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.

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