Pop art pioneer and queen of the avant-garde, Yayoi Kusama has reveled in a prolific—if often controversial—67-year career. But while the Priestess of Polka Dots has enjoyed considerable critical acclaim from her home in a Japanese sanitorium, it has only been in the past decade that her photogenic pumpkins and Instagrammable infinity rooms have catapulted out of art’s inner circles and into the public fascination. A 2017 retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, drew record-breaking crowds. From there, exhibition has continued on a five-city tour, but its second stop, at the Seattle Art Museum, brought Kusama’s compelling art full circle in the city that hosted her first U.S. solo exhibition and opened the door to her illustrious and colorful career.
Deeply autobiographical, Kusama’s work is a study in artistic evolution. After leaving a conservative childhood in Japan in 1957, she launched her U.S. career in Seattle with a solo exhibition of delicate drawings. The show included some of what would become her signature Infinity Nets drawings—fields of repetitive patterns of swoops or dots. The drawings are representations of undulating hallucinations she had experienced since youth, which were often triggered by floral and geometric patterns. These pieces are the key to Kusama’s later work, according to Catharina Manchanda, Seattle Art Museum’s Jon & Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art: “Those early drawings already have the sense of both micro- and macrocosmic [that is present in later work]. So in a way, the seed for all of her ideas really connects all the way back to those early drawings.”
Kusama wrote in her 2011 autobiography, “I thought of Seattle as only the first step in my reckless journey.” So, in the early 1960s, she immersed herself in New York’s riotous creative scene. She began to stretch the limits of her art. Her mutant Accumulations sculptures—which resemble furniture covered in hundreds of soft phallic protrusions—expand the replication fixation of her Infinity Net paintings beyond two dimensions. In 1965, she moved to the next level, installing mirrors in a spatial installation and creating her first Infinity Room, “Phalli’s Field.”
Manchanda notes, “For Kusama, a driving force behind her ideas is this concept that what she calls self-obliteration, the idea that we’re all just a tiny speck in the cosmos. It’s present in her paintings and in those environments you enter to find your image swallowed up by all the different images that are reflected around you. It’s a deeply human message.”
At the same time she was battling Andy Warhol for pop art supremacy, Kusama began engaging in activist performance art. She staged Happenings, or gatherings of naked, polka-dotted hippies, in public places like the MoMA or Wall Street. In 1966, she crashed the Venice Biennale, setting up hundreds of highly reflective balls outside of an Italian pavilion in an installation called “Narcissus Garden.” As passersby gazed at the multitude of their reflected faces, a kimono-clad Kusama stood next to a sign reading “YOUR NARCISSUM [sic] FOR SALE” and attempted to sell individual orbs for $2 each.
Good or bad, she embraced the publicity. In her sexual freedom newspaper, Kusama’s Orgy, she wrote, “Publicity is part of my art.” Indeed, around this time she also developed a habit of being photographed with her new works, creating another layer of reproduction in her art and further intertwining her persona with her work.
Soon, however, her frenzied periods of making art and the struggle to succeed as a New York artist took their toll. In 1975, Kusama returned to Japan after a nervous breakdown, and two years later checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital, a hospital for the mentally ill in Tokyo, where she still lives today.
Although her New York notoriety waned through the ’80s and ’90s, her art production continued apace. After all, anxiety had always played a big role in her work. As she stated in her autobiography, “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art.” At her studio, across the street from the hospital, she continues to work on colorful art that features repeated, viruslike motifs. She often designs and wears clothes that match her art, once again blurring the line between art and artist. In 1993, she became the first woman to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale (officially, this time) and gained a cult following in the late ’90s. She even partnered with Louis Vuitton on a line of spotted handbags and dresses in 2012.
It can sound clichéd to say an artist was ahead of her time, but Kusama’s Instagram-perfect installations seem tailor-made for the selfie generation. According to Manchanda, “Even though Kusama had no way of anticipating this when she started her career, because of the way in which people love to take photographs in sculptural environments and disseminate that information on social media, her work has captured the today’s imagination in a unique way.”
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors not only reaches back to the artist’s early days to help visitors understand how her art evolved, but it also includes a number of Kusama’s new paintings—from a series of 100 works recently featured at Tokyo’s National Art Center. Next, the exhibition moves on to the Art Gallery of Toronto, opening March 3.