Yayoi Kusama – artist research

Yayoi Kusama is an artist who has come to my attention through Facebook primarily but also through her love of using polka dots in her work.  She was born in Japan in 1929 before emigrating to the USA in 1957 although she eventually returned home in 1973.

Yayoi has worked in a wide variety of media including sculpture, painting, collage and performance art as well as developing  environmental installations and like the artist Katsushika Hokusai has had an ever changing and developing style.

Yayoi Kusama

What fascinates me is that since 1977 Yayoi has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric institution and her art is obsessive in its execution as she seeks to escape her demons.  Her work now consists of polka dots in a variety of forms including mirrored installations, nets and just painted dots and often includes pumpkins which she has painted since she was a child.  Further research informs me that the polka dots it appears though are symbolic of the blotches that appeared in front of her eyes during hallucinations that have plagued her since a child – she has made creative use of what must have been terrifying and that for me is inspirational in that to embrace the fear she has translated it into a creative force.

During her time in the USA Yayoi’s work was highly influential on artists such as Andy Warhol and Donald Judd and she was at the very centre of the 1960’s art scene and embraced the fact she is a woman in a male dominated world as well as being Japanese – she has used the fact that she was an outsider to her advantage.  What is somewhat of a revelation is that she considers her early art ‘obscene’ but when you take that consideration in context with the fact this is a lady who threw public orgies in America and literally covered everything in polka dots including naked bodies and horses  it is not so surprising – her solo show in 1963 in New York involved a boat covered with plaster phalluses and the walls were covered with photocopies of the image – looking at photos of this red-haired old lady now it is hard to imagine the renegade she once clearly was.   That solo exhibition lead her to accuse Andy Warhol of stealing her idea of the multiple photocopied images for his own style of work.  Research tells me that there is a physical reason for this particular show – a fear of the phallic organ caused by her mother in childhood as she was asked to spy on her father with his many mistresses and her only romantic relationship of any nature was with the artist Joseph Cornell who was both considerably her senior and also impotent.

Unsurprisingly when she initially returned to Japan in order to treat her mental illness the country did not immediately embrace their renegade daughter when you consider Japan can be considered a ‘restrained society’ or ‘polite society’  by Western standards although this is a bit of a misnomer too in that it is a society known for its eccentricities in our modern era.

Yayoi has only gained full recognition in the past 2 decades and her re-emergence as a major artist was when she represented Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1993  – she  is now considered Japan’s leading contemporary artist as well as one of the most eccentric artists of the art world.  I find the fact this is an artist who embraces her mental illness and her eccentric nature one of the appeals of both her as a person but also her art as she uses her very personal experiences throughout her life including the trauma of her childhood, the hallucinations and her life in general to influence and sub-consciously direct her work.

Personally I love her bright use of polka dots throughout her art which both delights and confuses as spaces become one as the objects within are reflected in multiple mirrors – one form of mark making that is used obsessively when combined with a bright, almost eye-popping use of colour in either singular or multiple hues.  I find the fact she is trying to almost escape her mental illness through her art one of sadness but also one of delight as she has found her own way to cope with the illness through her work in her studio across the road – she immerses herself in those dots and in doing so tries to escape the demons within through what is clearly an incredible creativity that shows no sign of stopping at the age of 88.


Knight, S.  31 August 2014.  Yayoi Kusama to exhibit in London:  at 85, the ‘ideas just keep coming’ [online].  [Date Accessed:  16 March 2017]. Available from:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/11059373/Yayoi-Kusama-to-exhibit-in-London-at-85-the-ideas-just-keep-coming.html

Tate.  (date unknown).  Yayoi Kusama [online].  [Date Accessed:  16 March 2017].  Available from:  http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/yayoi-kusama

Yayoi Kusama. (date unknown).  Biography [online].  [Date Accessed:  16 March 2017].  Available from:  http://www.yayoi-kusama.jp/e/biography/index.html

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