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Yayoi Kusama: The 95-Year-Old Visionary Dominating Global Art Sales

Artists, Editorial

As of 2023, 95-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has officially become the world’s highest grossing contemporary artist, surpassing long-time mainstays such as David Hockney and Gerhard Richter. This achievement is only the latest in a series of accomplishments marking her decades-long ascent to stardom; in the last few years, Kusama’s designs have become ubiquitous and instantly recognizable, adorning Uniqlo T-shirts, Louis Vuitton bags, and even a massive billboard in metropolitan Tokyo. Her meteoric rise is all the more significant given that the art market has traditionally been dominated by male, European artists, making her an unlikely candidate for success. It is undeniable that the art world has entered a new dynasty, one where Asian, female artists are seen as significant and worthy of attention on the global stage.

Kusama was born in 1929 to a successful family in Matsumoto, Japan. Her childhood is widely discussed as being a crucial factor in her creative drive: despite being forbidden by her mother, the young Kusama would sneak into her family’s plant nurseries to draw. There, Kusama experienced what she called “depersonalisations”: terrifying hallucinations in which she saw fields of polka-dots, and plants spoke to her. This was also when her signature patterns first emerged, surfacing in extant drawings when Kusama was only ten. The next year, Kusama was awarded her first accolade for a painting of a pumpkin -- the first of many in her life.

When she was 13, Kusama was conscripted to work in a parachute factory. Her art-making persisted in her off-hours, with a local paper reporting on her creating 70 watercolours a day. Kusama went on to study the Japanese art of nihonga at the Kyoto City Specialist School of Arts, staging successful group and solo exhibitions as early as 19 years old. Despite having experienced early success in Japan, the young artist was clearly restless; as a young woman, she sought escape from family and social pressures which advocated for women of the time to settle into an arranged marriage and bear children. In 1955, Kusama reached out to another female pioneer in art at the time: Georgia O’Keefe, who encouraged her to showcase her works in America. Inspired thus, Kusama destroyed most of her previous work and resettled in New York City in 1957.

Yayoi Kusama at her first solo show at the First Community Centre, Matsumoto, 1952.

The 1960s were a pivotal time in New York: various avant-garde art movements, particularly Performance art, Pop and Minimalism, were fermenting in the city. Kusama was evidently influenced by the experimental activities of the time; beside painting her influential, monochromatic painting series known as Infinity Nets, Kusama created large-scale installations called Accumulations, which consisted of immersive fields of white, coral-like protrusions. In 1965, she created the first iteration of Infinity Mirror Room, a precursor to one of her most memorable and reproduced works. She also staged several public performances, including ‘body festivals’ featuring polka-dots painted onto on nude bodies. She also formed strong friendships with fellow artists such as Donald Judde, Eva Hesse, and On Kawara, while also attracting the favorable attention of critics like Brian O’Doherty and Herbert Read. In 1966, Lucio Fontana funded the production of Narcissus Garden during the 1966 Venice Biennale, which consisted of 1500 silver balls on a lawn. Part of the installation involved Kusama selling the balls for $2 each, a decision which angered Biennale officials for selling art “like hot dogs or ice cream cones”. Even then, Kusama displayed a recurrent fascination in the commercial aspect of the art world which would persist till today.

Yayoi Kusama at her 1965 Infinity Mirror Room.

Yayoi Kusama selling pieces from Narcissus Garden at the 1966 Venice Biennale.

Despite her dramatic and provocative ascent in the New York art scene, Kusama struggled with recurrent anxiety, depression and poor health due to the intensity of her work. In 1972, Kusama experienced the death of her platonic partner of 11 years, Joseph Cornell, and she withdrew from the New York art scene and returned to Japan in 1973. There, she experienced her father’s death in 1974, and subsequently voluntarily checked herself into Seiwa Hospital in Tokyo, where she eventually became a permanent resident. Even then, she continued to work: dissatisfied with growing American nationalism and consumerism, Kusama dedicated herself to championing contemporary Japanese art.

In the subsequent years, Kusama’s striking works drew the attentions of both Japanese art curators and the broader international art world. Her works swept across Tokyo galleries, culminating in her first-ever retrospective in the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art in Fukuoka, 1987. Two years later, Kusama’s first-ever foreign retrospective was held at the Centre for International Contemporary Arts in New York, which catalyzed the resurgence of Euro-American interest in her work. In 1993, Kusama returned to the Venice Biennale, this time as a representative of Japan. Her art appeared initially in key Japanese and American museums, including the Guggenheim and the MoMA in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco; subsequently, her art began to demonstrate an even greater global influence, appearing in cities such as Taipei, Sydney, Rotterdam, Madrid, Brisbane, Wellington and Singapore.

Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room at the 1993 Venice Biennale.

Fascination with Yayoi Kusama only grew in the 2010s, with major retrospectives in London, Madrid and Paris. Kusama also broke into the fashion world when she entered into partnership with luxury fashion titan Louis Vuitton in 2012, hailed by the Guardian as “perhaps the biggest art and fashion collaboration ever”. In 2017, the Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in Tokyo, exhibiting from the artist’s personal collection; in the same year, her exhibition at Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum became the institution’s biggest show ever, with 34,000 images shared to Instagram. The end of the pandemic also marked the opening of Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now at M+ Hong Kong, the biggest ever retrospective of Kusama’s works outside of Japan.


Installation view of Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now at M+ Hong Kong

Yayoi Kusama’s enduring popularity today speaks to the universality of her appeal, which utilises a consistent visual vocabulary that transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries. Her explosive, divisive performances and installations in the 1960s were crucial to the artist’s rise to fame, but it is arguably her steady and unceasing production of work in the 1980s onwards that firmly entrenched her works in public memory rather than being relegated to yet another short-lived art world fad. The world may see Kusama as an eccentric, volatile personality, but it is truly her undying commitment to her craft that truly distinguishes her from other contemporary artists. After 80 long, punishing years of work, Yayoi Kusama truly deserves her time in the spotlight.

Published on May 20, 2024
Yu Ke Dong

Ke Dong is a seasoned art writer and current double major in English Literature and Art History at NTU. Having worked with esteemed art institutions in Singapore, Ke Dong now regularly contributes his keen research skills, adept writing abilities and passion for art to the Art Works discourse.


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