“Offbeat” Artist Appreciation: Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama’s distinctive use of the infinite, color red, polka dots, and surreal established her as an easily recognizable artist. One that managed to create pieces which appeared fun and bright to one viewer, yet layered and profound to another. Her output is highly variable yet at the same time easily assigned to her due to their unique, distinctive nature. Art concerned organization Tate describes how “Kusama’s achievement as a woman artist, coming as she did from a traditional background in a conservative part of Japan in the early part of the twentieth century, cannot be underestimated. It was her own drive and confidence in her talent that enabled her extraordinary career”. It’s this conservative background which adds to and fuels so much of Kusama’s incredible output.
In Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan, Kusama was born on March 22, 1929 — the youngest to three other siblings. Her parents were a profoundly unhappy couple that were brought together through an arranged marriage. Due to Mrs. Kusama having a more affluent, wealthier family, Mr. Kusama had to take her surname — a tradition which apparently made him feel emasculated. The pair made their immense fortune from the cultivation of seeds, resulting in Kusama’s childhood being surrounded by plants — her being most fond of the pumpkins (recreations of the vegetable being a staple in her work).
Mr. Kusama treated his unhappiness towards his arranged marriage by conducting several affairs and often fooling around with other women. His wife, a hateful, controlling woman, would force her youngest child to regularly spy on this infidelious behavior. The horror of watching her own father commit adultery left Kusama with a lifelong disgust towards intimacy and men in general. However, the women in Kusama’s life were not much better — with her mother being physically abusive and bitter towards her young children.
At the age of ten, Kusama began experiencing vivid hallucinations which entailed flowers speaking to her and patterns on fabrics coming to life. The most prominent vision was that of polka dots constantly appearing, Kusama going on to incorporate this spectacle into much of her art. She would regularly draw these apparitions as a form of therapeutic comfort, and became obsessed with the task of art in general. Her family was wholly unsupportive of this endeavor, Kusama’s mother wanting her to be a traditional housewife and often tearing away the drawings from her daughter as they were being completed. This resulted in Kusama falling into the pattern of creating her pieces as quickly as possible, still fearing to this day that her mother will pull away the creations before they’re finished.
At the age of thirteen, Kusama — like many other girls her age — was sent to work in a defense factory. There, she sewed parachutes for many hours a day — whittling away her adolescence in a dark factory with the sound of air-raid sirens in the background. The experience left her deeply contemplative of personal freedom and the pointlessness of war. She also came out of it with proficient skill in the art of sewing, a practice which would come in handy for her future art career.
In 1948, Kusama started attending lessons at Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts — much to the objection of her parents. While she was taught important technical skills, she was not given the education in Western and avant-garde styles that she was hoping for. At that time in Japan, there was a rejection Western culture’s influences. Kusama was forced to instead study the far more traditional practice of Nihonga. Still, her artistic abilities endured, and Kusama would go on to have art exhibitions in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Matsumoto.
Around 1957, Kusama grew tired of the stifling environment around her. She managed to talk to legendary artist Georgia O’Keeffe and asked her for advice. Though O’Keeffe warned her that life as an artist in the United States was tough, her response still moved Kusama to move there. Before departing, Kusama’s mother handed her some money and told her “to never set foot in her house again”. Kusama’s response was to angrily destroy several of her works. Though this interaction would be devastating for the young artist, it was just a precursor to the chaotic, fulfilling, and lucrative career she would go on to have in the states.