How Yayoi Kusama, Obsessed with Polka Dots, Became One of the Most Radical Artists of All Time

Yay­oi Kusama turned 93 this past Tues­day, and she remains not just artis­ti­cal­ly pro­duc­tive but glob­al­ly beloved. Her work itself con­tin­ues to appeal to an ever wider range of view­ers of all nation­al­i­ties and ages. “Yay­oi Kusama is a Japan­ese artist who is some­times called ‘the princess of pol­ka dots’,” says the brief intro­duc­tion to her life and work offered at Take Kids. “Although she makes lots of dif­fer­ent types of art – paint­ings, sculp­tures, per­for­mances and instal­la­tions – they have one thing in com­mon, DOTS!” That’s cer­tain­ly one way of describ­ing her, though any­one who’s fol­lowed her 70-year-long career will notice the con­spic­u­ous absence of oth­er, equal­ly impor­tant ele­ments of her art’s devel­op­ment: men­tal ill­ness, for instance, or enor­mous num­bers of phal­lus­es.

Yet even the new video essay on Kusama from Great Art Explained, a Youtube chan­nel very much pitched to an adult view­er­ship, takes as its focus the artist’s rela­tion­ship with var­i­ous­ly sized two-dimen­sion­al sol­id cir­cles. At the age of ten, says the chan­nel’s cre­ator James Payne, she “had her first hal­lu­ci­na­tion, which she described as flash­es of light, auras, or dense fields of dots. The dots would come to life and con­sume her and she would find her­self oblit­er­at­ed.” Since then, and though her art has “crossed from art to fash­ion and from film­mak­ing to per­for­mance art, her con­tin­u­ing explo­ration of the pol­ka dot has remained the one con­sis­tent motif.”

In approach­ing an artist through a sin­gle motif rather than a sin­gle work, this video breaks from the stan­dard Great Art Explained for­mat, but that does­n’t stop Payne from telling Kusama’s sto­ry with his usu­al suc­cinct­ness. He begins with her dis­com­fit­ing upbring­ing in a well-off rur­al Japan­ese house­hold and con­tin­ues to her dis­cov­ery of and sub­se­quent cor­re­spon­dence with Geor­gia O’Ke­effe, who made Kusama the nec­es­sary intro­duc­tions in the New York art world. Through her rig­or­ous work habits and con­tin­u­ous push­ing of aes­thet­ic and polit­i­cal bound­aries, Kusama even­tu­al­ly became a fig­ure of some renown in that city’s avant-garde scene of the nine­teen-six­ties — a milieu that proved recep­tive to the “soft-sculp­ture phal­lus­es” with which many of her cre­ations then bris­tled.

Kusama returned to her home­land in the ear­ly 1970s, and soon there­after only those with the sharpest mem­o­ries of the avant-garde six­ties remem­bered her work. Only a 1989 ret­ro­spec­tive at New York’s Cen­ter for Inter­na­tion­al Con­tem­po­rary Arts returned her to the inter­na­tion­al fame she has enjoyed ever since. Many of us now have vivid mem­o­ries of step­ping into her com­plete­ly mir­rored, dense­ly dot-lit “infin­i­ty rooms” over the years and in dif­fer­ent muse­ums around the world. Though Kusama began mak­ing them in the mid-nine­teen-six­ties, they’ve turned out to be ide­al­ly suit­ed to the social-media era. “Peo­ple queue up for hours for just six­ty sec­onds in one of her infin­i­ty-room instal­la­tions,” says Payne. “Each image they take of infin­i­ty joins mil­lions more on the inter­net — itself infi­nite.” Only now, in Kusama’s tenth decade, has the rest of the world caught up with her.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Down­load Full Issues of MAVO, the Japan­ese Avant-Garde Mag­a­zine That Announced a New Mod­ernist Move­ment (1923–1925)

Ven­er­a­ble Female Artists, Musi­cians & Authors Give Advice to the Young: Pat­ti Smith, Lau­rie Ander­son & More

The MoMA Teach­es You How to Paint Like Pol­lock, Rothko, de Koon­ing & Oth­er Abstract Painters

The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa by Hoku­sai: An Intro­duc­tion to the Icon­ic Japan­ese Wood­block Print in 17 Min­utes

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.