On 23 February of this year, a new retrospective exhibit of the 78-year career of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama opened at the Smithsonian‘s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It’s attracted quite a bit of attention, both from the press and from museum-goers—which isn’t bad for an 88-year-old artist who first hit the scene in the U.S. in the late ’50s. According to a New York Times report on 27 March, the Hirshhorn recorded “the highest attendance in 40 years” during the first month of Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors and about one third of those visitors (about 57,000 people) have come to see the Kusama show. Though the artist has been deemed significant for the whole of her career, Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu pointed out that “it has only been in recent years that [Kusama] exhibitions have consistently broken museum attendance records and attracted enormous attention.”
Back in 2004, my late mother and I went up to the Whitney Museum of American Art (then at Madison Avenue and 75th Street) for that year’s Biennial principally because Kusama was included in the show. At 75, she was by far the oldest artist featured in the show; promoted as a kind of retrospective of modern art from the ’60s to the present, the 2004 Biennial was mostly really new stuff. Most of the artists in the exhibit were in their 40’s or younger—the only other “older” artist in the show I identified was David Hockney (portraits, garden and interior watercolors), only 66 at the time—and Kusama’s installation, Fireflies on the Water (2002), was easily the most interesting piece in the show. Fireflies was a little room, mirrored on all sides with a still, dark pool of shallow water filling the floor area (there was a narrow platform to walk on) and all hung with strings of tiny yellow and blue Christmas-like LED lights suspended in series from the ceiling on long, nearly invisible wires that made them look like blinking lightning bugs. The mirrors and the water, reflecting the room ad infinitum, did make me feel lost in infinite space, a thematic impulse in Kusama’s art. One by one, viewers went into the room—there was an attendant at the door to let people in and keep everyone in line waiting—and “experience” it (I don’t know what other word to use here) for a few moments.
My interest in Yayoi Kusama began in the early 1960s. My parents bought a part-ownership in the Gres Gallery, a small modern-art gallery in Washington around 1957 and Kusama was exhibited there several times after she first set herself up in the United States. One early exhibit Gres mounted was Six Japanese Painters in 1960, a display of Japanese artists working in contemporary Western styles, rather than traditional Asian forms—something that was unfamiliar to American collectors at that time. I haven’t been able to verify this, but I recall that Kusama was among the painters in that group show, which toured the country, including such venues as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the San Francisco Museum of Art. She did have two solo shows at Gres: Yayoi Kusama in April 1960 and Yayoi Kusama: Watercolors in November 1961. Beatrice Perry, the managing partner of Gres and later Kusama’s dealer, and her husband Hart became the artist’s friend, even sheltering her at the Perry home when the pressures got too great.
From one of the 1960 shows, my parents bought a Kusama canvas, one of her “Infinity Net” paintings, an untitled 51"-square, red-and-black oil painting that probably cost a couple of hundred dollars at the time. An abstract pattern of tiny red, irregular blotches tessellated over a black background so that the canvas looks like a fine network of black lines surrounding little islands of red, the painting was sold by my mother in 1996 when Kusama’s work had a surge of popularity; I believe it went for low five figures. (In 2008, one of Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings brought $5.1 million at auction, a record for a living female artist at the time. In 2014, a 1960 painting sold for $7.1 million at Christie’s.) Despite the de-acquisition, Mother maintained an interest in Kusama’s art, hence the trip up to the Whitney 13 years ago. (I’m sure that if she were still around, Mom would be saving a visit to the Hirshhorn for my next trip down to D.C. so we could go to Infinity Mirrors together.)
Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, in 1929, the youngest of four children. Her family was well-to-do, owners of a plant-seed nursery. The artist’s mother’s family were prominent merchants with numerous, diverse businesses; her grandfather was both an influential businessman and a local politician. Because of the difference in status between the families, Kusama father, Kamon Okamura, took the name of his wife’s family and moved into the family home. This situation, though not uncommon in Japan, weakened Kamon (now-) Kusama’s traditional position as the head of the household. By all accounts, it was an unhappy marriage; Kusama’s parents fought every day when her father was home and Kamon Kusama had many affairs, including assignations with prostitutes. Shigeru Kusama, Kusama’s mother, became angry and domineering, even sending her daughter to spy on her father and his lovers and report to his wife. This experience began Kusama’s simultaneous obsession with and fear of sex that has lasted her whole life.
Kusama’s father eventually left the family to live with a geisha in Tokyo. Increasingly embittered, Kusama’s mother became emotionally and physically abusive of her younger daughter. The artist recounts that her mother told her every day that she regretted bearing her daughter and regularly beat and even kicked her. “There were some very dark, unhappy moments in my childhood,” said the artist later, and not a day went by, she’s confessed, when she didn’t contemplate suicide. At 10, Kusama started being plagued with recurring hallucinations of dots, nets, and flowers—images that would later dominate much of her art. She sometimes saw the dots and other images spreading all around her, essentially enveloping her world.
The feeling of being engulfed in patterns gave rise to a phenomenon Kusama called “self-obliteration.” It would become a guiding impulse for her art, especially the polka dots that have become her signature image. She defines self-obliteration as “obliterating one’s individual self, [so] one returns to the infinite universe.” (In 1967, the artist, then living in New York City, made a 24-minute film called Kusama’s Self-Obliteration which won prizes at the Fourth International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium, the Second Maryland Film Festival, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival in Michigan.) She explains her fixation on dots in terms of this impulse: “Painting bodies with the patterns of Kusama’s hallucinations obliterated their individual selves and returned them to the infinite universe. This is magic.” The artist states with absolute definitiveness: “Polka dots are a way to infinity.”
The notion “that we’re all just specks in the universe,” as Elizabeth Blair, Senior Producer on National Public Radio’s Arts Desk sees it, has been a goal for Kusama since her early childhood. The mirrored rooms have something of the same point, as I myself experienced. The rooms seem to go on forever and you can’t tell what’s tangible and what’s incorporeal. Hirshhorn director Chiu asserted that they make “you feel as if you’re a speck in amongst something greater.” “Our Earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos,” wrote Kusama almost half a century ago.
(The artist also formed the Church of Self-Obliteration in a SoHo loft in New York City. Designating herself “High Priestess of Polka Dots,” she officiated at a wedding of two gay men in 1968. The couple dressed in a single large bridal gown for two designed by Kusama.)
The hallucinations impelled the young Kusama to draw what she had seen. “I don’t consider myself an artist,” she says; “I am pursuing art in order to correct the disability which began in my childhood.” Kusama began seeing a psychiatrist who was the first to encourage her to pursue art. She once told an interviewer, “I don’t want to cure my mental problems, rather I want to utilise them as a generating force for my art.” The artist, though, has never depicted her mental illness in her work; she draws artistic inspiration from her experience of her condition. Her mother, though, was so adamantly opposed to Kusama’s interest in art that she took away her daughter’s materials, one time warning, “If you continue to paint, don’t come home.” Her mother wanted nothing more for her daughter than that she marry a man of her family’s choosing, almost certainly older, and become an obedient, subservient wife. A career in art was out of the question—it was unladylike and led to poverty and social isolation. Be a collector instead, Kusama’s family demanded. The artist, however, has called her father “a gentle-hearted person” who had encouraged her drawing, buying his daughter her first art supplies, but his absence, stemming from his wife’s constant bullying, left Kusama resentful. When he was at home, however, Kusama felt she was caught between her constantly warring parents
At 13, when Japan became engaged in World War II, the young artist, like many other children in Japan, was drafted into the workforce, sent off to sew parachutes for the imperial military. She recalls that time as one spent in a dark and frightening place. After the war, still determined to paint despite her family’s pressure to become a good little Japanese wife dressed in kimonos and dresses her mother bought, Kusama left home in 1948, against her mother’s wishes, to study Nihonga painting at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts & Crafts, 200 miles from Matsumoto. Nihonga (“Japanese-style painting”) is a formal art style that employs traditional Japanese materials and techniques, as opposed to Yōga (“Western-style painting”), which uses European materials and techniques. Kusama the Nihonga tradition constraining and “the school too conservative and the instructors out of touch with the reality of the modern era” and seldom went to class, preferring to stay in her dormitory room and paint.
The young art student became interested not just in Western art, but specifically in the European and American avant-garde which was just then gaining prominence on the U.S. art scene and critical attention abroad. She picked up this influence from illustrations in magazines and books, so her painting was largely self-taught. Working on paper in non-traditional media like watercolor, gouache, and oil, the rebellious art student began depicting the polka dots that would come to dominate her art. In spite of her defiance, Kusama graduated from Kyoto Arts and Crafts in 1949 and in 1952, had her first solo exhibit in March at the the First Community Center in Matsumoto, followed in October by a second show. In 1954, the emerging artist had her first solo show in Tokyo and the following year, she was selected to exhibit in the 18th Biennial at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in May, her first international show. With this event, she conceived the dream to go to New York. Even in this ambition, Kusama broke with convention: as Calvin Tomkins, chronicler of the New York art scene since the 1960s, asserted in the New Yorker 21 years ago, “For a hundred years, it had been the tradition for Japanese art students to go to Paris.”
At around this time, Kusama’s psychiatrist “encouraged me to get away from my mother,” she recounts. “If you remain in that house,” she remembers his warning her, “your neurosis will only worsen.” She began to think seriously about going abroad. Having seen some of her work in a second-hand book, Kusama began a correspondence with American artist Georgia O’Keeffe in 1955, who gave her advice about advancing her nascent career. The “lowly Japanese girl” also sent along some of her watercolors, sending some to Kenneth Callahan, a painter based in Seattle, as well. This bold action landed Kusama a solo exhibit at Seattle’s Zoë Dusanne Gallery in 1957, and, despite not knowing a soul in the country, the Japanese artist made plans to come to the United States for the opening in December. Upon her departure from Matsumoto, Kusama’s disapproving mother gave her daughter 1 million yen, worth then about $2,800 (the equivalent in 2017 of $24,000), and told her “never to set foot in her house again.”
Kusama stayed in Seattle for six months, coming to New York City in June 1958 to take classes at the Art Students League. This is the period when she started working on her Infinity Net paintings. Her first New York solo show, after following O’Keeffe’s advice and peddling her art for over a year to anyone who’d take a look, was in October 1959 at the Brata Gallery, a well-regarded artist’s cooperative on East 10th Street in the East Village (preceded in April by The International Watercolor Exhibition, the Brooklyn Museum’s Twentieth Biennial and followed in November by Recent Paintings by Yayoi Kusama at the Nova Gallery, Boston). Unable to bring more than a small amount of currency legally out of Japan with her—she smuggled out bills sewn into the linings of her clothes—Kusama lived in poverty, and speaking no English, the artist was not naturally equipped to make acquaintances, even though she’d trained herself in the un-Japanese practice, especially for a single young woman, of putting herself in the spotlight and making waves.
In one way, though, she was fortunate: she arrived in New York City in the era of Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella (who bought one of her paintings), and the recently-deceased Jackson Pollock, the very start of the avant-garde art movements that would dominate the scene in the coming decade: Minimalism, Pop Art, Op Art—and her work fit right in. (Action art and Happenings, which would shortly become signature forms of Kusama’s art, arose at this time, too, when Allan Kaprow staged 18 Happenings in 6 Parts in 1959 and others, including Claes Oldenburg, joined in the following year.) The young artist soaked up everything she could about the world of American art around her. She became friends with Oldenburg and Andy Warhol—whose styles she presaged and whom some critics say she influenced—and Donald Judd, an artist who also worked as a critic for publications like Art World, in which he wrote a laudatory review of the Brata show, and lived at one point in the same building as Oldenburg, painter Larry Rivers, and sculptor John Chamberlain. As the ’60s dawned and blossomed in the art scene, Yayoi Kusama emerged with it like Athena from the head of Zeus—fully formed and ready to astonish and impress.
As the new decade began, after her first European group show, Monochrome Malerei (“Monochrome painting”) at the Städtisches Museum in Leverkusen, West Germany, in March 1960, Kusama had the first of two shows, Yayoi Kusama, at Washington, D.C.’s Gres Gallery in April. This was the show that featured the artist’s Infinity Net canvases (one of which, as I said earlier, my parents purchased). I’m a little loath to quote the review of the Gres show at length, but Leslie Judd Ahlander describes very articulately what I recall, even as a 13-year-old boy who was art star-struck from the experience of hanging around the gallery and meeting real artists. So, at some little risk of overstating my case, here’s what the Washington Post art critic wrote about Kusama’s introduction to the Washington art world:
The work of Yayoi Kusama at the Gres Gallery is a far cry from the traditional modes of expression. A self-taught artist who has evolved entirely alone, the artist has moved from pastels which are delicate interpretations of nature to her present group of large abstractions, based entirely on the repetition of a simple, circular brush-stroke.
The overall tonality of each canvas is a single color, red, orange or white, but the color had been given great interest and variety by the manipulating of the underpinning, the contrast of a flat or raised technique (often ending in a heavy impasto) and a rhythmic pattern that goes through each canvas, giving a feeling of movement. Where at first glance the work may seem static and limited, it slowly reveals its riches as you study it further.
Little remains of the traditional Japanese approach except the scrupulous attention to detail and the discipline and controlled technique. Only such an artist as Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock in our country has gone so far in making each single and minute thread of paint count in overall composition, which must rely for its interest on infinite variety within a single unity.
It is difficult painting since it takes a great willingness on the part of the observer to stay with it, to relax and contemplate at length until the message comes through. Its exquisite and refined delicacy is not for the hurried.
The canvases were huge (one was reported to be 14 feet long) and the “little islands” I described earlier eventually evolved into Kusama’s iconic dots. Her art is marked by psychedelic colors (which arose after the Infinity Net work morphed into the dot canvases), repeated images and shapes, and patterns, and manifests autobiographical and psycho-sexual references. Kusama, always a prolific artist (one 2009 estimate put the career-long number of her works at 50,000—coming to about 715 pieces a year, or 14 pieces a week), painted the Infinity Nets “from morning to night.”
The Kusama Infinity Net painting, which another short review described perfectly the way I remember it: “Up close her drawings resemble delicate lace or crochet work; from a distance the viewer can pick out a seemingly endless array of patterns and forms swirling across the canvas,” hung in my parents’ home for over 30 years, usually in a location where we would be looking at it while we were at leisure—talking, reading the paper, having a family drink—so it was part of our down-time at home. On the one hand, that meant it faded into our daily world as part of the scenery, but on the other, it meant I could—and did—look at it unrushed and undisturbed, across from where I was sitting. What the anonymous critic wrote above is the way I remember experiencing the painting, and it mesmerized me. It was one of my favorite pieces in my parents’ collection; I even tried to make my own version of it—miserably unsuccessfully—once when I was a kid. (I didn’t say anything about this when my mother decided to sell the painting, though she asked me for my opinion; I said it was her art and she should do what she wanted. Some years later, when I told her that the Kusama had been one of my favorites, she got angry with me for not saying so back then. I just reminded her what I’d said at the time: that I hadn’t wanted to interfere with her choices regarding her possessions. Part of me is sorry that I hadn’t.)
Into the ’60s, Kusama took on several other forms, including her much-photographed “Sex Obsession” sculptures, starting with an armchair which she completely covered with fat little hand-sewn tubes of fabric stuffed with cotton that looked like oversized fingerling potatoes but which the artist designated “phalli.” That was 1962; soon she’d similarly covered “tables, chairs, kitchen utensils, stepladders, a rowboat, a sofa,” and all manner of other objects with which she was frequently photographed. (The rowboat, complete with oars, was entitled Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, 1963. Oldenburg had started his soft sculptures at the same time.) It was at this time, too, that Kusama began a decade-long relationship with artist Joseph Cornell, 26 years older than she. As you might expect with Kusama, it was a peculiar romance: though Kusama herself called Cornell her lover, there was no physical intimacy between them. “I disliked sex and he was impotent so we suited each other very well.” (Cornell’s mother, with whom he lived his entire life, was clearly a major cause of his sexual dysfunction, for, among other things, she forbad him to touch women and told him that “women are a disease,” according to Kusama.) Nonetheless, Kusama characterized their relationship as the great romance of her life, and she remained with Cornell until his death of heart failure in 1972 at the age of 69.
While she was attracting a great deal of attention, even awe, her works were selling for as little as $150 or $200. Her work was attracting more attention in Europe than in the States, and she had more shows abroad. Her colleagues here, with many of whom she often exhibited in group shows, were being taken up by galleries to represent their work, Kusama couldn’t find a dealer who’d commit to her. Some of this standoffishness may have been because she was a woman in what was still a man’s world (O’Keeffe, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Grace Hartigan, and a few others, not withstanding), some of it may be that even for the ’60s, Kusama was a little daunting, and some of it may have been influenced by the precarious state of her health, which often left her incapacitated by illness, either psychiatric or physical. But certainly part of the distance the art world put between itself and Yayoi Kusama was the residue of what art-and-culture writer Andrew Solomon called “aggressive wartime prejudice against Japan.” In any case, as Alexandra Munroe, an art historian who was in large part responsible for the resurgence in the West of interest in Kusama’s art in the ’90s, concluded, the artist “was too beautiful, too crazy, and too powerful” for the art scene in the U.S. to handle.
As if to prove Munroe’s point, by the mid-1960s, Kusama turned from canvas and paper as the media for her art to room-sized installations, starting in 1965 in New York with Phalli’s Field, a 15' x 15' mirrored room filled with hundreds of her fabric penis sculptures covered in white cloth with red polka dots. Ultimately, this led to 2002’s Fireflies on the Water (displayed again at the Whitney in 2012 as part of Yayoi Kusama, a retrospective) and the six mirrored rooms (including Phalli’s Field) assembled for the Hirshhorn’s Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors (running through 14 May). By 1967, Kusama had moved entirely away from making any kind of art object and devoted herself to Happenings. These were mostly improvised guerrilla street performances in which a group of young performers, some wearing masks of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, stripped naked and a usually-clothed Kusama would paint their bodies with polka dots. They were purportedly protest demonstration, against the Vietnam war, racism, segregation, and for free love and expression, gay rights, and women’s lib—all the issues of the “flower-power” ’60s. Most of the Happenings were performed in the street or open space in front of such establishment structures as the Statue of Liberty, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and New York Stock Exchange in 1968, where her hippie acolytes handed out flyers declaring, “STOCK IS A FRAUD!” and, “OBLITERATE WALL STREET MEN WITH POLKA DOTS” in a foreshadowing of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations 43 years later. There was even an un-authorized invasion of the Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden (announced to the press in advance, but unknown to the museum) with Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA in 1969 in which the participants cavorted in a fountain, striking poses that mimicked nearby sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, and Aristide Maillol. (Kusama returned to MoMA with the authorized one-woman show Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1972 in 1998.)
Like her penis sculptures, Kusama’s Happenings were always recorded in photographs, for the artist was nothing if not a master self-promoter! She came to see publicity as a form of art in itself, and by 1968, she was more prominent in the press than even Andy Warhol. “Publicity is part of my art,” she wrote in Kusama Orgy, her sexual-freedom newspaper which reported on her activities and promoted her ideas and opinions. She was usually surrounded by a gang of hippies, among them the gay young men she dubbed the Kusama Dancing Team, who behaved like disciples, and started a gay social club called the Kusama ’Omophile Kompany (kok). She’s boasted that she was “reported on almost as much as Jackie O. and President Nixon” and in 1968, the artist wrote President Nixon a letter offering to have sex with him if he’d end the Vietnam war. By the end of the decade, however, the artist had become over-exposed and was seen by many as an attention-seeker who’d exceeded her Warholian 15 minutes of fame.
For someone with not a single tie to the United States or New York, except perhaps in her imagination, Yayoi Kusama not only found herself a viable niche in the art scene here, but reveled in it. (There’s no doubt, of course, that she could never have lived the kind of life she was living in New York if she’d remained in Japan, even in Tokyo much less Matsumoto. Back home, she was considered a “naughty girl” even off of the mildly rebellious behavior she exhibited in the ’40s and ’50s.) Broke and depressed, however, Kusama’s health, both physical and mental, had deteriorated so badly by 1973 that she had to return to Japan. (Furthermore, Kamon Kusama, the artist’s father, was ill and would die in 1974 after a long illness. This came just two years after Kusama also lost Joseph Cornell.) Her doctor in New York had missed a serious thyroid condition and fibroids in her uterus and she underwent surgery in Tokyo to correct the medical problems.
Back home, Kusama’s avant-garde work attracted little attention from the galleries and art publications. She mounted a couple of Happenings in Tokyo, but they were met with meager response and the press declared her a “national disgrace.” What little coverage they got wasn’t from art journals, but from men’s magazines. Eventually, Kusama essentially gave up all her art work and turned to writing a series of strange and surrealistic novels about New York’s downtown sex scene. (She’d been writing poetry since she was 18.) Between 1977 and 1990, she published 10 novels. In 1983, Kusama was awarded the Yasei Jidai literary magazine prize for her novel Kuristofa danshokukutsu (“Christopher homosexual brothel”).
In 1975, she voluntarily committed herself to the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo; in 1977, she moved into the private clinic permanently and has lived there ever since, writing and painting in her room. The artist is free to come and go on her own volition and she has a studio in a building in walking distance from the clinic where she works for eight hours daily, returning to the hospital at night. (She also travels to exhibits abroad, but her hospital room is her base of operations.) In all the time she’s been in the hospital, the artist’s mother visited her only once; in 1984, Shigeru Kusama died.
Kusama eventually returned to painting and has amassed a large number of canvases which she shows all over the world even as she continues to create her mirrored rooms. In the ’90s, she experienced a resurgence of interest in her work both in the West and in Japan and even in her ninth decade of life, she keeps up a crowded schedule of exhibits and the attendant interviews, appearances, and vernissages. That’s what generated my mother’s decision to sell her Kusama Infinity Net, and it also generated coverage not only in the art press (Andrew Solomon’s “Dot Dot Dot: The Lifework of Yayoi Kusama” in ArtForum, February 1997, for example), but in such general-interest journals as the New Yorker (such as the four-page spread by Calvin Tomkins, “On the Edge,” 7 October 1996). In September 1989, following 1987’s Yayoi Kusama at the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, Fukuoka, the first retrospective exhibit of her work in Japan, Alexandra Munroe curated the first retrospective of Kusama’s art in the United States, the Center for International Contemporary Arts’ Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective in New York, essentially launching the renewed interest in the artist, known in Japan as the “Kusama boom.” Between that year and 1999, there were at least 59 solo Kusama exhibits around the world (plus many more group shows in which her work was included). Of those, nine were abroad in either Europe (including the 45th Venice Biennale in June 1993) or Asia outside Japan, 15 were in galleries and museums in the U.S. (including Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958-1968 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), and 35 in Japan, the country that had previously turned its back on Kusama’s art and made her feel unwelcome. A remarkable reversal of fortune.
In 1993, Kusama was designated the first female artist to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale, perhaps the most prestigious art show in the world, from 13 June to 10 October. The Japanese pavilion at the 45th Biennale housed a retrospective of Kusama’s art reaching back to 1959, including examples of her work in all its variations (except, of course, her live art and Happenings). The highlight of the show was Kusama’s new creation, Mirror Room (Pumpkin) (1993), a mirrored room filled with small sculptures of pumpkins; she herself stayed in the room, dressed in a color-coordinated outfit modeled on a magician’s costume: a yellow witch’s hat and long yellow dress all covered with black polka dots. Having been inspired to sculpt pumpkins because one of the plants her grandfather’s seed farm grew was that fruit and the color, shape, and appearance of them intrigued young Kusama when she used to visit the farm with her grandfather. She went on to make scores of pumpkin sculptures, large and small—some of them mirrored themselves—and this object has joined the polka dots (which often appear on the pumpkins, too), Infinity Nets, and mirror rooms as iconic Kusama imagery.
At home, Kusama, who now seldom appears in public without her signature attire: a bright orange wig in a bobbed style, fiery red lipstick, and a vividly-colored one-piece floor-length dress of polka-dotted fabric (usually coordinated with the art on display or based on one of her paintings), went from national scandal to the most important living Japanese artist; in 2006 she received the Praemium Imperiale, one of Japan’s most prestigious arts prizes—the first woman to win the award. In 2011, Kusama published her autobiography, Infinity Net (University of Chicago Press), which David Pilling, Asia editor of the Financial Times, characterizes as “better treated as artistic statement than faithful record.” (In 2012, Heather Lenz, a documentary filmmaker, started work on Kusama: Princess of Polka Dots, a seven-minute version of which was edited for the Tate exhibit. Still incomplete and retitled Yayoi Kusama: A Life in Polka Dots, the project explores the artist’s whole life and work.)
The artist has been designing clothes since the ’60s (some of which she called “orgy clothes” with holes cut in uhhhh . . . critical locations), but in 2012, she entered into an arrangement with the French luxury design firm Louis Vuitton and her iconic polka dots adorned the company’s high-end handbags, luggage, sunglasses, scarves, and coats. The New York store on Madison Avenue in the East 60’s was decorated with a display of red dots and the company sponsors many of Kusama’s shows. At her Tokyo studio, in addition to her paintings, “colorful and hieroglyphic, with repeating motifs—eyes, profiles, tendril-like fringes, things that appear to be cells or viruses,” she makes products from “fabric to clothing to mobile phones,” according to Tate Modern curator Frances Morris. (Tate Modern held another well-received retrospective exhibit, Yayoi Kusama, from 9 February through 5 June 2012.)
Just like the young Kusama who came to the U.S. in the 1950s “in a quest to become the most famous possible version of herself,” as a New York magazine writer expressed it—and she made it for a while—the present-day Kusama still proclaims, “I want to become more famous, even more famous.” The attention-getting naked Happenings, of which she staged some 200 in their day, and the penis sculptures may be behind her, but with a boost from businesses like Louis Vuitton and museums like the Hirshhorn, she may just do it again, too. In a 2009 interview, she proclaimed: “As long as I have the energy, I will carry on. I’d like to live 200 or 300 years. I want to leave my message to my successors and future generations.”