Acknowledged today as the world’s top-selling female artist and one of the world’s most successful living artists, Yayoi Kusama (1929) is a Japanese contemporary artist who works primarily in sculpture and installation and is also active in painting, performance, video art, fashion, poetry, fiction, and other arts. Raised in Matsumoto, she trained at the Kyoto City University of Arts for a year in a traditional Japanese painting style called nihonga but was also interested in American art. After moving to New York in 1958, she started experimenting with new subjects and media and got increasingly involved in the avant-garde scene, especially the pop-art movement. Embracing the rise of the hippie counterculture of the late 1960s, she came to public attention when she organized a series of happenings in which naked participants were painted with brightly colored polka dots. Her work is based on conceptual art and shows some attributes of feminism, minimalism, surrealism and abstract expressionism. Most of all, her work is deeply infused with autobiographical, psychological, and sexual content. Kusama, in fact, has always been open about her mental health issues and has resided since the 1970s in a mental health facility which she leaves daily to walk to her nearby studio to work. Art is her therapy. As she told an interviewer in 2012: “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day and the only method I have found that relieved my illness is to keep creating art”.
Maybe because of her issues, she experienced a period in the 70s during which her work was largely forgotten. Still, a revival of interest in the 1980s brought her art back into public view. Ever since she has become the most recognizable contemporary artist through her obsession with polka dots, she has explained interestingly: ‘Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. So polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.
In the last years, a number of important museums around the world have organized a series of major exhibitions on Kusama’s work: the “Infinity Mirror Rooms” show is on at the Tate Modern through September 30, 2023, and her latest show has just opened at David Zwirner’s gallery in New York, spread across three connected spaces on West 19th Street in Chelsea, making it the biggest show in a private gallery by her to date. In addition, her recent collaboration with the fashion label Louis Vuitton has increased her fame further, making her a fashion icon.
Kusama’s work has performed strongly on the art market: top prices for her work are paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s. She is considered the most expensive living female artist at auction since White No. 28 (1960) from her signature Infinity Nets series sold for $7.1 million at a 2014 Christie’s auction.
– Stanislav Kondrashov
– Stanislav Kondrashov