10 Things you didn't know about Yayoi Kusama

Anna Walker 14 January 2021

Ten surprising facts about the queen of polka dots, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. 

1. Her iconic polka dots were inspired by childhood hallucinations

polka dot pumpkin
Yellow Pumpkin, Naoshima (Japan). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Polka dots are Yayoi Kusama's calling card and the artist claims that her iconic style first originated in a hallucination that she experienced as a child. 

"One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe," she explained.

"I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness."

 

2. Her business advisor was fellow artist Georgia O'Keefe

O'Keeffe in 1918, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz
O'Keeffe in 1918, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz. Public domain

Kusama looked up to the success of famous flower painter Georgia O'Keeffe, and in her twenties, decided to reach out to ask her advice on breaking the New York art scene.

O'Keeffe wrote back, and the pair began a correspondence that spanned years. When Kusama was later hospitalised from exhaustion, O'Keeffe stepped in on her friend's behalf to recommend her works to art dealers, aiding her financial difficulties. 

 

3. Pumpkins formed a major part of her diet during the Second World War

pumpkin
A Kusama pumpkin statue at an exhibition for the HAM art company. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Pumpkins are a major motif in Kusama's oeuvre, and the vegetable holds personal significance for the artist. The Kusama family grew fields of the squash at their family home and relied on the produce to get them through the Second World War

Over the years the artist has painted them, created sculptures and even immersive pumpkins that the viewer can step inside.

Speaking of her interest in the iconography of the vegetable, Kusama said, "I was enchanted by their charming and winsome form. What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness. That and its solid spiritual balance."

 

4. She's a prolific activist

Yayoi Kusama portrait
Kusama in 2016. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Much of Kusama's artwork has an activist dimension, particularly her works of performance art. One infamous instance involved her climbing the Brooklyn Bridge wearing a polka-dot leotard. She was protesting war and the violence of capitalism.

The protest happened during the height of the Vietnam War and was quickly followed with a naked march across the bridge, leading to the MoMa's sculpture garden. Once there, her controversial piece, Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead drew such scandal that it made the front cover of the New York Times.

 

5. Kusama is also an esteemed writer

Yayoi Kusama's genius doesn't stop with her visual art. She's also a prolific writer and has authored eight novels, several books of poetry, and founded an erotic newspaper entitled Kusama's Orgy

 

6. She once propositioned President Richard Nixon

President Nixon portrait
President Richard Nixon. Via the Department of Defense

In 1968 Kusama wrote to then-President Richard Nixon offering him sex if he agreed to a ceasefire in the Pacific. It wasn't the first time she had written to him—previously, she'd taken pen to paper to advocate the end of the Vietnam War, saying, "Gently! Gently! Dear Richard. Calm your manly fighting spirit!"

When Nixon didn't respond to her offer, Kusama staged the "Nixon Orgy", a performance artwork in her Manhatten studio which involved an orgy, set against the backdrop of a Nixon poster, a Malcolm X poster and the American flag. 

 

7. She had a troubled upbringing

Obliteration Room
Kusama's "Obliteration Room". Via Helsinki Art Museum

So discouraging was Kusama's mother of her creative endeavours, that she remembers rushing to complete her drawings as a child in order to escape her scorn. Kusama remembers her mother as physically as well as emotionally abusive, and she grew up with a great degree of trauma, exacerbated by her father's continual extra-marital affairs, which she would spy on, regularly catching him in the act.

As a result of her early exposure to sex, Kusama had a lifelong contempt for the act—despite her avid interest in it in her art and writing—and she went on to describe herself as asexual

Speaking about the experience in adult life, she said: "I don't like sex. I had an obsession with sex. When I was a child, my father had lovers and I experienced seeing him. My mother sent me to spy on him. I didn't want to have sex with anyone for years…The sexual obsession and fear of sex sit side by side in me."

 

8. Kusama performed gay weddings before they were legal

Kusama
Yayoi Kusama’s New York studio, 1968. Image: © Phaidon

In 1960 Kusama performed the ceremony for what she called "the first homosexual wedding ever be performed in the United States". The venue was her loft apartment in Manhatten, which she had transformed into the "Church of Self-Obliteration". 

Kusama created the outfits for the couple, as well as a bright pink dress for herself covered in phalluses. 

"Love can now be free, but to make it completely free, it must be liberated from all sexual frustrations imposed by society," the artist announced in a press release for the event. "Homosexuality is a normal physical and psychological reaction, neither to be extolled or decried."

 

9. She is the most expensive living woman artist

White No 28
White No 28 via Artnet

The record for a sale of Kusama's word is $7,109,000, which was paid for her piece, White No. 28, an early work in her "Infinity Nets" series. 

She continues to display her work across the world, and her shows are nearly always sold out.  

 

10. She has lived in a mental health hospital since 1977

Through her own preference, Yayoi Kusama has resided in a Japanese asylum since the Seventies where she receives treatment for her mental health problems.

Despite living in the Tokyo hospital full time, she remains a prolific artist and maintains a studio nearby where she can work on her paintings, sculptures and large-scale installations. 

Speaking about her mental health, Kusama has said, "I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.”

 

Read more: David Bowie, the children's entertainer

Read more: Books to get you through lockdown

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter