Why Everyone Loves Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016, wood, mirrors, plastic, glass, and LEDs. Collection of the artist.

Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts. Tokyo/Singapore and Victoria Miro, London. © Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama, All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016, wood, mirrors, plastic, glass, and LEDs. Collection of the artist.
Yayoi Kusama is definitely having a moment. What makes the art world's current superstar so popular?

Yayoi Kusama is definitely having a moment. What makes the art world’s current superstar so popular?

Photo by Amy Funderburk

Installation view, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, High Museum of Art

“I have never put myself into any sort of mold, and I have lived only in the realm of freedom.”

Yayoi Kusama, 2002

In November 2014, Japanese avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama became the most expensive living female artist at auction. When Christie’s auctioned her monochromatic Infinity Net painting, White No. 28 (1960), the oil on canvas sold for $7,109,000 USD, crushing the auction estimate range of $1,500,000 - $2,000,000. Her record has since been surpassed, but Kusama is still the hottest ticket in town.

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, an overwhelmingly popular retrospective spanning the 65 years of the artist’s career, made its last North American stop at the High Museum in Atlanta, GA, where it closed this weekend. Six of her mesmerizing installations, the Infinity Mirror Rooms, are included in the exhibit. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden reported that during the show's 2017 world debut, nearly 160,000 people visited Infinity Mirrors over a nearly three-month period, helping to double their average attendance with a record 475,000 visitors. The High expected 140,000 visitors to their showing. Approximately 9,000 tickets reserved for the final week of the exhibit sold out in around two hours. On Instagram alone, #infinitymirrors has over 113,000 image posts.

The tidal wave of popularity surrounding Kusama's retrospective stunned even Infinity Mirrors curator Mika Yoshitake. During her talk at the High, she called the response "a true testament to one of the most extraordinary artists living today."

What is it about Kusama's work that has captured our imagination and social media accounts? Is it that her bright colors festooned with playfully repeating dot motifs are a cheerful visual feast during what are frequently referred to as "these uncertain times"? Or is it the mystique of her Infinity Mirror Rooms, which are both ready-made for ethereal meditation on the outer cosmos, while also begging for selfies in the social media age?

In January, Magnolia Pictures released Kusama: Infinity on DVD. Directed, written and produced by Heather Lenz, this well-researched documentary provides an excellent overview of the life and importance of this innovative artist.

An artistic underdog, Kusama has triumphed over a traumatic childhood, sexism, and racism, all while she uses art to quell the hallucinatory symptoms of mental illness. In an email interview, Michael Rooks, the High's Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, commented on her inspirational journey: "Kusama certainly sets an example for other artists…to persevere against odds, biases and injustices, and to immerse one's self in one's life's work."

Audiences tend to connect with artists who mine their deepest personal experiences to produce emotionally authentic artwork, and Kusama is as authentic as they come. Driven by both visions and aural hallucinations, she has compulsively repeated a dot pattern in her artwork since she was 10. As Yoshitake explained, "Art is…a form of healing for her, it's very therapeutic."

Though Kusama uses a wide variety of media, the connecting thread that runs throughout her artwork is multiplicity. Whether sewing and stuffing phallic tubers; painting intersecting, looping lines; or reflecting lights that twinkle within an engulfing darkness, she harnesses the repetition that occurs in nature.

After reaching out to Georgia O'Keeffe, Kusama moved from Japan to New York City in 1957, where she lived until 1973. The artist's drive to succeed to the level of fame she has now achieved was impressive. Such focused passion explains why Kusama is so popular: it was her goal all along.

Her ambitions led to exhibitions with fellow artists who she says copied her ideas, including Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, and Lucas Samaras. Lenz makes a clear case for this in Kusama: Infinity; in each example, Kusama first displays her innovations; her male colleagues follow shortly thereafter with similar work.

While the careers of these artists ascended, severe depression followed for Kusama, and after returning to Japan for her health, she faded from the attentions of the art world. Kusama eventually moved into a psychiatric hospital, where she has lived voluntarily for over forty years.

Kusama turns 90 on March 22nd, and still works in her Tokyo studio. Her own dazzling fame may have been slower in coming than that of her male contemporaries, but the art world has witnessed a trend over the past few years: women and minority artists are getting more exposure, with a particular spotlight on mature women.

Yayoi Kusama
© Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai; Victoria Miro, London; YAYOI KUSAMA Inc.

Yayoi Kusama in her studio. 

Yayoi Kusama
Photo by Harrie Verstappen. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Yayoi Kusama next to her Dot Car (1965) in KUSAMA - INFINITY.

Yayoi Kusama
© Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Yayoi Kusama in Yellow Tree furniture installation.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever
© Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Cathy Carver. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever, 1966/1994, wood, mirrors, metal, and lightbulbs.

Yayoi Kusama
© Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Cathy Carver. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, wood, metal, mirrors, plastic, acrylic, rubber, LEDs, and water.

Yayoi Kusama
© Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Cathy Carver. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Yayoi Kusama, Violet Obsession, 1994, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Duke.

Yayoi Kusama
Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore and Victoria Miro, London. © Yayoi Kusama.

Yayoi Kusama, All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016, wood, mirrors, plastic, glass, and LEDs. Collection of the artist.

Yayoi Kusama
© Yayoi Kusama. Photo by QAGOMA Photography.

Yayoi Kusama, The Obliteration Room, 2002–present, furniture, paint and dot stickers. Collaboration between Yayoi Kusama and Queensland Art Gallery. Commissioned Queensland Art Gallery, Australia. Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia.

Yayoi Kusama
© Tokyo Lee Productions, Inc. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Yayoi Kusama drawing in KUSAMA - INFINITY.

Yayoi Kusama
Photo by James C. Williams

Yayoi Kusama, Life (Repetitive Vision), 1998, installed at Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, High Museum of Art.

Yayoi Kusama
Photo by James C. Williams

Yayoi Kusama, Dots Obsession—Love Transformed into Dots, 2007, installed at Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, High Museum of Art.

Yayoi Kusama
Photo by James C. Williams

Yayoi Kusama, Accumulation of Stardust, 2001, acrylic on canvas.

Photo by James C. Williams

Installation view, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, High Museum of Art

Yoshitake shared that "a desire to break gender and culture barriers and produce a transnational dialog from a perspective that shifts the Euro-American canon of postwar art" led her to organize the Infinity Mirrors exhibit. Rooks added, "As emerging generations of art historians and curators come to terms with the biases and limitations of the dominant narratives of the past, a certain amount of revisionism has resulted in the re-emergence of late-career artists, challenging and expanding the canon. …[W]e're fortunate that artists such as Kusama…are among those who have taken hold of the public imagination as a result."

“I think an effort is being made to understand how and why talented women who made significant contributions were written out of history,” said Lenz via an email interview. “Many women are legitimately angry that they still earn less than men and face workplace discrimination, and they are inspired by the stories of strength and determination of women like Kusama.”

According to Yoshitake, international recognition finally arrived for Kusama after a 1989 retrospective in New York at the Center for International Contemporary Arts. In 1998, a show that focused on her New York years followed at the Museum of Modern Art. During that decade, Kusama also participated in the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993-the first solo artist to exhibit in the Japanese Pavilion, and the first female to represent her country.

Kusama's consistent intentions come through her creative choices: to make people happy and promote love. Humor, which the artist says “puts our minds at ease,” also plays a role in her art. Kusama frequently employs scale and perception in an Alice In Wonderland fashion. Works such as Dots Obsession—Love Transformed into Dots (2007) are the antidote for a bad day. With Kusama's work, we get to actively participate as she brings us into her visionary world.

Social media has played a significant role in her widespread popularity because her colorful, interactive work is a popular choice for visitor selfies. “I think part of the reason her work is so popular right now is because her mirror rooms offer a visually appealing location that is also hard to get to, and that equals selfie gold,” observed Lenz.

"Selfies are a phenomenon changing the way in which people interact with art and place, serving as diaristic entries or as a manner of bearing witness to something greater than themselves in which they wish to see themselves reflected,” added Rooks. “For this reason, because of the nature of the Infinity Mirror Rooms, they become sites for reflection, literally and figuratively, because they invite viewers to share the experience of artistic vision for a short moment in time.”

Photo by James C. Williams

Yayoi Kusama, Untitled, 1953, gouache on colored paper.

During the show's 2017 debut at the Hirshhorn, one of Kusama's Infinity Mirror Rooms became a victim of the very social media that helped to make its creator a household name: a glowing, golden pumpkin was broken as a visitor allegedly tried to take a selfie inside All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016). Cameras are no longer allowed, forcng viewers to just experience the work during their precious seconds within the room.

In an age where meditation is becoming increasingly popular, the Infinity Mirror Rooms with darkened interiors can engender expansive experiences. "[Kusama] is also exploring the existential contemplation of eternity and the hereafter," explained Rooks. Works such as The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away and Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity seem ready-made for meditation. Despite the 20 to 30 second limitation, once the door closes, time feels suspended, and others go unnoticed as you become part of the cosmic whole. As Rooks pointed out, “30 seconds is actually more than twice the average time most people spend in front of a painting or sculpture.” In a video interview for the Infinity Mirrors exhibit, Kusama shared, “The effect of infinite, constant repetition leads us to finding our ever-expanding hope.”

In 2016, Time Magazine included her in their list of 100 most influential people, and she became the first woman honored with the Order of Culture by the Japanese Imperial Family. The following year, the Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in Tokyo. One wonders if Kusama feels she has yet achieved her destiny and the level of fame she always sought.

A testament to Kusama’s popularity, last December, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto raised $651,183 CAN through a crowdsourcing campaign to purchase Let's Survive Forever, Canada's first Infinity Mirror Room. These funds were combined with an initial $1 million investment from an art acquisition fund that also covered an undisclosed subsequent balance. According to the AGO website, the piece is scheduled to arrive this spring.

If you missed the Infinity Mirrors exhibit, institutions that have acquired mirrored installations include: The Broad, Los Angeles; The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA; The North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC; Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, PA; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

To further explore the Kusama phenomenon, read the artist’s autobiography, Infinity Net. Visit www.kusamainfinity.com to find out where you can see the movie Kusama: Infinity, and search #kusamamovie and #kusamainfinity.

About the Author

Amy Funderburk

Amy Funderburk is a professional artist and freelance arts writer based in Winston-Salem, NC, specializing in visionary works in which she explores the intersection of the physical with the more fluid, spiritual and emotional realms. She works out of the Sternberger Artists Center in Greensboro, NC, and maintains a blog, Drinking from the Well of Inspiration, to provide deeper insight into her creative process. Follow her on twitter: @AFunderburkArt and on Instagram: @AmyFunderburkArtist.

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