6 Works That Explain Yayoi Kusama’s Rise to Art World Stardom
Can a single polka dot change the course of art history?
Yayoi Kusama thought so. After arriving in New York in 1958, the artist began applying the motif to paper, canvas, walls, and even her own naked body. “Bring on Picasso, bring on Matisse, bring on anybody!” she recalled of her early ethos, in a 2012 autobiography. “I would stand up to them all with a single polka dot!”
Indeed, Kusama became just as influential as that of her modernist, male predecessors. Her early “Infinity Net” paintings, begun in the 1950s—monochromatic canvases filled with thousands of tiny dots—paved the way for Minimalism. She helped pioneer Pop, performance, and installation art, too. Her sculptures burst with accumulations of plastic flowers and soft forms resembling phalluses. (She’s hinted that both Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg borrowed motifs from these works.) Her happenings brought dancing, nude dot-covered people to busy corners of New York, including Times Square. And her installations continue to place visitors within mind-bending, mirrored, and very Instagrammable environments that resemble endless celestial expanses.
Kusama has said that her artwork is an expression of her life, and particularly of her obsessive-compulsive neuroses. “My desire was to predict and measure the infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots,” she once wrote. In 1977, she entered a Tokyo sanatorium for treatment of her compulsions, and has been living and making art there ever since. She’s been known to work in 50- to 60-hour stretches, a trance-like process she’s called an “indescribable spell.”
Today, at 89 years old, Kusama continues to create—spreading her ever-accumulating dots, and the sculptures and paintings they cover, around the world. Below, we explore her monumental influence through six deeply irreverent, important works.
Infinity Net (1979)
By the time Kusama left her native Japan for the United States in 1957, she’d already begun her practice of dot-making. Covering sheets of paper with miniscule, repetitive marks not only fed her love of art, but also helped her cope with the stress-induced hallucinations she’d experienced from a young age. (She’s described these as being a result of her mother’s violence and vehement disapproval of her artistic aspirations.) “By translating hallucinations and fear of hallucinations into paintings, I have been trying to cure my disease,” she explained in a 1999 interview.
After writing to Georgia O’Keeffe from Japan and receiving an encouraging response, Kusama relocated to the U.S., first landing in Seattle and then New York. She was quickly accepted by the city’s avant-garde community of artists, who admired her rejection of the action painting popularized by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. “I wanted to be completely detached from that and start a new art movement,” Kusama has said.
Instead of adopting the dramatic marks of Abstract Expressionism, Kusama made all-over compositions of a different, more restrained sort. She called these increasingly large, white-on-white canvases painted with tight-knit patterns of dots “Infinity Nets.” In 1959, they became the subject of her first New York solo exhibition and created an immediate sensation, inspiring a rare rave review from then-critic Donald Judd, who’d later be crowned the king of Minimalist art.
It was these paintings that created a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, and, as writer Grady T. Turner has pointed out, balanced “avant-garde aesthetics” and the “hallucinatory images” that consumed Kusama’s own mind. In a 1961 article titled “Under the Spell of Accumulation,” Kusama described the impulses behind these canvases: “I gradually feel myself under the spell of the accumulation and repetition in my ‘nets’ which expand beyond myself, and all over the limited space of canvas covering the floor, desk and everywhere,” she wrote. Over the course of her life, Kusama has continued to make “Infinity Nets.” While they range in color and scale, they all retain the repetitive marks of what she refers to as her “obsessional” practice.
Accumulation No. 1. (1962)
Left to right: Installation view of Yayoi Kusama, Ennui, 1976, Accumulation, 1962-64, Red Stripes, 1965, Arm Chair, 1963, in “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. © Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Cathy Carver. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
“My sofas, couches, dresses, and rowboats bristle with phalluses,” Kusama once said succinctly, when describing her sculptures from the 1960s. One of her first three-dimensional works, Accumulation No. 1., grew from her “Infinity Net” paintings. “I painted infinity nets day after day, and while doing so, the whole room appeared to have been covered with nets,” she recalled. “So I created pieces by covering sculptures with nets.”
But the forms she began to affix to found objects, like armchairs and ladders and shoes, weren’t so much nets as protuberances: soft, stuffed conical forms that looked more like fields of waving seaweed or forests of penises. Kusama went on to name this series of objects “Compulsion Furniture.” She later described Accumulation No. 1. as an embodiment of not only her obsessive-compulsive disorder, but other psychological forces, too, like sexual anxieties. “As an obsessional artist I fear everything I see,” she explained. “The armchair thickly covered in phalluses was my psychosomatic work done when I had a fear of sexual vision.” Interestingly, her friend (and rumored lover), Judd, helped her stuff these forms.
But Kusama’s early sculptures went beyond symbolizing her psychological state. They also influenced the burgeoning Pop art movement, which used household objects and the repetition of images and forms to explore consumerism and mass production. Oldenburg, in particular, was likely inspired by Kusama’s softening of hard-edged, everyday objects; in 1962, he, too, began making soft sculptures—sewn, stuffed, giant reproductions of deli sandwiches and toilets.
Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field (Floor Show) (1965/2016)
In 1965, Kusama erected the first of her now-famous immersive environments. Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field (Floor Show) fused her interests in repetition, sexual exploration, psychology, and perception by filling a roughly 25-square-meter mirrored room with a thick carpet of soft, twisting phalluses camouflaged in the artist’s signature polka dots. Visitors were encouraged to enter the room and interact with the total environment, where their reflection repeated endlessly against a field of odd sensual forms so pliable and lumpy, they looked alive. The experience, as curator Catherine Taft has written, created a kind of “psychosexual encounter with one’s own body and image.”
Kusama saw the room as the manifestation of a “long-cherished dream” to be sublimated by her own art. There, she entered a space that existed beyond everyday life and psychological trauma: “Like Alice, who went through the looking-glass, I, Kusama, (who have lived for years in my famous, specially-built room entirely covered by mirrors), have opened up a world of fantasy and freedom,” she later wrote.
Other artists took note of the heady effects of Kusama’s first Infinity Room on the viewer—and on the avant-garde 1960s art world. Shortly thereafter, Lucas Samaras created his own mirrored environment. “He did it again,” Kusama remembered saying when she saw the work. “I hope Lucas pursues the path of creativity and pain inherent in artists from now on, instead of following what Kusama has done.”
Since 1965, Kusama has produced over 20 “Infinity Mirror” rooms, including one for the Japanese Pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale. In recent years, they’ve become the major draw of Kusama retrospectives, transporting viewers into a kaleidoscopic black hole of shimmering dots, while also providing the perfect backdrop for a selfie sure to inspire lots of likes.
Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1967)
“By obliterating one’s individual self, one returns to the infinite universe,” Kusama explained in 1999. In other words, obliteration offered the artist an access point into a more fantastical, unrestrained world. She explored this idea in this 1967 film (her only one), made with Jud Yalkut. In it, she transforms her surroundings and her own body with polka dots, all set to a psychedelic soundtrack.
In the short film, Kusama is something of a ringleader, bringing people, animals, and environments together by anointing them with little circles. She rides a dotted horse while wearing a dotted cloak; enters a lake, where she covers a canvas with circles; and joins an orgiastic tribe of dot-swathed people. “I paint polka dots on the bodies of people, and with those polka dots, the people will self-obliterate and return to the nature of the universe,” she later wrote in her autobiography. The film points to the sense of freedom Kusama found in repetitive mark making. Here, psychological and sexual liberation is delivered via unfettered, proliferating circles.
A year after she made the film, Kusama began describing herself as the “High Priestess of Polka Dots,” and her SoHo loft as the “Church of Self-Obliteration.” It was there, in 1968, that she officiated a wedding between two gay men (an illegal union in New York at the time). In her church, people were free to do as they pleased. In 2002, for the installation “The Obliteration Room,” Kusama put polka dots into the hands of visitors themselves. Using colorful stickers, they collectively transformed a vapid white room into a warm, colorful sanctuary.
Walking Piece (1966)
Kusama staged dozens of Happenings during the 1960s and early ’70s. One of the first—and least conspicuous—was Walking Piece. In it, Kusama asserted her identity as a Japanese immigrant and an artist by walking New York’s grey, empty streets wearing a hot-pink floral kimono and holding a faux-flower-adorned parasol. “At home in Japan, Kusama’s preferred mode of dress had been consistently modern. In New York, she would sometimes wear traditional Japanese clothing as a means of declaring her outsider status,” the Whitney Museum has explained of the performance. “The delicate kimono contrasts with and highlights the cruel, commercial, alienating side of the city.”
Over the next several years, Kusama inserted herself more boldly into New York’s public spaces. In one Happening, she went grocery shopping wearing a phallus-adorned dress and matching hat. Her most famous public works, dubbed “Body Festivals,” brought together groups of naked performers whom she painted with dots. They gathered and danced in high-profile, bustling places—like the Museum of Modern Art, Wall Street, or Times Square—collectively asserting their personal freedom and sexuality. Some performances, dubbed “Anatomic Explosions,” also carried stark anti-war messages; in them, Kusama’s collaborators wore monstrous masks resembling the politicians whose policies the artist didn’t agree with.
While polka dots are Kusama’s most recognizable motifs, pumpkins are a close second. They have cropped up in drawings, paintings, sculptures, and installations throughout her career. The first of these oddly shaped squashes appeared in a work Kusama made in 1946, a full 10 years before she relocated to the United States and began making the work that would catapult her to fame. It depicted the kabocha—a kind of pumpkin used extensively in Japanese cooking—rendered in the late-19th century Japanese painting style of Nihonga. With typical fervor, she painted the form over and over again, becoming lost in its grooves and bumps. “I would confront the spirit of the pumpkin, forgetting everything else and concentrating my mind entirely on the form before me.…I spent as much as a month facing a single pumpkin,” she later recalled.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that pumpkins reappeared in her work, as a means of fusing abstraction and representation. They filled her canvases with an almost “anthropomorphic presence,” as curator Catherine Taft has pointed out. Indeed, Kusama has described the motif in human terms. “I love pumpkins because of their humorous form, warm feeling, and a human-like quality,” she explained in a 2015 interview. Since then, they’ve become synonymous with Kusama and her practice. During the run of her installation at the 1993 Venice Biennale, she handed out little sculptural pumpkins to visitors. More recently, she’s reproduced the vegetable in the form of shiny, massive sculptures covered—yes—in her signature polka dots. One of the largest and most striking versions sits in her native Japan, on an idyllic perch in Naoshima—appropriately, an island completely covered in art.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the year Kusama relocated from Japan and the year she moved to New York.