Yayoi Kusama – The Polka Dot Princess who Propositioned the President

Yayoi Kusama
Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity, Yayoi Kusama.

In an open letter to President Richard Nixon Kusama offers to have sex with him if he would stop the Vietnam war proclaiming, “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”.

Yayoi Kusama's 1968 letter to Richard Nixon
Yayoi Kusama’s 1968 letter to Richard Nixon

Calling Nixon her hero she goes to say “lets you and I change all that and make this world a new Garden of Eden – you can’t eradicate violence by using more violence”. By doing this Kusama makes her mark on the world one dot at a time.

Now almost 92 years old, Kusama was born in 1929 in the rural provincial town of Matsumoto, Japan and from a young age was determined to be a painter. Her early works reveal what was to become an enduring fascination with both natural forms and polka dots. The dots appearing to her in a vision that changed her life. However, her family were far from supportive.  It was not the expectation for a woman at that time to have a career. Kusama said about that time, “The expectation was that she would get married and have a kid, and not just get married but have an arranged marriage”.

The story goes that Kusama sewed dollar bills into her kimono and set off across the Pacific determined to conquer New York. New York at that time was an intimidating place, particularly for anyone Japanese. Although the bombing of Pearl Harbour had taken place 25 years previously, making an impact as a female artist from Japan in a male-dominated art world in the 1960s must have seemed an impossible task. Proving this point, Claes Oldenburg was ‘inspired’ by her fabric phallic couch to start creating the soft sculpture for which he would become world-famous; while Andy Warhol copied her idea of creating repeated images of the sole exhibit in her One Thousand Boat installation for his Cow Wallpaper.

Unfortunately, worse was to come. In 1965 Kusama created the world’s first mirrored-room environment, a precursor to her Infinity Mirror Rooms at the Castellane Gallery in New York. She confronted the viewer with this unnerving concept through a seemingly endless environment of reflection upon reflections. In a shameless act of theft and a complete change of artistic direction artist, Lucas Samaras exhibited his own mirrored installation at the far more prestigious Pace Gallery. Completely overwhelmed, Kusama threw herself from the window of her apartment. 

A close friend and gallery owner, Beatrice Webb said: “Kusama’s desire to create was always greater than her desire to die”. Webb reports that through headstrong determination, Kusama recovers both her physical and mental health enough to take herself to the 33rd Venice Biennale – a celebration of international contemporary art – where she exhibits the installation ‘Narcissus Garden’ without invitation. An observation on the commercialisation of the art world, Narcissus Garden consists of hundreds of stainless steel reflective orbs. Clearly addressing what the prolific artist has identified as her principal themes: ‘infinity, self-obliteration, and compulsive repetition in objects and forms’.

For Kusama, this was the turning point in her career and she began staging events in newsworthy locations such as Central Park and the grounds of The Museum of Modern Art, with the intention of promoting peace and at the same time criticising the art establishment. The fact that many of these events involved nudity caused a scandal in Japan, which Kusama felt also brought shame to her deeply conservative family. 

Kusama’s mental health was deteriorating. Increasingly depressed she returned home to Japan where, without the support of family or friends and finding herself unable to paint, once again she attempted suicide. With hope and determination on her side, she managed to find a hospital where the doctors were interested in art therapy. In this secure environment, she found herself able to start again. 

By living full time by choice in a mental institution, Kusama has been able to reinvent herself; looking back to her part in the exciting art developments, such as pop art and minimalism in the ’60s, to the first of many retrospectives of her work. The first retrospective was held in 1989 at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York and, four years later, the Japanese art historian, Akira Tatehata, managed to persuade the government that Kusama should be the first solo artist to represent Japan at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Kusama’s work was gradually re-evaluated, she is now the world’s biggest-selling female artist 

Kusama’s story is one of determination and perseverance. She owns the modern world thanks to social media. We can only hope that the documentary of her life will encourage people to take time to properly reflect on her work next time they go to see it. Whether viewing pumpkins, polka dots or immersed in one of her awe-inspiring Infinity Rooms, what visitors are looking at is nothing less than the redemptive power of art. You join the dots.

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