Collecting guide: 10 things to know about Yayoi Kusama

A closer look at the extraordinary life and career of the woman behind the dots, one of Japan’s — and the world’s — best-loved living artists. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama in Tokyo, 2006

Yayoi Kusama at the Praemium Imperiale art awards, given by The Japan Art Association. Tokyo, October 2006. Photo: © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Alamy

Painting was rebellion for the young Kusama

Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, Yayoi Kusama was the youngest of four children in a wealthy family. When she was a child, her mother made her spy on her father, who had repeated affairs. Her mother also told her she was not allowed to paint and frequently confiscated her inks and canvases, which might explain her obsessive creative drive.

Kusama took Georgia O’Keeffe’s advice and moved to America

As a young, aspiring artist, Kusama greatly admired Georgia O’Keeffe, and even wrote to her to ask for advice. ‘I’m only on the first step of the long difficult life of being a painter. Will you kindly show me the way?’ she asked. O’Keeffe wrote back, warning that ‘in this country an artist has a hard time making a living.’ She neverthless advised Kusama to come to America and show her work to as many people as she could.

In her mid-twenties, Kusama did just that. Reacting against what she regarded as her parents’ old-fashioned customs and morals, she decided to seek freedom and fame abroad. She moved to New York, where she lived between 1958 and 1975. ‘America is really the country that raised me,’ Kusama has said.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Pumpkin [FBAN], 2013. Acrylic on canvas. 130.3 x 161.5 cm (51 1⁄4 x 63 1⁄2 in). Sold for HK$46,355,000 on 28 November 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

It is impossible to separate the art of 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.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Infinity-nets [KLN], 2014. Acrylic on canvas. 194 x 194 cm (76 3⁄8 x 76 3⁄8 in). Sold for HK$24,575,000 on 28 November 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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

Donald 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 Kusama’s paintings in Art News in 1959. The ‘Infinity Net’ paintings would fetch around $200 a piece at that time; now they can sell for millions. 

Kusama is now among the highest-selling living female artists, and the ‘Infinity Net’ paintings are her most sought-after pieces. According to figures, her touring retrospective, Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Obsession, attracted the biggest global audience of 2015.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Woman, 2016. Acrylic on canvas. 227.3 x 181.8 cm (89 1⁄2 x 71 5⁄8 in). Sold for HK$20,340,000 on 28 November 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.’

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Pumpkin, 1981. Acrylic on canvas. 53 x 45.5 cm (20 7⁄8 x 17 7⁄8 in). Sold for HK$16,105,000 on 29 November 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Kusama was a self-styled outsider in America

The artist never set out to belong to a movement, always describing her style ‘Kusama art’, despite her connections to major avant-garde artists. She would not let the art world forget her Japanese origins, either, always wearing a kimono to the private views of her shows.

Kusama wore her best silver kimono to her first meeting with Joseph Cornell

The meeting took place in 1962 at Cornell’s home in Queens, New York. It would mark the start of an intense relationship with the reclusive artist, which lasted for over 10 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.

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 lines on which she collaborated with Louis Vuitton in 2023 — the most extensive artist collaboration the fashion house has ever commissioned, consisting of some 450 items. These days, Kusama is rarely seen without her trademark red wig and dotty clothing.

Sex is a recurrent theme in Kusama’s work

Kusama’s 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 — indeed she describes herself as ‘asexual’.

The search for stardom is part of Kusama’s work and story

Kusama often describes how she craved fame when she arrived in New York. As a woman forging a career in an foreign country which harboured post-war resentment towards the Japanese, she had to show determination to get the attention she craved.

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At the 1966 Venice Biennale she resorted to handing 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’.

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