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Yayoi Kusama and psychedelic schizophrenia

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is best known for her inexhaustible and endless creations involving repeating dot patterns, exaggerated pumpkins and vivid colours.

Following the success of our LookingforU series on Instagram, Unit London are proud to present U-Greats, our celebration of modern masters of visual art, from across the globe, who have preceded and inspired the next generation of emerging creative talent. U-Greats will cast a weekly spotlight on iconic creators who, over time, have informed and inspired both our represented artists and the team here at Unit London.

 This week we present to you Yayoi Kusama. 

Entering her 90th year and still constantly creating artwork, Kusama’s life has taken her from her quiet upbringing in provincial Japan, to New York’s postwar art scene and eventually Tokyo, where she currently resides. Continuously and consciously reinventing her style, Kusama’s artworks have spanned an astonishing range of media including painting, sculpture, performance, installation and film. A longstanding staple of popular culture, she has designed ranges with top fashion houses and created videos for the best musicians in the contemporary pop world. Counting Donald Judd and Eva Hesse as close friends, Kusama’s works are considered an influence on Andy Warhol and an early precursor to the Pop art movement.

 

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrors, 2018

‘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.’

Kusama’s best-known works, her series of Infinity Net paintings, are a true labour of love.  Kusama's visual motif - intricate sprawling circular patterns in compositions which lack an obvious focal point cover canvases up to 30 feet in length.  Kusama described her Infinity Net paintings as being ‘without beginning, end or centre’ that ‘cause a kind of dizzy, empty, hypnotic feeling’; inviting the viewer to gain insight to Kusama’s hallucination-ridden psyche and consume what is a physical representation of the concept of infinity. As her popularity has increased, so too has the frequency of works she has produced which relate to the concept of infinity. Alongside a studio of assistants, she has created entire polka-dot filled infinity rooms which have proved to be a joy to the public. The infinity room she created at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles is now a major citywide attraction and destination of choice for the selfie-obsessed Instagram generation. While conceptual and highly emotional, Kusama’s work is noted for its playful accessibility- appealing to children, older people, art academics and critics alike. For almost seventy years Yayoi Kusama has developed a practice which shares affiliation with Surrealism, Minimalism, Abstraction and Pop Art, yet cannot be confined to specific movement.  

 

 Yayoi Kusama, from the Accumulation Series, 1964

Kusama was born in 1929 in rural Japan into a family of merchants who deeply opposed her artistic practice. ‘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.’ When Kusama was ten years old she started to experience vivid hallucinations which she described as ‘flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots’ which would come to life, multiply and engulf herself and her surroundings in a process she called ‘self-obliteration’. By 1950, whilst still working in Japan, Kusama began covering walls, floors canvases and household objects with her trademark polka dots in reference to these early childhood hallucinations.  

 Yayoi Kusama, Narcissus Garden, 1966

When Kusama moved to New York City in 1957, aged 28, she was a young and highly ambitious young artist weary of the conservatism she faced in her native Japan. Kusama was a total workaholic- obsessed with being noticed; she truly hungered fame. ‘When I arrived in New York, I went to the top of the Empire State Building. Seeing this big city, I promised myself that one day I would conquer New York and make my name in the world with my passion for the arts and mountains of creative energy stored inside myself. In New York, I devoted myself to my work.’ In 1961 after moving to the same studio building as Donald Judd and Eva Hesse; Hesse became a close friend. During her time in New York, Kusama quickly established a reputation as a leader of the avante-garde movement, with her work highly praised by legendary art critic Herbert Read.

Yayoi Kusama, The Obliteration Room, 2002

In 1973 following ill health, Kusama moved back to Japan where she wrote shockingly carnal novels, short stories and poetry. For a short period, she became an art dealer and after folding the business she voluntarily checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she still resides. Kusama kept a low profile for two decades before gaining notoriety worldwide in the early 1990s where she represented Japan at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Her work slowly then began to appear in high profile gallery shows in London, New York and Los Angeles. Coinciding with a surge in Asian wealth and collectors who wished to own Kusama’s work in the early 21st century, Kusama has exhibited in museums, including a major retrospective in 2011 and 2012 which travelled to the Whitney Museum in New York, the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Today, Kusama is one of the few women who consistently rank amongst the highest- selling living artists by both sales volume and value.

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