Yayoi Kusama was raised in Matsumo, Japan, on March 22, 1929, and began her artistic pursuits as a ten-year-old creating paintings in watercolors, pastels and oils. Her childhood was marred by a turbulent and abusive relationship with her parents, particularly surrounding her father’s extramarital affairs, which instilled in her a contemptuous obsession and fear of sex. Around a similar time, Kusama began to experience hallucinations which manifested as flashes of light and patterns coming to life. These hallucinations, along with her traumatic childhood, are considered key influences in her artistic style.
Kusama trained at the Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts, where she practiced ‘Nihonga’, a Japanese painting style with traditions over a thousand years old, though she soon became frustrated with the traditional style and sought influence from avant-garde American and European art, especially Abstract Expressionism. Her early works echoed the hallucinations, or ‘infinity nets’ as she has called them, visually represented by endless reams of polka dots covering or ‘obliterating’ subjects. The subjects of obliteration themselves varied from household objects, to people, and eventually to hand-made phallic ‘tubers’ which would become a prominent part of Kusama’s art style.
By the time she relocated to the United States in 1957, Kusama had found specialisation for her signature style in large paintings and sculptures, many using mirrors and electric lights. She quickly became part of the New York avant-garde scene, her art fitting in especially well with the Pop Art movement. By the early 60s Kusama began experimenting with larger, room-sized installations which would establish a defining series which continues to this day - Infinity Rooms. These purpose-built rooms are lined with mirrored glass and allowed Kusama to experiment with new ways to represent the endless repetition of patterns within the constraints of space and labour she had available. Standing inside on a small platform, light is infinitely refracted off the mirrored surfaces to create the illusion of a never-ending space.
Later into the 60s Kusama began to stage controversial events or “happenings,” including body painting festivals, fashion shows and anti-war demonstrations, many gaining widespread publicity for their outlandish content being displayed in prominent spaces such as Central Park in New York City. In 1968, Kusama’s film Kusama's Self-Obliteration premiered, winning prizes at the International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium, the Maryland Film Festival, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Around this time Kusama’s mental health declined severely, and after at least two suicide attempts, spurred on by financial hardship and her family’s shame towards her nudity-heavy art and performance, she returned to Japan in 1973 and checked herself in to a home for the mentally ill where she still, by choice, resides today.
Though her time in New York had proven successful, Kusama’s work was largely forgotten following her absence until the late 80s and early 90s, when retrospectives saw her receive renewed acclaim. While room-sized exhibits and infinity rooms are still a large part of her art, much of Kusama’s modern work also includes paintings and sculptures in a variety of shapes adorned with her signature polka dot infinity nets, similar to her early work. In 1994, Kusama began to create open air sculptures, those of which have been featured across the globe. Of these sculptural shapes, the most iconic is the pumpkin, which has been a familiar icon of hers throughout her artistic career, because of, in her own words “their humorous form, warm feeling, and a human-like quality and form.”
Yayoi Kasuma continues to produce exhibits and installations worldwide. In 2017, the Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in Tokyo, featuring a large collection of her work as well as gallery talks and events. Kasuma has been and continues to be open about her mental health, saying that her art is both an outlet and a way for her to express her problems.