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10 things to know about Yayoi Kusama

Florence Waters takes a closer look at the extraordinary life and career of the woman behind the dots

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  • Painting became an act of rebellion for Kusama when she was just a child

Her mother told her she was not allowed to paint and took her inks and canvases away.

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  • ‘America is really the country that raised me,’ says the 86-year-old artist

Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, she reacted against her parents’ 'old customs and morals' in her mid-twenties and decided to seek freedom and fame in New York.

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  • It is impossible to separate the art of Yayoi Kusama from her mental health

She describes her work as ‘art medicine’. The ‘Infinity Net’ paintings, which first won her critical acclaim in New York, originate from visual hallucinations that she claims have haunted her since childhood. She first referenced the hallucinatory episodes as early as 1963, in an interview with the art critic Gordon Brown for WABC radio. ‘My nets grew beyond myself and beyond the canvases I was covering with them,’ she said. ‘They began to cover the walls, the ceiling, and finally the whole universe’. She now lives voluntarily in a psychiatric asylum in Tokyo, which has been her home since 1977.

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  • One of the first critics to trumpet Kusama’s ‘Infinity Net’ paintings was Donald Judd

Judd worked as an art critic before becoming a leading light in the Minimalist movement. ‘The effect is both complex and simple,’ he wrote of the paintings in Art News in 1959. The ‘Infinity Net’ paintings would fetch around $200 a piece at that time; now they sell for up to $7.1 million, a record set at Christie’s in 2014. Kusama is now the highest-selling living female artist and the ‘Infinity Net’ paintings are her most sought-after pieces. According to recent figures, her touring retrospective, Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Obsession, attracted the biggest global audience of 2015.

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  • The Kusama-Warhol story is complex

Kusama considered Andy Warhol a good friend, but she later accused him of stealing her ideas. For a show in New York in 1963 she covered a rowing boat with phalluses and wallpapered the room with repeated identical photocopies of the image. Warhol used wallpaper at a show in 1966, a repeating vibrant screen print of a cow, and again in later shows. The surface glamour and playfulness of Pop Art continues to play a part in Kusama’s practice. When asked, in 2012, why she had decided to use pumpkins in her work, she gave a very Warholian answer: ‘Pumpkins are visually humorous.’

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  • Kusama was a self-styled outsider in America

She never set out to belong to a movement, always calling her style 'Kusama art', despite her connections to major avant-garde artists. Nor would she let the art world forget her Japanese origins, always wearing a kimono to the private views of her shows.

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  • It was in her best silver kimono that she first visited Joseph Cornell

...at his home in Queens, New York, in 1962. The meeting was to be the start of an intense relationship with the reclusive artist, which lasted for over ten years. Ultimately, it was the involvement of Cornell’s jealous mother — who once poured a bucket of water over the couple after discovering them kissing — that brought the relationship to an end. ‘I have lost count of the times I thought about giving that fat old woman a good swift kick,’ Kusama wrote in her 2002 autobiography, Infinity Net.

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  • Kusama has always used fashion to gain attention

As a child she rebelliously decorated her clothes with dots. When she launched her own fashion company in the 1960s, clothes featured not dots but holes, strategically placed for the breasts or buttocks. In the 1970s she made ‘orgy’ garments — to be worn by several people at once. Such outré outfits did not make it into the line on which she collaborated with Louis Vuitton in 2012 — the most extensive artist collaboration the fashion house had ever commissioned. These days she is rarely seen without her trademark red wig and dotty clothing.

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  • Sex is a recurrent theme in Kusama’s work…

... in spite of the fact that she describes herself as asexual. Her relationship with Cornell — her only known romantic relationship — was erotic but sexless. Her ‘penis chairs’, as she calls them, and other sculptures coated in phalluses, may stem from a fear of sex. As a child, Kusama says she was painfully aware of the family misery caused by her father’s affairs.

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  • The search for stardom is part of her work and story

Kusama often describes how she craved fame when she arrived in New York. As a woman forging a career in an alien country which harboured post-war resentment towards the Japanese, she needed fierce determination to get the attention she craved. At the Venice Biennale in 1966 she even handed out flyers featuring Sir Herbert Read’s poetic description of her work as ‘images of strange beauty’ that ‘press … on our organs of perception with terrifying insistence’.