Yayoi Kusama Article
As humans we communicate using words and phrases to express our ideas and views, to show others how we see the world. As much as we use them however, words provide limitations to expression through definitions. For some, words simply aren’t enough and they need to find a different way to express their universe. One such individual is world renowned artist Yayoi Kusama. Her vibrant colors and patterns speak in a different language, one that doesn’t know the bounds of words and provides a unique insight into her mind.

Kusama’s journey with creation began when she was a child as she started experiencing hallucinations that manifested as bright flashes of light or dense fields of dots. Painting became a way for her to cope with the bizarre phenomenon, not just a method of expression but also a way of survival. In her autobiography she describes her work as “art-medicine” stating “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art.” Hallucinations were not a singular struggle for the young Kusama however, she grew up in a merchant family with a womanizing father that wanted nothing to do with them and would neglect her mother. Her mother, often jealous of her husband's pursuits, sent Kusama to spy on him many times and when she returned would physically abuse Kusama in her anger. Witnessing her father with so many women created a deep contentment for male sexualtiy and sex in general which greatly impacted her work later in life.

Despite her traditional family objecting to her pursuit of art, Kusama continued to create art at Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts studying the traditional Nihonga style of painting. This was frustrating for Kusmama who was more drawn to the modern contemporary art styles in America and dreamed of becoming famous like the artists there. One such artist she admired for both her paintings and accomplishments as a woman was Georgia O’Keeffe who she wrote to. O'Keeffe to her surprise wrote back and encouraged her to move to New York, Kusma looks back on this as having given her the courage to leave Japan, impacting the trajectory of her entire career. 

After she moved to New York, Kusama began obsessively creating works such as her “Infinity Net” paintings. These were extremely large canvases with thousands of tiny marks across the surface and beyond as they expanded into infinity. The patterns created in these infinite marks is one that references back to Kusama’s own hallucinations, “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. 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.” Kusama explored that experience of infinite time and space within the infinity nets and the idea of self obliteration became a recurring theme in her art. An example of this can be found in macaroni sculptures she crafted, “The thought of constantly eating something like macaroni, spat out by machinery, fills me with fear and revulsion, so I make macaroni sculptures. I make them and make them and then keep making them, until I bury myself in the process. I call this ‘obliteration’” In this way self obliteration became another coping mechanism for Kusama, a way to deal with daily fear and anxiety within her life. 

Once establishing herself as an artist in New York, Kusama continued to explore themes of time, space, and infinity but also pursued subjects that were greatly influenced by hippie culture of the time. These explorations often manifested in performance art staged in densely populated public spaces. Happenings were staged in places like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge involving a group of nude subjects with the intent of protesting the Vietnam war. Another topic of interest for Kusama was sex, reflecting on aspects of sexual trauma derived from her childhood, Kusama aimed to dismantle societal boundaries on sexuality, identiny, and the human body. Presentations such as Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead, in which nude models were painted in polka dots, and Homosexual Wedding in the Church of Self Obliteration, which saw Kusama marrying two men as High Priestess of Polka Dots, were two of the events that harnessed a great deal of publicity for the growing artist.

Amongst her rising notoriety Kusama received both positive and negative feedback, her family for one were shameful of the nudity and protests present in her art. This created a greater sense of isolation for Kusama and she attempted suicide for a second time while in the city. Suicidal thoughts was a struggle Kusama would continue to deal with throughout her life. In her words, “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.” During this time, not only was Kusama struggling with her mental health but also a prejudice within New York and the art community. As a Japanese woman in post war America Kusama had difficulty finding galleries willing to show her work and even more trouble selling it. All the while many of her male peers were releasing work greatly inspired by her own and gaining national fame. A series of mental breakdowns over the matter forced Kusama to leave America and return to Japan where she released a book of poetry recounting her time in New York called “Manhattan Suicide Addict.” 

While it was Kusama’s choice to return home it did not solve her financial problems or improve her mental health, in fact in ways it only made it worse. Like her family, many in Japan had heard of Kusama’s happenings and greatly disapproved considering her a national disgrace. That paired with the childhood trauma she now faced at home drove her to check herself into a mental hospital where she has resided ever since. With a studio across the street Kusama has slowly rebuilt her career to the international phenomenon that it is today and proves to everyone who looks to her that creation is a powerful tool of survival. “I think I will be able to, in the end, rise above the clouds and climb the stairs to heaven, and I will look down on my beautiful life.” - Yayoi Kusama.

Throughout her lifetime art has never been a way for Kusama to escape her mental health, instead it has been a therapeutic tool. For her, the process of creation provides just another way to understand her words and supplies an outlet for which she can heal through. This is no different in her upcoming solo exhibition I WANT YOUR TEARS TO FLOW WITH THE WORDS I WROTE featuring the ongoing My Eternal Soul series of paintings. Of the pieces she states, “My entire life has been painted here. Everyday, anyday. I will never cease dedicating my whole life to my love for the universe. Oh my dearest art. With the challenge of creating new art, I work as if dying; these works are my everything.” Within this exploration of herself and her relationship with the universe Kusama uses her art as a thinking tool, it becomes a letter of declaration to both herself and her audience with what she thinks of the world. In a language created through color and pattern Kusama intellectually portrays not just a direct copy of her vision but an in depth understanding of her universe. 

In this new series of paintings to be presented within the upcoming exhibition there is an echo of similarity to many of Kusama’s previous works. The obsessive patterns are reminiscent of the Infinity Net paintings she created after first moving to New York, while the bright colors express a distinct signature that has come to define her style. However, the introduction of unique compositions alludes to the new micro and macroscopic exploration Kusama inducts through these works. Each a study of form, subject matter, and space, the grouped paintings are an external expression of art used to further understand the inner-self. In a way these groupings depict two universes, one of external observation and internal exploration. 

Macroscopically, Kusama uses art as a channel to express her understanding of the world around her with a unique perspective influenced by her mental health. The dots in her hallucinations provide a different way for her to interpret the world on a physical plane. The hallucinations are not only decomposing the world, but also rearranging it on another level. Amongst seemingly meaningless marks there are a few familiar motifs and symbols including biometric shapes that recall a likeness to human features. The dueling familiar symbolism and abstract patterns in cramped compositions mimics the everyday anxiety that impacts our lives. As a group this notion is reiterative across the canvases while also maintaining singularly expressive features that preserve their individuality.

Microscopically, the works are less an expression of the world and more an understanding of herself. Her art is a therapeutic tool that she, ingeniously, uses to reconsolidate her fear by subsuming it into beautiful, bold creative images that indeed communicate with all people. As a highly instinctual artist the form her art takes can directly represent her mindset. In these works depictions begin as seemingly symbolic with humanistic features yet other works begin to levy space to more organic forms as her mindset changes. Kusama does not constrict her works to a single preemptive outcome, she allows them to change with her mind and serve their purpose as a tool of expression. Ultimately they become a communication of her internal exploration and its unique perspective. 

“My entire life has been painted here. Everyday, anyday.” At its most basic, that is what Kusama is presenting to us. This grouping of paintings show depictions of the many as well as the singular, revealing not only the everyday encounters of a macroscopic world but also the microscopic internal conflicts of the artist that painted them. The layout itself reflects this very idea, while they are viewed together, they can also be seen separately. Together, they are the many with each composition comparable due to their bright colors and abstract patterns. However, when viewed individually they take on a life of their own defined once again by a unique exploration into their own forms, subject matter, and space. While everyday can take on a monotonous routine of struggle and triumph, anyday is unique in it’s experiences. 

Kusama’s experiences with hallucinations, anxiety, depression, and trauma provide a unique perspective into her universe. Her lifelong struggle with mental health has led to a series of works that have taken the world by storm. These breathtaking pieces inspire those around her, transporting them to a different world. “I, Kusama, am the modern Alice in Wonderland.” Indeed her art is its own story weaving a tale that cannot be told with any spoken word, but rather through a language Kusama has created all on her own, one consisting of color and pattern that extend into infinity. And now through her latest solo exhibition opening in New York, I WANT YOUR TEARS TO FLOW WITH THE WORDS I WROTE, her universe will continue to extend and reach every corner of people’s hearts and souls.
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