Women of Abstraction (P.2): Yayoi Kusama - Queen of Infinity
Yayoi Kusama is a multidisciplinary Japanese artist, who for the last seven decades has created not only paintings and drawings, but sculpture, collages, installations, performance art, film, ceramics, fashion design, novels, short stories and poetry. A vital part of New York’s City’s avant-garde art scene from the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s, Yayoi developed a distinctive style that drew on elements associated with Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Feminist art. Her work often features bold colors, repetition of pattern, a hard-edged graphic flatness, and recurring motifs - the most famous of these being the polka dot.
Source: Artnet News
From the beginning, one of the greatest influences on Yayoi’s work has been her experience with mental illness. Diagnosed with obsessional neurosis and depersonalisation as an adult, she began experiencing visual and aural hallucinations at the age of 10 - experiences which have had a lifelong affect on her work, from her imagery to her working process. Documenting her hallucinations was a way she learned to deal with her illness early on. As she has explained, “ recording them helped to ease the shock and fear of the episodes. That is the origin of my pictures.” She has called her artwork an expression of her life, “ particularly of my mental disease,” and stated that “painting pictures has been a therapy for me to overcome the illness.”
Source: Telegraph UK
Yayoi was born in 1929 in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.The youngest of four children, she was born into an affluent family who owned a successful wholesale seed business. Though her family largely discouraged her interest in art, Yayoi eventually made a deal with her mother that she could attend art school in exchange for attending etiquette school. She briefly studied Nihonga painting, a formal style developed during the Meiji period (1868–1912). In 1955, she came across the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and reached out to her on a whim- Georgia responded, offering advice and encouraging her to come to the United States.
Infinity Nets (FBB), Acrylic on canvas, 38 1/4 x 51 1/4 inches, 2013
Infinity Nets Detail
In 1957, Yayoi moved to the US, landing first in Seattle and making her way to New York City a year later. There she developed major series and motifs that she would continue throughout her career. Soon after arriving in New York, she began making one of her most important series of paintings - her Infinity Nets. Inspired by her hallucinations, which she described as a “veil” or “net” over the world, these largescale, monochromatic paintings are composed of hundreds of repeating, semicircular brushstrokes, created in thick oil (in later years,acrylic.) For these, she quickly gained critical attention, and in 1960 she signed an exclusive contract with the Stephen Radich Gallery in Manhattan.
Infinity Mirrored Room—All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016
Source: Hirshhorn Gallery
Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013
Source: Hirshhorn Gallery
In the mid-sixties, she began exploring soft sculpture and installations, often confronting her phobias through her work. In 1965, she created her first of many Infinity Mirrored Rooms- immersive installations which allow viewers to experience their own figures and movements as part of the artwork as they move around the space. Transcending boundaries, these rooms have been met with high demand and have demonstrated mass appeal. In recent years, social media has played an enormous part in the growing popularity of her work, as viewers take and share selfies in these rooms.
Still from Yayoi’s film, Self-Obliteration,1967
Yayoi began experimenting with performance art as early as 1965, and by 1967 was staging one Happening after another. Many of these performances took the form of protest, addressing issues such as the Vietnam war, taxes, and marriage and gender inequality. Polka dots were a trademark of Kusama Happenings, with Yayoi painting participants' naked bodies with polka dots or dressing them in her custom-made fashion designs. Yayoi used the repeating pattern of polka dots as a way of dissolving the distinction between self and other, subject and object. One poster for a performance read “ Become one with eternity. Obliterate your personality. Become part of your environment. Forget yourself. Self-destruction is the only way out.”
1960’s performance in NYC
These happenings first took off in New York, but soon found adherents throughout the USA and overseas.
While she attracted a lot of attention and followers with her performances, many in the New York art scene saw these events merely as publicity stunts, hurting her credibility. News about these happenings also reached the tabloids in Japan, who were appalled by the often risqué nature of her performances, and she was publicly labelled “ the shame of Matsumoto City.” Discouraged and depressed, and having lost a large portion of her American audience, she returned to Japan in 1975. Seeking treatment for her deteriorating mental health, she checked herself into an open ward at the Seiwa Hospital in Tokyo- there she has remained since, working daily in a studio she bought across the street.
Installation view of YAYOI KUSAMA: My Eternal Soul at The National Art Center, Tokyo’s 10th Anniversary, 2017
Throughout the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, Yayoi largely faded into obscurity. During this time she still continued to work, however, exploring collage and printmaking, and writing novels, short stories and poetry. In the United States, a revived interest in her work occurred in 1989, when“ Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective “ was the first exhibition held at the Center for International Contemporary Art in New York. In Japan and Europe, a new appreciation for her work also grew - this was furthered in 1993, when she officially represented Japan at the Venice Biennale.
FLOWERS THAT SPEAK ALL ABOUT MY HEART GIVEN TO THE SKY, 2018
Source: Artnet News
In 1994, she began working on large-scale outdoor sculptures, casting gigantic flowers, pumpkins, and biomorphic shapes in bronze and stainless steel. She has since completed many major outdoor commissions for institutions such as the Fukuoka Prefectural Museum of Art and the Matsumoto City Museum.
Louis Vuitton’s flagship store on 5th ave, NYC
In 1998, she had a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, entitled “ Love Forever- Yayoi Kusama 1958-1968,” which later travelled to the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), and the Museum of Contemporary Art (Tokyo). As a result of her ever-growing popularity, she began teaming up with corporations such as Issey Miyake, Coca-Cola, Graf furniture, BMW Mini, G-Shock watches and X-Girl Clothing. The most famous of these collaborations occurred in 2012, when she worked with Marc Jacobs to create the Louis Vuitton x Yayoi Kusama collection.
Obliteration Room, 2002-present, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia
Recognition for her work has only continued to grow. In 2008, she set a record for the highest auction price for a living female artist, was named the “ most popular artist in the world” by the Art Newspaper in 2014 based on museum attendance, and has won numerous awards and honors, including the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The Yayoi Kusama Museum in Tokyo officially opened its doors in 2017, dedicated to displaying a range of work throughout her long career, as well as unveiling brand new pieces.
At work in her Tokyo studio
Beloved by a new generation for her Pop Art sensibilities and immersive installations, Yayoi continues to be prolific at 90. An inspiration not only for her remarkable artistic vision and dedication, but for the way she has courageously harnessed the therapeutic elements of art for her own mental health, Yayoi doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
“ I’ll keep going,” she says, “ While I live, I paint. “
Want to see some of her work for yourself? The Art Gallery of Ontario now features one of her Infinity Mirrored Rooms, entitled Let’s Survive Forever, in its permanent collection.
Andrea Warren will be running a series of courses at Wallack's in 2020. If you're interested in finding out more information, check out our Classes & Events Calendar here.
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All images and words are provided by Andrea Warren for Wallack's.