps viewers grasp what infinity truly means with repeated motifs, patterns, lights, and sculptural pieces. In 1996 she represented Japan at the Venice Biennale with a Mirrored Room (Pumpkin), similar to the image above.
The Role of Activism in the Creation of Kusama’s Art
A repeated theme in a lot of Kusama’s work is anti-war activism. The artist took part in performance art in New York during the Vietnam war, made paintings of war-torn lands, and created a series of collages known as War, Tidal Waves of War, and Graves of the Unknown Soldiers. In 1996, she was commissioned by the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art to create a work in tribute to those killed by the bomb. This work is a triptych titled Revived Soul.
Spreading Kusama's Influence: Exploring Yayoi Kusama as an Author
In addition to her artwork, Kusama has also written several books. These books include her autobiography, insight into her creative process, poetry, and art books filled with photographic reproductions of her work. She has also illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Yayoi Kusama’s Quotes
“Every time I have had a problem, I have confronted it with the ax of art.”
“I, Kusama, am the modern Alice in Wonderland.”
“I love painting so much that nothing else matters.”
“Polka dots are fabulous.”
Bringing Kusama into the Classroom: Engage Students with Yayoi Kusama's Art
Yayoi Kusama is the perfect artist to introduce students to contemporary art. Her work is fun, engaging, and relevant for students of all ages. Here are some tools to help you introduce Kusama to your students:
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