The Visionary Art of Yayoi Kusama

Kusama's art teaches us how to live.

Posted Sep 16, 2018

Some artists are truly ahead of their time, and as most tragically seen in the case of Vincent Van Gogh, their fame occurs posthumously after a lifetime of pain, misunderstanding, and poverty. Others receive fame and fortune too quickly, when they are too young to control the dissemination of their talent, and they fall prey to a range of tragic influences (as with Jean-Michel Basquiat). Others are lucky, often aligned with some establishment influence to help their power, such as prior money or family ties, or are savvy and egotistical enough to control their power.

Jean Kim
Infinity Room
Source: Source: Jean Kim

Yayoi Kusama’s story isn’t quite any of these narratives, but a mixture of some, and ultimately, a heartening one. She pursued artistic training since childhood, already having developed her trademark “infinity net” polka dots at age 10, but simultaneously in the context of early signs of psychosis and hallucinations while World War II raged. She had some early brushes with fame in her 20s, having been inspired to move to America by none other than Georgia O’Keeffe, who kindly responded to a letter asking for advice on an art career. In the 1950s and 1960s, she quickly managed to join the avant-garde movement in New York City and fell in with other artistic bigwigs like Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Joseph Cornell, and Andy Warhol. Despite these connections, she struggled financially and with mental illness, leading to several hospitalizations and an eventual return to Japan in 1973.

In Japan, she became a long-term resident at her psychiatric institution (even considering it her voluntary residence to this day) and continued to produce numerous artworks. She cited the art as what saved her life. Then fame struck in the 21st century.

Kusama’s art, with elements of abstract expressionism and conceptual art, began to build momentum in the 1990s into the 2000s, as its highly graphic, colorful, somewhat futuristic images aligned somehow with the zeitgeist of the internet age. It exploded with the Instagram-readiness of her Infinity Rooms: the ultimate selfie concept conceived decades before the selfie. These rooms are small self-contained mirror chambers, allowing the viewer to simultaneously lose one’s identity and sense of self in the infinity of a repeated image evoking the universe, but also feel oddly intimate and at one with oneself given one’s unity with that repeated image inside a quiet space. The idea became a literal mirror to the growing repetition of selfies distributed rapidly around the world via social media, and the sense of simultaneous self-expansion but self-disintegration caused by the loss of privacy and wide distribution.

This brilliant conception likely stemmed in part from her mental illness; although her specific diagnosis has not been described, she notes a lifetime symptom course consistent with psychosis and possible schizophrenia, which commonly is associated with hallucinations and issues with the disintegration of one’s sense of self and identity, leading to anxiety and paranoia. (One common symptom is thought insertion and projection, where one loses a sense of whether one’s thoughts are either one’s own or are being planted there by other people, or are being sent out to others in a form of universal communication.) Her art was a therapeutic and ingenious way to reconsolidate that fear of disintegration, by subsuming it into beautiful, bold, creative images that indeed communicate with all people. The sense of self-obliteration and repetition, instead of feeling frightening, is infused with beauty, and often a delicate mix of joy and sadness: Hundreds of glowing pumpkins or votives in a dark room evoke warmth and wonder but also loneliness and mortality. Everyday reality is always in danger of blurring into infinity; this insight provides a deep sense of profundity behind our seemingly banal everyday existence. Everything is connected, which renders a sense of power but also fragility, as time means that connection is tenuous and ever-changing, ever-repeating. There is a quantum mechanic-like conception to the way Kusama’s art presents light, color, and image as fluid and repetitive clouds of representation. There is also an underestimated sense of childlike fun and innocence to her art; the child views these realities with an innocent curiosity, a novelty that may help temper the sense of irresolution and confusion and darkness behind these ideas. Her exhibits are often interactive, encouraging of play, where everyone pastes colored dot stickers anywhere onto a once-white living room. It’s okay not to fully know or understand everything in the universe; you can just be open to the looking. Awe can replace fear.

Kusama’s exhibits now are greeted by massive lines heavily regimented by time limits, with tickets that sell out in nanoseconds via the internet. She appears to be enjoying her newly iconic status in her late 80s, readily participating in interviews with neon-colored hair and outfits. A new documentary about her was recently released. She has persevered and captured a fountain of youth despite her struggles. Time for her is now a polka-dotted plaything.