Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is one of contemporary art’s most iconic figures. Her polka-dots, pumpkins and mirrored ‘Infinity Rooms’ have captivated viewers for more than six decades. These lovable and immersive artworks have huge visual appeal. Rooted in her difficult past — their patterns draw upon hallucinations she experienced as a child — they also testify to art’s healing, therapeutic power.
Kusama was born in Nagano Prefecture, in central Japan, in 1929. At ten years old, she began to experience visions of spots, nets and flowers that threatened to swallow her whole world. These overwhelming apparitions allowed her a form of escape. As she put it, ‘my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space.’ In defiance of her parents, she resolved to become an artist.
She studied in Kyoto after the Second World War, and moved to New York in 1958. Here, her ‘Infinity Net’ paintings — vast, cosmic fields of endless cellular form — found instant acclaim with the avant-garde. She staged radical ‘Happenings’ in which polka-dots covered installations, costumes and nude performers’ bodies. Protuberant fabric forms sprouted over everyday objects in her ‘Accumulation’ sculptures. These works paved the way for her first ‘Infinity Room’ of 1965. She has since made more than 20 of these mirrored environments, which create hypnotic spatial illusions. They are so popular that viewers must often join long waiting lists to see them in museums.
Kusama’s reputation soared dramatically after international exhibitions during the 1990s. In 2006, she was awarded the Praemium Imperiale for Painting, Japan’s most prestigious global art prize. While Kusama’s early ‘Infinity Nets’ continue to command some of her highest prices at auction, they are rivalled by her famous painted and sculptural pumpkins. ‘I was enchanted by their charming and winsome form,’ she recalled of the pumpkins which grew at her family’s farm. Kusama began using the motif on returning from America to Japan in the late 1970s, when she took up permanent residency at a Tokyo psychiatric hospital. Like her polka-dots, Kusama’s pumpkins transcend their biographical origins to convey a universal message of love, life and mystery. ‘Giving off an aura of my sacred mental state,’ she says, ‘they embody a base for the joy of living; a living shared by all of humankind on the earth. It is for the pumpkins that I keep on going.’