Dot world by Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama is an avant-garde artist and novelist. This year she opened the huge exhibition in New York City to which she’s been preparing for 3 years “Kusama: Cosmic Nature,” as an expansive show of outdoor sculptures, along with special gallery exhibits and installations, set among the flowering cherries of the New York Botanical Garden. With timed entry tickets and 250 acres to wander through, the venue also offers a rare chance to contemplate Kusama with a little elbow room. Three years in the making, the show includes several ambitious pieces, along with a couple of ingenious revivals of Kusama standards and a solid little retrospective of early paintings and performances. There’s a small free-standing Infinity Room, too — a mirrored little shed in the Home Gardening Center — but the garden won’t be opening its interior till the summer. “Dancing Pumpkin,” a deliriously speckled 16-foot yellow octopus, and “I Want to Fly to the Universe,” an aluminum sun with writhing red tentacles, are perfect; “Flower Obsession,” an installation that asks visitors to add stickers to a greenhouse.

In mid-April, 91-year-old artist Yayoi Kusama had words for the coronavirus. The pandemic had caused numerous disruptions to her world. The psychiatric hospital where she lives in Tokyo was on lockdown, preventing her from going to work at her nearby studio. Her corporation, KUSAMA YAYOI Co., was forced to suspend authentication and registration of artworks. But her statement ignored these inconveniences. Citing her role as “Revolutionist of the world by the Art,” Kusama rallied humanity to fight, and commanded the virus “to Disappear from this earth.” The bold gesture recalled the artist’s open letter to Richard Nixon in 1968, where she proposed an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam in exchange for painting polka dots of Eternal Truth all over the president-elect’s “hard, masculine body.” That plea was read aloud to nude groupies at a Happening in her New York studio. Kusama’s new message of light and love was addressed “TO THE WHOLE WORLD,” and thanks to her massive popularity on social media and the publicists for her global network of galleries—the whole world heard it.

Born in 1929 in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, from a young age, Yayoi Kusama experienced visual and auditory hallucinations and began creating net and polka-dot pattern pictures at age of 10, creating the paintings in watercolors, pastels, and oils.However, her family was far from supportive. As Heather Lenz, the producer, and director of Kusama: Infinity explains, it was simply not the thing for a woman at that time to have career ambitions. “The expectation was that she would get married and have kids – and not just get married but have an arranged marriage,” she tells BBC Culture. Her mother snatched drawings from her before she was able to finish them, which may explain her obsessive creative drive as she rushes to finish work before it can be taken from her. Frustrated at her husband’s infidelity Kusama’s mother would force her daughter to spy on him with his lovers. She found the experience so traumatic that she developed a lifelong aversion to sex. Unsurprisingly, Kusama began to think of a means of escaping her stifling home environment. A great admirer of Georgia O’Keefe, in whose fantastical, dreamlike depictions of nature she saw a kindred spirit, she took the extraordinarily bold step of writing to her for advice.

“I’m only on the first step of the long difficult life of being a painter. Will you kindly show me the way?”

She must have been ecstatic when O’Keefe wrote back, even if it was to warn her that

“In this country an artist has a hard time making a living.”

All the same, she advised Kusama to come to the US and show her work to anyone who might be interested. At the time Kusama spoke very little English, and it was prohibited to send money from Japan to the US. Undaunted, she sewed dollar bills into her kimono and set off across the Pacific determined to conquer New York and make her name in the world, a brand new one that she has yet no idea about.

It was not to be that easy. The New York art world was male-dominated to the extent that even many of the female dealers didn’t want to exhibit women. Although Kusama won the praise of Donald Judd, a notable artist, and critic, in an early review of her work, and even though the painter Frank Stella was an admirer, real success eluded her. A fact made all the more agonizing as she was forced to watch her male peers gain recognition for her ideas. 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 would copy her innovative idea of creating repeated images of the sole exhibit in her One Thousand Boats installation for his Cow Wallpaper. But 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. As the man prepared to head for the moon, Kusama had uniquely grasped the public’s growing awareness of infinity. She confronted them with this unnerving concept through a seemingly endless environment.

Only a few months later, in a complete change of artistic direction, avant-garde artist Lucas Samaras exhibited his own mirrored installation at the far more prestigious Pace Gallery. Distraught and dejected, Kusama threw herself from the window of her apartment. With the support of friends such as gallery owner Beatrice Webb, she somehow managed to pull herself together and in a remarkable show of determination took herself to the 1966 Venice Biennale, without invitation, to show her Narcissus Garden. A witty take on the commercialization of the art world, it comprised 1500 mirrored balls that she sold off at a few dollars a time – until officials put a stop to it. Back in the US, Kusama began staging happenings in newsworthy locations such as Central Park and the grounds of MoMa, often with the intention of promoting peace or criticizing the art establishment. But the fact that many of these events involved nudity caused a scandal back home in Japan and great shame to her conservative family. Even some elements of the US press criticized what they saw as her endless desire for publicity. Increasingly disillusioned and depressed she returned home to Japan where, without the support of family or friends and finding herself unable to paint, she once again attempted suicide. But it seems that Kusama’s desire to create was always greater than her desire to die. Miraculously, she managed to find a hospital where the doctors were interested in art therapy and checked herself in. In this secure environment, she found herself able to make art again. Her first works were an uncharacteristically dark series of collages in which she embraced the imagery of natural life cycles, almost as if she was challenging herself to confront her demons.

By this point, Kusama had been virtually forgotten both at home and abroad but showing her enduring creative drive and determination she began to re-establish herself from scratch, and gradually her work began to be re-evaluated. A retrospective of her work was held at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York in 1989, and four years later, the Japanese art historian, Akira Tatehata, managed to persuade the government that she should be the first solo artist to represent Japan at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Although a delicate Kusuma had to be accompanied by a psychotherapist, fearful of a nervous breakdown, the exhibition was a phenomenal success and led to a huge transformation in how she was received and recognized in Japan.

She has held exhibitions at various museums throughout the world, and in recent years her large-scale retrospective exhibitions at the Tate Modern and Centre Pompidou have elicited considerable responses. She recorded more than 2 million visitors to her tours in Latin America and Asia, which led to her being named the ‘world’s most popular artist in 2014’ by the Art Newspaper. In 2016, she received Japan’s Order of Culture. In 2017, a North American tour of her work started at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.

Kusama’s enormous popularity stems not just from the transformative experience of her photogenic art or its digital reach, but from her compelling personal narrative as well. Her cultural brand as Pop art’s eccentric auntie at once understates her art-historical significance and stokes the flames of her art market success. Collectors and museums jockey to buy new, seven-figure pieces from her powerful dealer network, while auction houses have sold more than $550 million worth of Kusama artworks in the last ten years. With an auction record of $7.9 million for one of her historic 1959 “Infinity Net” paintings, Kusama is both the world’s top-selling living female artist and still undervalued relative to her peers. This global activity is the culmination of the artist’s own extraordinary ambition, which has driven her practice for 70 years. But it is also the result of a supporting structure that brings together hospitals, studios, fabricators, and galleries to surround her like an exoskeleton. Encased within this super-powered mech suit, she produces the artworks, exhibitions, and merch that form the infinitely dazzling Kusama spectacle we see today.

Kusama delivers everything a 21st-century museum could ask for—art, experience crowds, social media likes, and money—in one sleek mirrored box. Since 2011 Kusama museum shows have dotted the globe, with five major exhibitions touring 34 cities. In 2014, the Kusama retrospective “Infinite Obsession” in Central and South America had the highest museum exhibition attendance rate globally, according to The Art Newspaper’s annual survey, with more than 2 million people. “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” which toured six North American institutions between 2017 and 2019, originated at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and was curated by Mika Yoshitake. It was made up of six of the artist’s 20 mirror rooms, and drew more than 800,000 visitors, validating the Instagrammable showcases as the institutional acquisition of choice.

When Castellane showed Kusama’s first “Infinity Mirror Room” in 1965, he priced it at $5,000 ($2,500 for museums), but got no takers. In the last six years, “Infinity Mirror Rooms” have become to museums what pandas are to zoos: surefire crowd-pleasers whose costs are easily justified by their popularity. Between 2014 and 2019, at least 11 international institutions acquired rooms. The Broad, Tate, the Hirshhorn, and the Rubell Museum each acquired two. The Art Gallery of Ontario raised 40 percent of its $1.4 million room purchase through crowdfunding and early-bird ticket presales. At $1.2 million–$2 million on the primary market, and up to twice that cost in private secondary-market sales, the rooms are a relative Kusama bargain, at least compared to the artist’s priciest work, her historic “Infinity Net” paintings. With some in editions of three, they’re also more numerous, if not immediately available. The current record for a room at auction is $503,536, set in 2012 when Christie’s London sold Infinity Mirrored Room–Love Forever, from 1994.

What the other side of the pandemic holds for galleries, museums, or auctions is wildly uncertain. Will “Infinity Mirror Rooms” become viral infection vectors or the ultimate social distancing experience? The only thing we can count on is that whether she’s stuck in her hospital or back in her studio, Yayoi Kusama will be making art, right up until the very end. And perhaps even after that.

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