The Polka-Dot Super Star: Yayoi Kusama

Calla Lily ArtArleen Solomon Rotchin3 Comments
Photo by Will Ragozzino

Photo by Will Ragozzino

Eighty-six year old Yayoi Kusama is Japan’s most successful living artist.  She is famous for her polka-dot covered artwork but behind this art lies a troubled and difficult past.

She was born in Matsumoto city in 1929 into a traditional Japanese family who vehemently was opposed to her becoming an artist. According to conventional wisdom of the time, a women had no future as a painter. 

Her childhood was extremely crippling.  In a similar scenario to that experienced by artist Louise Bourgeois, the marital infidelities of Kusama’s father had a lasting impact on his free-spirited daughter.

‘My father had lots of lovers and I had to spy on him for my mother.  My mother, of course, was very angry and it made the idea of sex very traumatic for me.  My work is always about overcoming that bad experience.  My visual language still comes from my hallucinations which I have since my childhood.  I have always found some escape from family life in art.’

Her early works mixed traditional Japanese painting styles with Western influences gathered from art books and magazines.  It was a particular interest in the work of American Georgia O’Keeffe that eventually led to Kusama leaving Japan for the United States.

‘I first came across an image of O’Keeffe’s in a book of photographs of animal bones in the desert,’ she said.  ‘I thought that it was wonderful and wanted to communicate with her.  I went to the American Embassy in Tokyo, got O’Keeffe’s address, and sent her a letter with some of my drawings.  This resulted in a longstanding correspondence between us. She offered that I live with her in New Mexico but I wanted to live in New York.’

Kusama came to New York from Tokyo in 1958.

‘I was too poor to afford heating, shivering my way through winters in my kimono, frying batches of onions and potatoes, the only food I could afford.’

Her tenacity paid off.  She found likeminded friends within the New York artistic community and had a relationship with fellow artist Joseph Cornell.  

‘He was impotent and lived with his over-bearing mother.  The closest we came to consummation was when we sat naked and drew portraits of each other.’ 

She started a studio with Andy Warhol’s Factory creating installations and staging live performances where she read her poetry.   She created dotted paintings and sculptures, and staged nude happenings and protests.  Also around this time, Yayoi created her pumpkin-themed works. 


‘It seems pumpkins do not inspire much respect,’ Kusama said.  ‘But, I was enchanted by their charm and winsome form and a pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness.’ 

With the explosion of pop art and the drug culture, critics likened her dots to the effect of an acid trip.  

Photo by Steve Eicher

Photo by Steve Eicher

During her 15-year stay in the United States, Kusama left quite an impression.  She showed large paintings and environmental sculptures using mirrors and electric lights. She orchestrated nude body painting festivals, fashion shows and anti-war demonstrations. 

In the early 1970’s, the art world had forgotten about Yayoi.  She was beginning to be seen as overexposed and attention-seeking.   So she moved back to Japan and checked into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill where she continues to live by choice and work tirelessly for six decades now.

She has also become a prize-winning novelist, has solo exhibits all over the world and permanent outdoor sculpture exhibits in Japan.

She returned to New York in 2012 for the first time in decades thanks to a collaboration with Louis Vuitton and her retrospective at the Whitney.   

In July, 2012 Louis Vuitton unveiled its Yayoi Kusama collection.


Did she think art needed to be more commercial or to have corporate support from companies like Louis Vuitton in order to reach more people? 

‘I will be an artist until the end of my life.  If with the power of art we can touch the hearts of people, it’s a wonderful thing so why not with the help of business.  In that sense for me, business can also be a sort of art especially in the fashion world.’

One of her paintings from the 70’s sold at Christie’s for $5.1 million a few years ago, a record for any living female artist.  

Yayoi Kusama at a Love-in Festival in Central Park.   New York,   1968

Yayoi Kusama at a Love-in Festival in Central Park.
New York, 1968

‘The best time in my life was when I went to Central Park and took the row boats out.  I had a lot of fun with Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko.”

Yayoi Kusama is very rich today despite having lived within the confines of a Japanese psychiatric hospital.  She is the world’s top selling contemporary female artist.