Polka-dots. Cheerful, bright, rhythmic polka-dots. You run into them on clothes and home decor, kitchen ware and pet accessories. And thanks to kickass contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, they are finally in art museums and galleries around the world. Who is this wonderful polka-dot warrior? Let’s find out…
Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan in 1929. She began studying Nihonga painting in Kyoto, Japan in 1948 but found the strict master-student method of learning to be odious. In 1957, Kusama moved to Seattle and then to New York City. She struggled for a time financially, but blossomed artistically. Kusama worked quickly and was very prolific. She had her first solo show in 1959 at the Breta Gallery. While in New York, she found friendship with Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Joseph Cornell, and other artists. After almost two decades, in 1973, Kusama returned to Japan. She checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in 1977 after a life-long struggle with hallucinations, obsessive thoughts, and suicidal urges. She has lived there ever since and has a nearby studio where she continues to create art, mostly large, brightly painted canvases. Kusama also writes and has published works of poetry, novels, and autobiographical material. In 2006, Kusama received the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Award and the Women’s Caucus for Art’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Her art is in the permanent collections at MoMA in New York, LACMA, the Walker Art Center, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Tate Modern, the Centre Pompidou, and the National Museum of Tokyo. In 2014, one of her pieces, “White no. 28,” sold for $7.1 million at auction, the highest ever paid for a living female artist. Yay, Yayoi!
So, that’s who, where, and when, but what about the art? What about the polka-dots? The polka-dots have always been with her. In a childhood drawing of a woman, polka-dots cover over the page. From around the time she was 10 on, Kusama began repeatedly using polka-dots in her drawings and paintings. In the 1950s, Kusama created massive works she called “Infinity Nets.” She took long canvases, 30 feet long and over, and covered them in dots and net-like patterns. In the 1960s, she began doing installations and sculptures. She lined rooms with mirrors and colored balls and lights and created the feeling of a space that continued forever. She painted polka dots on object and people and took photos of the works. Kusama began making films. She also started staging happenings, doing performance pieces, and facilitating anti-war protests in the 1960s that involved her painting her own and other naked bodies with polka-dots. These performances had awesome names like “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA.” Fuck yes.
In 1966, Kusama participated in the Venice Biennale. Her piece, “Narcissus Garden,” involved hundreds of orbs mirrored on the outside and her standing in a gold kimono. She sold the mirrored balls for a few dollars each to visitors until the Biennale shut her down. I guess a critique of the art market wasn’t so popular in the middle of an art owner/art dealer masturbation-fest. Go figure.
She continued making sculpture, paintings, and installations. She returned to the Venice Biennale in 1993 with a room lined with mirrors and filled with polka-dotted pumpkin sculptures. In the 2000s, Kusama created furnished rooms covered in brightly colored polka-dots illuminated by UV lights; she called these “I’m Here, but Nothing.” Her solo show “KUSAMATRIX” in 2004 in Tokyo drew in over half a million people. That’s almost the same as the population of Tucson, Arizona. She has had several Retrospectives: MoMA in 1998, the Whitney Museum in 2012, and the Tate Modern in 2012. She has also created many public art pieces including a mural in Lisbon, a bus that runs through her home town, and a massive polka-dotted pumpkin sculpture. She has collaborated with fashion designers as well.
In talking about her fascination with polka-dots, Kusama said, “A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless, and unknowing…Polka-dots are a way to infinity.” So, the next time you put on that retro polka-dotted dress or wash your polka-dotted Crate and Barrel plates, know that you are a little closer to the infinite energy of the universe. Thanks, Yayoi Kusama!