Japanese feminist Yayoi Kusama was one of the most active conceptual artists working in New York during the 1960s. Her work is distinguished by obsessively repeated polka dots – imagery related to recurrent hallucinations she experienced as a young child. She would see dots covering everything from the floor to the ceiling, and these visions terrified her. The only refuge she could find was getting lost in her drawings and paintings. In 1958, Kusama moved to New York and created works using colored spots which related back to these childhood hallucinations and personal obsessions.
In the early 1960s, Kusama subverted traditional associations of why she made art. Rather than wanting to create an aesthetic experience, making art helped her deal with her many obsessions. Kusama says about a photo of her 1962 “Accumulation No. 2,” “Net obsession, phallic obsession, dot obsession, food obsession” to describe the different elements in that performance work of hers. She covered everyday household goods with stuffed male phalluses to create her soft sculpture series “Accumulation and Compulsion Furniture.”
In the 1960s, Kusama invented ingenious embodiments of infinity in dizzying walk-in mirror rooms that would yield endlessly repeating self-portraits to viewers. At first Kusama performed in the Infinity Mirror Rooms. It was a conceptual undertaking in that the rooms were activated by a body moving in them. In 1966, she took a sudden break from making her large-scale Infinity Rooms and didn’t return to them for almost 25 years.
Kusama exhibited works from a series of macaroni-covered dresses and handbags in a 1966 group exhibition “The Object Transformed” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 1967, Kusama began to stage “Body Festivals,” a series of public happenings that resulted in the 1967 film “Kusama’s Self-Obliteration.” In 1968, the artist’s series of happenings “Anatomic Explosions” featured men and women, nude and covered in polka dots, dancing at the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park and in other New York locations.
In spite of having success in the New York art world, Kusama had a breakdown in the late 1960s. She moved back to Japan permanently in 1973 after the death of one of her closest friends, artist Joseph Cornell. Her father died soon after this. She focused on painting, sculpture, novel-writing, and collage featuring subterranean landscapes and themes of mortality. In 1975, Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a psychiatric institution in Tokyo. By 1977, that institute became her permanent home where she still lives and continues to create art.
Kusama returned to the Western art world in the 1988 exhibition at the Center for International Contemporary Arts. After her 1989 retrospective at New York’s Center of International Contemporary Arts she regained confidence and revisited her Infinity Mirror Rooms. She represented Japan in the 1993 Venice Biennale, and the acclaim she has received since then is due to her proliferating visions; her signature nets and dots dispersed over the surfaces of canvases; mirrored chambers; and her organic mix of multimedia in her art. Works since 1997 included LEDs, black glass, and multimedia video projections. But mirrors would remain in all of her works. She states, “I love mirrors . . . and as long as mirrors give me infinity, I will keep on creating mirror artworks.”
In 1998, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art honored her with her first major museum retrospective in the United States “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968,” which focused on her creative sojourn in America.
In 2017, Los Angeles’ Broad Museum exhibited Kusama’s immersive Infinity Mirror Rooms. Of her 20 Infinity Mirror Rooms, six were chosen for this show. They anchored the exhibition. Each chamber was no larger than a modest storage shed. Each was equipped with mirrors, lights, and sculptural objects. The immersive experience of walking through these rooms was meant to address life, love, mortality, and the afterlife.
One of the dream rooms was awash in peace as half-moon faces stretched into infinity. In another room, silhouettes were floating in a sea of golden lanterns. Inky shadows shimmered all around. Figures, like ghosts, passed through the faint sketch of a room bathed in white paint, which gave a calming and centering effect.
The 2013 room “Infinity Mirrored Room – the Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” is part of the Broad’s permanent collection and has been central to the museum’s identity. The Broad has just acquired another room “Longing for Eternity” 2017, a hexagonal-shaped chamber that visitors peer into through portholes.
This exhibition, which also included her paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, has traveled from the Hirshhorn Museum to the Seattle Art Museum and then to the Broad in Los Angeles. After leaving the Broad, “Infinity Rooms” traveled to the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2018.
Kusama has also completed major outdoor sculptural commissions, mostly in the form of brightly hued, gigantic plants and flowers, for public and private institutions including three in Japan; one in Lille, France; and one in Beverly Hills, California.
Kusama’s work had been shown in major exhibitions throughout the world: Japan, England, United States, France, Denmark, Austria, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Her work is in the collections of leading museums throughout the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, Tate Modern, Stedelijk Museum, Centre Pompidou, and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.