Yayoi Kusama (22nd March 1929 – )
Spots, lights, colours, lots of colour, so much that it surrounds and envelops you. Yayoi Kusama’s work turns the contemporary, white cube art world into a infinite world of colour and obliterates it with her vision – a vision that has been manifesting within and from her since she was a child. On 22 March 1929, in Matsumoto City, Japan, Yayoi Kusama was born into a family of upper-middle class seedling merchants and subsequently a traditional, restrained and controlling home. She grew up surrounded by fields upon fields full of flowers that her family cultivated, a truly formative inspiration for a young Kusama, as beautiful sketches of flowers pour out of her earliest sketchbooks. Unfortunately, not only did the environment that she was surrounded by inspire her, but it also entrapped her as well.
“My wish was to be a painter one day. So I started painting a lot of pictures from the age of ten. My mother told me that I was not allowed to paint, that one day I would have to marry someone from a rich family and become a housewife. When I was a girl, she took away all of my ink and canvases.”
Yayoi Kusama, 1939
Yayoi Kusama, Study of a Peony from a sketchbook, 1945
(image source: www.tate.org)
Perhaps this can now be seen as a specific point in which Japan’s generations and traditions of the twentieth century were about to change. The fate of Kusama’s mother would not become the same for Kusama herself. After studying traditional Nihonga painting (Japanese-style paintings) at Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1948, Kusama started to become frustrated by this established Japanese style and yearned to look towards an art that broke from the stifling world that surrounded her. In her biography Infinity Net, Kusama tells the reader about her home, Matsumoto City, and the towering peaks of the Japanese Alps that enclosed it. She describes how early each afternoon, the sun would hide behind the western side of the mountains and she would wonder what lay beyond those ‘daylight-swallowing mountains’. It was then to the West that she began to look.
At the end of World War II, inside a second hand bookshop in Matsumoto, Kusama discovered a book of paintings by American artist Georgia O’Keefe. Kusama herself is still bewildered to why a book such as this was this in such a ‘provincial city like Matsumoto’ but this book would be the thread that would lead her all the way to America. Inspired, she began creating at an astonishing rate, working in watercolour, gouache and oils. Her first solo exhibition, held in March, 1952 at the First Community Centre in Matsumoto, featured 250 works, and another exhibition later that year 280 more. Her enthusiasm and production to create artworks was unprecedented. From this phenomena, Kusama continued to display her solo exhibitions in Tokyo, holding three within the first three months of 1955. Kusama and her artworks began to get noticed.
Yayoi Kusama, Tree, 1952 (image source: www.artobserved.com)
In the same year, Kusama’s work was included in the ‘International Watercolour exhibition: 18th Biennial’ at Brooklyn Museum, New York. Receiving this recognition was integral to Kusama’s desire and obsession to live and work in America. ‘Come what may, I decided, I would go to America’, Kusama admits in Infinity Net. For her, Georgia O’Keefe stood as the pinnacle of the American Art world, so she decided to write to her. Taking a six hour train ride to Shinjuku, Tokyo, Kusama visited the American Embassy to look through their Who’s Who, looking for O’Keefe’s address. She wrote to her, alongside Seattle based artist Kenneth Callahan, and enclosed several of her artworks. Receiving a reply from O’Keefe cemented her fixation to go to America. After obtaining a visa through sponsorship by Mrs Ota, a first generation immigrant to the USA, as well as prominent psychiatrists Dr Yushi Uchimura and Dr Shiho Nishimura, Kusama was finally able to go to America to achieve her dream.
After eight full years of hard work and convincing her mother to leave Japan, in January 1958, everything fell into place and Kusama finally moved to New York. As part of her visa application Kusama enrolled into the Art Students League of New York, as well as exhibiting her first solo American exhibition in Seattle, thanks to her communication with Kenneth Callahan. She threw herself into her work and this was the moment in which she began her ‘nets’ series and the concept of infinity began to encircle her world.
“In New York, I devoted myself to my work. I drew everyday and I started painting ‘nets’. Eventually the canvases were up to 33 feet long, and I painted ‘nets’ from dawn to dusk. When I was drawing, the pattern would expand outside of the canvas to fill the floor and the wall. So when I looked for away, I would see a hallucination and I would get surrounded by that vision.”
Yayoi Kusama in her New York studio, c.1958–59
(image source: www.interactive.qag.qld.gov.au)
Kusama’s appetite to create art and her volatile family past were about to coincide. The hallucinations she believes began from the entrapment of her childhood and the pressure she put upon herself as an adult, and an artist, would begin to submerge. Her infinity nets, polka dots and flashing lights became part of her hallucinations, creeping out of her work and into her mind. She admits that ‘Eventually, I began to feel ill, because I painted too much’ and exhausted she returned to Japan, eventually permanently after the death of her partner, artist Joseph Cornell, in 1973.
Yayoi Kusama with an Infinity Net painting, Stephen Radich Gallery, New York, 1961
(image source: www.uk.phaidon.com)
Since 1977, Kusama has been a permanent resident at Seiwa Psychiatric Hospital, Tokyo. Despite this, her hallucinations have never stopped her from creating her art or hindered her creativity. She has worked from a nearby studio ever since and has used her hallucinations to re-invent her work by creating extremely moving and life-affirming artworks. Fireflies on the Water, a 2002 installation, surrounds a viewer with floating spots of lights in a mirrored room and they reach on into infinity, it is breath-taking. Kusama has used her internal conflict and all encompassing passion and devotion to create these outstanding and magnificent artworks that uplifts anyone that experiences them. This is the most compelling and important aspect of everything she now creates.
“If the viewer can see my attitude to my life – and longing for love and peace behind those works – I am so grateful and nothing can be compared to it.”
Selected Recommended Reading:
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London: Tate Publishing, 2013
Louise Neri, Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama, New York, Rizzoli International Publications, 2012
Online article: Mami Kataoka, ‘Yayoi Kusama: An Infinite Consciousness Directed At The Cosmos’ http://interactive.qag.qld.gov.au/looknowseeforever/essays/infinite-consciousness-directed-at-the-cosmos/index.html