top of page

Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern


by Anna Leung

In 1977 Kusama decided to voluntarily admit herself to a psychiatric hospital where she has remained to this day. Initially it provided her with the security and support she needed especially when on her return to Japan the panic attacks and hallucinations she had suffered as a child returned. It would obviously make sense to see this retreat as primarily motivated by reasons related to her mental and emotional health but Kusama is a very complex artist and other factors come into play, the need for instance to safeguard the freedom of her art.


Kusama had twice displaced herself geographically. The first time, as part of her protest against a feudal, conformist and patriarchal Japan and in order to give her art the unlimited freedom she deemed necessary for it to flourish, she moved to the US where despite her double outsider status as a female artist in a man’s world and a Japanese national who would have had to contend with overt anti-Japanese prejudice she eventually made a name for herself and became in her own words ‘as famous as Andy Warhol’. The second time was when she relocated to Tokyo in 73 and once again had to face a huge cultural transition. Each move required immense reserves of will power and faith in her vocation as an artist. Kusama’s self promotion, modelled on that of her icon Georgia O’Keefe has always been prodigious and in Japan as in the States she had to re-invent herself as indeed she did.

Yayoi Kusama. Photo: Lucy Dawkins/Tate Photography.




Yayoi Kusama, 1965. 

Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo.

© Yayoi Kusama

It is curious though that subsequent to her return to Japan she was banished from modern and contemporary art history for several decades despite the fact that, chameleon like, she had anticipated many artistic developments and had exerted such an energetic presence in the New York hippie and counter culture movements often taking sole responsibility for installations and happenings that involved body painting and nudism in support of the Anti-Vietnam protests. Her decision to return to Japan has been interpreted as a retreat; she had lost her mind, was burnt out. But it would be equally feasible to construe it as yet another political move, part of her ongoing protest that registered disillusionment due to the failure of the hippie utopian dream as well as an awareness of Japan’s increasing economic power in the world. And then a 1998 retrospective at Moma in New York reintroduced Kusama as the grande dame of the avant-garde to a host of artists who had not even realised that they had been influenced by her. 


Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash into a wealthy and traditional family that owned a seed nursery about 130 miles from Tokyo. She was the youngest of four children but from early on was totally starved of affection or any signs of maternal love; instead her mother used her as a butt for her anger fuelled by her husband’s constant infidelities. It has been suggested that her mother’s violent abuse was the source of Kusama’s hallucinations and the hallucinations the source of her art; her wanting us, the public,  to share in her hallucinatory world that allowed no differentiation between subject and object – which is where the polka dots come in especially in her installations. It is tempting to take this pathological tack but Kusama is different from other so called outsider artists or artists of the insane who tend to continue mining one particular vein in their artistic production. Despite language problems Kusama immersed herself in the contemporary art world and fully aware of its shifting trends developed her art in many directions. Far from living in her own self made bubble she anticipated many innovative movements such as Pop Art and Minimalism. Thus though much of her work is certainly marked by compulsive repetition she was able to communicate her vision extending it far beyond herself to bring subject and object together in a participatory space. She gave herself the task of representing an inner world that was as frightening as it was beautiful and which bringing together psychic and political realities reveals the relationship between waste and want, desire and dissolution.


Kusama’s production is immense. She works compulsively and besides art works has applied herself to fashion, film making, protest and performance happenings and writing. The exhibition at Tate Modern focuses on seminal moments in her artistic life beginning with her early paintings in Japan, many of which she destroyed before flying out to Seattle where she had her first solo show. These watercolours are in stark contrast to later developments when in her determination to identify herself with American culture and society she adopted a new medium (oils) and a large format that emulated Abstract Expressionist canvases. As we can see from these early paintings Kusama was already absorbing Western avant garde influences prior to her move to the States and was especially drawn to Surrealism, primitive and outsider art. The influence of Klee and Miro are already visible in her lyrical, animated images suggestive of biomorphic and organic forms that pulsate and seethe in a profusion of microscopic and macroscopic details. She produced hundreds of these Surrealist inspired, small format works on paper that while allowing her to delve into what she phrased the ‘hidden, shadowy part of life on earth.’ also constituted a critique of Japanese conformist society. Dots are already here in profusion and will continue to proliferate in future art works, so much so that in New York she became known as the Polka Dot Queen.


In the late fifties, by which time she was beginning to be recognised on the Japanese art scene – no mean feat in a patriarchal world - Kusama wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe. She had obtained the artists’ address from the US Information Service in Tokyo and was not put off by O’Keeffe’s subsequent warning of hardship were she to attempt to make her name in the States. She also sent examples of recent work which O’Keeffe sent on to a Seattle dealer who had contacts with a Northwest Pacific art group that included artists such as Tobey and Graves. Kusama found their work congenial for it was influenced by Oriental philosophic ideas, including Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and Baha’i as well as other ancient world cultures.  For Kusama who had lived through a totalitarian regime - looking back to the years dominated by an inflexible military clique she observed that ‘The militarism was inescapable. I suffered, it killed my mind.’ – such belief systems that verged on the mystical constituted a magical buffer against the conformist and alienating tendencies of modern mechanised society that it did not take her long to recognise in the nexus of the military and corporate capitalism in the US. 


It was this resistance to anti-humanist ideologies, shared by most of the Abstract Expressionists, that led her to her next development, the series of Infinity Net Paintings which remain a fixture in her life as she has continued to work on them to this day throughout all the different stages of her artistic career. These are large format paintings, up to 14 ft in length, white on black, all-over abstracts which represent the starting point of her avant garde career and signalled her intention to identify with the US art scene. Five of them were exhibited in Boston in 1959.and by 61 she was exhibiting them in the Carnegie International and the Whitney Annual. It’s all to easy to interpret this obsessive art making through her pathology but her Net Paintings reflect the Monochrome tendency in the States and in the  Zero Group in Germany and the Nouveaux Realistes in France, groups with whom she was already in contact. The Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, who was at that time best known as a critic and happened to be her upstairs neighbour, was one of the first collectors to buy one of her Net Paintings seeing them as examples of his ‘specific objects’. 


Although all of the monochromes appear identical, they are actually unique. Kusama’s aim was ‘to lend specificity to an infinity of space’ and this she does by repeatedly brushing a single arc or globule of white paint against the grey/black background which optically functions as dots of grey encircled by white in the finished work. A net of scalloped shaped brushstrokes covers the entirety of the canvas, each ring part of a nucleus of ever expanding and in some cases pulsating clusters of circles that are limited in their expansion only by the framing edge of the canvas. One of Kusama’s stated aims was to outmanoeuvre what she construed as the masculinist excesses of gestural action painting with its rhetoric of self expression. De Kooning is a good example of such masculine display. By contrast Nets functions as a meditative discipline that captures the infinite within the immanence of its own materiality. If, as is the case, Kusama is driven by a compulsion to loose herself in her art, rather than a mark of insanity, this aim to ‘obliterate’ herself functions as a mark of sanity especially if we bear in mind that obliteration or emptiness has a positive valency in Japanese culture.

Yayoi Kusama, Self-Obliteration No.2, 1967.

© Yayoi Kusama and © Yayoi Kusama Studios Inc.

As will become clear, what distinguishes all Kusama’s work is her dedication to a self imposed task that paradoxically results in self-liberation through repetition. And though her transition to 3D Accumulations, possibly under Judd’s influence, appears to be completely at variance with the quietism of her Infirmity Net paintings they exhibit certain common features. Both embody a formal compulsion to repeat the same motif; ideologically, they represent a protest against wider social ills. Kusama referred to her phallus covered work as her Sex Obsession series that represents an attempt to neutralise her fear of sex through aversion therapy. At the same time by making sexuality something absurd and preposterous she is in the position to defuse it. However Accumulations also coincide with Marcuse’s increasing popularity as an emancipatory philosopher who argued for a sexual revolution based on the importance of aesthetics and sensuality in human life. Similarly the use of dried macaroni in the same body of work suggests a political indictment of a consumerist policy of over production and waste which must have seemed particularly shocking when contrasted to the deprivations suffered by the Japanese both during and after the Second World War. 


Kusama’s Accumulations consist of  salvaged ‘ready mades’, ordinary pieces of furniture, articles of clothing and accessories, high heeled shoes and handbags usually painted white or bronze and encrusted with phallic like protuberances that she and Judd had spent many laborious hours stuffing and sewing. These semi-Surreal objects with their growth of phalli anticipated the burgeoning of the Pop Art scene and effectively pre-empted Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculpture.  Kusama’s ability to belong concurrently to both Pop and Minimalist practices was unique in the New York art scene. In 1963 her One Thousand Boats Show predated by three years Warhol’s use of a cow motif with which he completely covered the walls and ceiling of his gallery space creating a 3D all-over effect. Kusama’s exhibition which was held at the Gertrude Stein Gallery in New York displayed in the centre of the gallery a phalli encrusted row boat, oars included, that had been retrieved from the streets with Judd’s help, with 999 black and white photos of the boat seen from above lining its walls, floor and ceiling. The boat’s surreal dream like quality was heightened by the serial multiplication of the black and white photos, creating an uncanny effect that often characterises Kusama’s artworks. 



This was the first of her walk-in installations that had as part of their aim to immerse the viewer in her own singular vision. From the very beginning of her career Kusama had assiduously documented her own work and cultivated her own persona so it was logical to have herself photographed in costumes that matched the dotty surface of her installations or displayed virtually overwhelmed by phallic protuberances whose function was talismanic. Treating like with like Kusama creates installations over which she concurrently both exerts and relinquishes control. Compulsively repeating herself she is able to acknowledge the sources of her psychological illness while at the same time, much like Louise Bourgeois, she uses her art making as a palliative and restorative strategy associated with the experience of self obliteration. This she extends to the viewer so that the installation becomes a public rather than a private event, part of a shared world and an in-between space that oscillates between the positive and negative aspects of the hallucinatory experience. This participatory emphasis was to come to the fore in her anti establishment hippie and happening phase in the late sixties and into the early seventies


By the mid sixties Kusama was moving from installations into happenings and performance art in which she figured prominently. Positioning herself as high priestess of the hippie scene she embraced its protest culture and its experiential attitudes to drugs, sex and mysticism. She saw the flower power children as natural collaborators in her happenings, which involved naked participants who were invariably painted with dots by an often fully clothed Kasuma, eg Alice in Wonderland in Central Park and Anatomic Explosion on Wall Street. This phase of her career was recorded by film makers whose footage she has used to make her own film Kusama’s Self Obliteration which moves from scenes in the countryside to orgy parties in New York. By the early seventies she must have realised that the hippie counter culture period had come to an end. The cost of the Vietnam War had in her own words ‘set the country on a downward spiral’ and she was ready to move on. Her political message tended to be lost amidst her manipulation of the media in self display and her use of sexual imagery. None of this went down well in Japan when she returned in 1973 with a view to start a new career as an art broker. It was during this time that she began to amalgamate collage elements cut out from magazines with material given to her by Joseph Cornell with whom she had been particularly close. He died in 1972 and Kusama regarded these intricate collages as a tribute to his memory. But transition proved difficult and she started to suffer from a recurrence of the hallucinations which had plagued her as a child and was hospitalised on several occasions resulting in her voluntary admission in 1977. 



Kusama made the psychiatric hospital her base and by 1980 began once again to make soft sculptures, filling boxes with cloud-like cushions painted white or silver, and tentacle-like forms that writhe in layers and often painted with polka dots. She also returned to painting filling her canvases with all-over compositions that picked up from her earlier monochromes and watercolours in their depiction of microscopic and macroscopic worlds teeming with life. By the late nineties she returned to making room based installations, e.g. I’m Here, but Nothing in which a darkened room plus all the furniture is covered in fluorescent polka dots that destabilise the viewer’s vision. By this time she had reclaimed her international status and was once again recognised as the grande dame of the avant garde with her work featuring in many exhibitions including the 1993.Venice Biennale   In the last few years she has produced a new series of acrylic paintings that again recall the watercolours of her earlier years but are much brighter and have morphed from a representation of her felt emptiness into a medley of small figures, flowers, glasses, eyes and most significantly her self portrait repeated in profile, all contained within a pattern that reminds me tangentially of Australian Aboriginal art. 



Infinity Mirrored Room-Filled with the Brilliance of Life was made specifically for this exhibition and brings it to a conclusion that is truly magical and mysterious. Kusama has from the start of her career been fascinated by the idea of infinity and of depicting infinite space; her Net Paintings were specific attempts to do just this. The semblance of such a vision is what she has recreated in the last room of the exhibition, a darkened cube shaped room, the walls, ceiling and floor of which are clad in mirrors. Water covers nearly all the floor save for the path taken through the installation while suspended from the ceiling are multi coloured lights that intermittently flicker on and off as they go through a spectrum of colours mirrored ad infinitum through the panoply of mirrored surfaces. While yet another exercise in self obliteration, in this case pleasure and playfulness trump anxiety.


Kusama would readily agree with Louise Bourgeois that ‘Art is a guarantee of sanity.’ For Kusama it has functioned as a psychological remedy and the reality of her pathological disorder in no way cancels out her aesthetic contribution but on the contrary confirms her emotional control over it. Moreover Kusama’s work is marked by a formal and thematic integrity and through out her career she has continually widened her stage of operations from studio to gallery, and from the street to film and fashion taking on questions of gender and race. Overcoming manifold obstacles, including the public's incredulity, she has been able to weave her hallucinatory material into the weft of her art works, gradually winning back an in-between territory that is not singular but universal, that may be frightening but is also an affirmation of self out of which a participatory art work can emerge.


© Anna Leung February 2012


Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.


Yayoi Kusama is at Tate Modern in London from 9 February - 5 June 2012.

bottom of page