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The Art Story Homepage Artists Yayoi Kusama Biography

Yayoi Kusama - Biography and Legacy

Japanese-American Painter, Sculptor, Photographer, Installation, Performance, and Conceptual Artist

Yayoi Kusama Photo

Born: 1929

Biography

Childhood/Education

Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama grew up as the youngest of four children in an affluent family. However, her childhood was less than idyllic. Her parents were the product of a loveless, arranged marriage. Her absent father, emasculated by the fact that he had to take his wife's surname as a condition of marrying into the wealthy family, spent most of his time away from home womanizing, leaving his angry wife to physically abuse and emotionally torment her youngest child. She would often send her daughter to spy on her father's sexual exploits, the mental trauma of which caused Kusama to have a permanent aversion to sex and the male body.

At the age of ten Kusama began experiencing vivid hallucinations in which flowers would speak to her and patterns in fabric would come to life and consume her. She began to draw these visions as a therapeutic outlet, providing her with solace and control over the anxiety that tormented her. When Kusama was 13 years old she was sent to work in a military factory sewing parachutes for Japan's World War II efforts. Her adolescent years were spent in the darkness of the factory listening to air-raid sirens and the sounds of army planes flying overhead. The horrors of war would have a lasting effect on her, leading Kusama to create numerous anti-war works, and to also value individual and creative freedom. Her experience at the factory also provided her with the utilitarian ability to sew, which would prove useful when she began creating her soft sculptures in the 1960s.

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Early Training

Disobeying her mother, who wanted her to simply be an obedient housewife, Kusama studied art in Masumoto and Kyoto. During this time in Japan, there was a movement to reject the influences of Western culture so Kusama was forced to only study Nihonga, which consisted of creating paintings using 1000 years old traditional Japanese techniques and materials. Her artistic talent was apparent at even a young age, and Kusama's work was shown in exhibitions all over Japan.

However, the stifling conservative Japanese culture and her abusive mother proved too much for Kusama, and in 1957 she moved to the United States, settling in New York City in 1958. Before she left, Kusama's mother handed her some money and told her "to never set foot in her house again." In response, Kusama angrily destroyed hundreds of her works.

Mature Period

Once in the United States, Kusama was free to explore her artistic expression that was censored while living in Japan. "For art like mine, [Japan] was too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women. My art needed a more unlimited freedom, and a wider world." With the help of Georgia O'Keeffe, who Kusama had started a correspondence and friendship with while still in Japan, she was able to secure exhibitions and some sales, leading to interest in her work right from the start. But there was also a fascination with the foreign artist herself, and she struck up a deep relationship with fellow Minimalist artist, Donald Judd, who admired her work so much that he purchased one of her first Infinity Net paintings. The middle-aged assemblage artist, Joseph Cornell was also infatuated with Kusama, often writing her love letters and sketching her in the nude. Because of her anxieties and fear of sex, both relationships, while very close, were strictly platonic. Cornell shared her sexual aversion and Kusama once remarked that "(Cornell) hated sex. That's why we got along so well." Kusama and Cornell developed such a close bond that when he died in 1972 she began creating collages to both honor his work and cope with his passing.

During this time Kusama worked feverishly, fully embracing the hedonist, free-spirited hippie culture of the 1960s, which also included protesting war, patriarchy, and capitalist society. Combining these themes with her own intimate anxieties, she created art that was deeply personal, but also spoke to the injustices of the times. Critics didn't know what to make of this innovative art, and soon the struggling artist went from obscurity to notoriety. Her fame rivaled that of some of the most famous Pop artists, and Kusama enjoyed the attention. Judd once recalled that while at a friend's house, Kusama grabbed a pregnant cat and sucked one of its nipples in order to draw attention to herself. Yet, this unapologetic and admitted quest for fame might also be seen as an effort to boldly self-validate her existence and to claim her identity in opposition to the obstacles placed upon her by her family's early denial of her career and her battle with mental illness.

Kusama's artistic output during this 15-year period was prolific and diverse, experimenting with various mediums such as drawing, painting, sculpture, performance, fashion, writing, and installation. She would sometimes work up to 50 hours without rest. Eventually the workload coupled with a lack of financial security and Cornell's death took its toll, and in 1973 she moved back to Japan to seek treatment for her mental exhaustion and declining physical health. She began focusing on her surreal writing and avant-garde clothing line. In 1977, after being diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive neurosis, Kusama checked herself in to the Seiwa Mental Hospital and has been living and working there by choice ever since.

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Late Period

When Kusama moved back to Japan in the early 1970s she was all but forgotten by the Western art world. Even in Japan she was mostly known for her violence-soaked writings. That changed in 1993 when she was invited to represent Japan at the 45th Venice Biennale. The acclaimed installation of one of her Infinity Mirror Rooms containing dotted pumpkins, coupled with the artist's performances alongside the exhibition, renewed the interest and appreciation for her work, along with the interest in the quirky artist herself. Kusama still seeks the limelight and continues to insist on being photographed with her work. Wearing her signature red wig and polka dot garments of her own making, Kusama's personality has become just as infatuating as her art.

In 2008 one of Kusama's Infinity Nets, the same one once owned by Judd, set new art auction price records for a living female artist and led to collaborations with luxury fashion retailers, like Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton. The woman, whose art once protested capitalism and materialism, now fully embraces it.

Legacy

More important than the impact her diverse work has on the art market is its influence on other artists and movements, which spans generations. Her work inspired Pop artists, like Andy Warhol, Feminist artists, like Carolee Schneemann, Performance artists, like Yoko Ono, and contemporary artists, like Damien Hirst. Her far-reaching influence can be attributed to the fact that Kusama has always been a step ahead of her time, with her art being at the forefront of major artistic movements. And yet because her art making is so personal, and both a symptom and cure for her mental illness, it doesn't fit neatly into any of these defined movements. As fellow Pop artist, Claes Oldenburg states, "(Kusama) didn't have the kind of mind that identified with movements. She just went her own way." To this day, she represents herself as a lone wolf most comfortable with being known as independently avant-garde.

Most Important Art

Quotes

"My artwork is an expression of my life, particularly of my mental disease."
Yayoi Kusama Signature
"I am just another dot in the world."
Yayoi Kusama Signature
"My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease."
Yayoi Kusama Signature
"I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live."
Yayoi Kusama Signature
"I wanted to start a revolution, using art to build the sort of society I myself envisioned."
Yayoi Kusama Signature
"I don't consider myself an artist; I am pursuing art in order to correct the disability which began in my childhood."
Yayoi Kusama Signature
"I did not have any purpose. I felt that art and life were useless. I painted boredom, which is more important in life than the effect of sunlight, which [is what] the Impressionists painted."
Yayoi Kusama Signature
"I want to become more famous, even more famous."
Yayoi Kusama Signature
"One day, I suddenly looked up to find that each and every violet had its own individual, human-like facial expression, and to my astonishment they were all talking to me. Suddenly things would be flashing and glittering all around me. So many different images leaped into my eyes that I was left dazzled and dumbfounded."
Yayoi Kusama Signature
"If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago."
Yayoi Kusama Signature

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