Inside A Kaleidoscope
Legendary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s work continues to transcend reality and reason
By John Adams
Teetering along the knife-edge between modernism and madness, Japanese avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama continues to produce work that confounds and provokes long after many of her contemporaries (Warhol, Hesse, O’Keefe… ) have passed on. After surviving nearly 40 years living in obscurity after leaving the New York art scene of the 1970s, Kusama and her work are enjoying a well-deserved and long overdue renaissance of accolades and recognition. Today Kusama is considered one of the most important living artists to come out of Japan. And while her mind may fail, her artistic voice is stronger than ever.
A way to infinity
While Kusama works in an impressive variety of media, including painting, collage, sculpture, performance art, and environmental installations, the bulk of her work carries her thematic interest in psychedelic colors, repetition of pattern, and polka dots. Yes, polka dots. Kusama elaborates: “A polka dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our
living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless, and unknowing. Polka dots become movement … Polka dots are a way to infinity.”
Since as early as 1939 when she was just 10, Kusama has incorporated those dots into her work. Having lived with
severe mental illness her entire life, the polka dots or “infinity nets” as she calls them, are taken directly from her hallucinations. It seems that perhaps Kusama has blazed a trail through insanity by covering her work with dots, like so many
breadcrumbs in a forest.
A long, strange journey
Upon the urging of Georgia O’Keefe, with whom Kusama had a long-standing friendship, she moved into the heart of the exploding 1950s Pop and Minimalist art movements – New York City. Kusama quickly became a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War, known for organizing art/protest gatherings in Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge.
In addition to her proliferation of polka dot works, since 1963 Kusama has continued her series of Mirror/Infinity rooms. In these complex installations, rooms lined with mirrored glass contain scores of psychedelic-colored balls, hanging at various heights above the viewer. Standing inside on a small platform, light is repeatedly reflected off the mirrored surfaces to create the illusion of a never-ending space. Inside one of her rooms, one can perhaps experience what it may be like inside Kusama’s own psyche. The bombardment of light, color, repetitive design and, of course, polka dots is at once unsettling and compelling.
Kusama left New York in 1973 after sinking deeper into mental illness. She admitted herself to a mental institution in Tokyo, where she still resides today. And while she continued to work, her absence and ever-deepening separation from the outside world conspired to erase her from art history.
Rebirth and recognition
When Kusama left New York, she was practically forgotten as an artist until the late 1980s and 1990s, when a number of
retrospectives revived international interest. Today, at 84, she is referred to as a reclusive “living legend.” In 2012, a retrospective of her work, including those signature polka dots, opened at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art.
Kusama’s recent work is as challenging and provocative as she has produced. “I work as much as fifty to sixty hours
at a stretch,” Kusama wrote in a 1961 article of her obsessive creative process. “I gradually feel myself under the spell of the accumulation and repetition in my nets which expand beyond me, and over the limited space of canvas, covering the floor, desks, and everywhere.”
See Yayoi Kusama’s work:
Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Obsession tours Central and South America through 2015. Consisting of over 100 works created between 1950 and 2013, this exhibition opened in June 2013 at Malba – Fundación Costantini in Buenos Aires and also set a new record attendance for the museum. It is now hosted by the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Rio de Janeiro (through January 20, 2014), followed by the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Brasília; Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo; and the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City.
In 2012, luxury brand Louis Vuitton announced plans to team up with Kusama for a new collection that will see her bold signature spots appear on the brand’s latest creations.
Work by the artist is held in museum collections worldwide, including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Tate Gallery, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; among numerous others. Kusama lives and works in Tokyo.