Yayoi Kusama throughout her career has worked with a variety of media. She travelled the world and influenced Andy Warhool and Claes Oldenburg.Although largely forgotten after departing the New York art scene in the early 1970s, Kusama is now acknowledged as one of the most important living artists to come out of Japan, and an important voice of the avant-garde.
Kusama’s work is based on conceptual art and shows some attributes of feminism, minimalism, surrealism, Art Brut, pop art, and abstract expressionism, and is infused with autobiographical, psychological, and sexual content. Kusama is also a published novelist and poet and has created notable work in film and fashion design. Major retrospectives of her work have been held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998, the Whitney Museum in 2012, and Tate Modern in 2012. In 2006, she received a Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2008, Christie’s New York sold a work by her for $5.1 million, then a record for a living female artist. In 2015 Artsy named her one of the Top 10 Living Artists of 2015.
Yayoi Kusama has coped with severe psychological difficulties since she was a young child and even according to her own admission it is believed that her art is primarily inspired by the state of her mental health. Abused by her mother during her childhood, she began suffering from intense audio-visual hallucinations which have continued throughout her lifetime. After living in New York for much of her adult life, Kusama returned to Japan in 1973. In 1977 she was committed to a psychiatric hospital and has been living there ever since. Although it is believed she entered voluntarily she has stated in multiple interviews that this was not the case. She is allowed to work on her art at a studio across the street and writes novels in her room at the hospital at night.
According to an interview with Kusama, art is both type of release as well as a kind of treatment for her psychological problems. She often worked for days when feeling pushed to complete a series, such as she did in the 1950s when producing her Infinity Nets huge canvases filled completely with minute circles, forming magnificent nets resulting in the viewer having the sense of being overwhelmed by the vision. When working on them it was not unusual for Kusama to go for days without food or sleep and she has referred to this as a type of “self-obliteration”. When she feels mentally stable enough to tolerate interviews she is candid about her condition and has admitted her visual hallucinations and fear of sexual relationships have caused her to completely cover objects, images and even people in dots and phallic representations. In a 1999 interview with BOMB Artists in Conversation, Kusama stated:
“My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease. I create pieces even when I don’t see hallucinations, though. By translating hallucinations and fear of hallucinations into paintings, I have been trying to cure my disease.”