Yayoi Kusama, born 1929 in Nagano Prefecture, is an artist whose works have left
viewers captivated with themes of infinity and, of course, the polka dot. Even at the age of 94, she works diligently on her pieces that now, more than ever, are recognizable around the world.
Significant events in Kusama’s childhood are marked by the start of World War II; the
development of hallucinations, and the stifling nature of social norms in Japan which all
influenced her art. At the age of 10, she had her first hallucination which she described as flashes of light auras or dense fields of dots, where the dots would come to life and consume her and she would find herself obliterated (Payne). This was when she began creating art that would soothe these visions and the anxiety it brought with them.
By the age of 12, WWII was well underway. She was sent to work in a military factory to sew parachutes and these years were spent in the darkness of the factory listening to air-raid sirens and the sound of army planes flying overhead (Davis). Life at home was a difficult part of her childhood through her parents' turbulent relationship in their arranged marriage. Her absent father was emasculated by the fact that as a condition of marrying into a wealthy family he had to take his wife’s surname. And her abusive mother often sent her to spy on her father’s extramarital affairs which caused Kusama to have a permanent aversion to sex and the male body (Davis).
Not only that, Kusama's mother was not supportive of her desire to be an artist. In an interview she states, “My mother told me that I was not allowed to paint, that one day I would have to marry someone from a rich family and become a housewife. When I was a girl, she took away all my inks and canvases" (Yayoi Kusama - Obsessed with Polka Dots). Each of these events greatly influenced Kusama’s art throughout her career as an artist.
[Kusama at age 10 (source: Planting a Seed)]
Kusama moved to the United States in the 1950’s. In 1955, she impulsively wrote to Kenneth
Callahan and Georgia O’Keefe to seek advice, and both responded, encouraging her to move to the U.S. where she would eventually end up in New York in 1958 (Betty). It was the
suffocating lifestyle of Japan that influenced the move as well. She stated that she considered Japanese society “too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women" (Masterworks Fine Art Gallery). She worked ceaselessly on her art while in New York. During this time, her work was tragically plagiarized by many male artists who gained fame while she remained relatively unknown (Masterworks Fine Art Gallery). Kusama would later say, it wasn’t the idea of being ripped off that bothered her but rather the lack of acknowledgment (Payne).
She lived in New York until 1973 when she returned to Japan. In 1977, after being diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive neurosis, Kusama checked herself into a mental health facility and has resided there ever since (Davis). She remains very open about her mental health struggles. She has maintained that her “artwork is an expression of my life, particularly of my mental disease" (Kedmey). None of these challenges have stopped her from working on her art. Every single day she commutes to her studio and works obsessively on her paintings from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Payne). She has persisted in her desire to become an artist and is now one of the most recognized artists in the world.
One of the common themes in her work is her use of phallic shapes. She would attach these soft sculptures all over walls, floors, furniture, and everyday objects (Betty). A direct influence from when she was a child that caused her aversion to sex. Her first “Infinity Room” was in 1965, called ”Phalli’s Field” in which she arranged hundreds of polka-dotted soft phallic forms in a mirrored room and was one of the earliest installation artworks that encouraged viewers to enter and experience rather than passively view a picture in a frame (Payne). These shapes were sewn using her experience working in a factory sewing parachutes in WWII.
Another theme in her work was a strong opposition to war. Some of her earliest surviving paintings, for example, Accumulation of the Corpses (Prisoner Surrounded by the Curtain of Depersonalization), show bleak war-torn landscapes where even plant life struggles to survive (An Introduction to Yayoi Kusama). With the Vietnam War underway, she turned to activism. This included staging demonstrations on Wall Street, demanding the government bring back the troops from Vietnam (Payne). In 1968, she wrote An Open Letter to My Hero, Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President of the U.S. who ended the American involvement in the war. In it, she states:
Our earth is like one little polka dot, among millions of other celestial bodies, one orb
full of hatred and strife amid the peaceful, silent spheres. Let’s you and I change all
that and make this world a new Garden of Eden… You can’t eradicate violence by using
more violence (An Introduction).
Even after returning to Japan, Kusama produced works relating to her anti-war sentiment. In response to a commission by the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, she produced the large-scale triptych (a picture in three panels side-by-side) titled Revived Soul (An Introduction). This differed from her usual style, while still covered in her signature polka dots, this painting is in black and white with no other color.
When it comes to Yayoi Kusama’s work, it is the polka dot that has remained one of her trademarks. With her mental health, dots were a form of healing, and repetition of them was a way to calm her mind, and overcome her fear and anxiety as they were a way (as she has said) to “self-obliterate,” a way to disappear into her artwork (Payne). They are her signature and are almost always present in her work. Her most recognized works today are interactive installations. One such installation is The Obliteration Room which begins as a completely white room. Visitors are given a sheet of stickers in the shapes of dots and each person adds their own dots for the duration of the installation until the room is completely covered.
This motif is also seen in her Infinity Room installations. She has created over twenty
distinct rooms and each consists of a dark chamber-like space completely lined with mirrors that only one visitor at a time can experience as that visitor becomes integral to the work (Davis). The result is a window into her world. Of these installations, Kusama states, “By using light, [visitor’s] reflection, and so on, I wanted to show the cosmic image beyond the world where we live (Davis).” These installations are what have made her a celebrated artist that has captivated audiences across the world.
Yayoi Kusama’s Official Website
“An Introduction to Yayoi Kusama – Look Closer.” Tate
Betty. “Why Yayoi Kusama Matters Now More Than Ever #InfiniteKusama | ARTiculations.”
YouTube, uploaded by ARTiculations, 8 Mar 2018,
Davis, Katelyn, and Kimberly Nichols. “Yayoi Kusama Art, Bio, Ideas.” Edited by Kimberly
Nichols, The Art Story,
Kedmey, Karen. “Yayoi Kusama: Moma.” The Museum of Modern Art,
Payne, James. “Yayoi Kusama: Great art Explained.” YouTube, uploaded by Great Art Explained, 24 Mar 2022,
“Planting a Seed: Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern II – Tate Etc.” Tate,
“Yayoi Kusama Biography.” Masterworks Fine Art Gallery,
“Yayoi Kusama - Obsessed with Polka Dots | Tate.” YouTube, uploaded by Tate, 6 Feb 2012,