Yayoi Kusama Children’s Book Tells the Story of Her Legendary, Polka-Dotted Life
What’s the best way to introduce kids to
That’s what Museum of Modern Art curator Sarah Suzuki has done in Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity, the new children’s book that teaches wee audiences about the legendary Japanese artist’s life and work.
The picture book is filled with lively illustrations by Ellen Weinstein, and also includes reproductions of works by Kusama. As a whole, it reflects the brilliant colors and serene poetry of the artist’s work, with an eye to developing art lovers of the future.
“Kusama really had the force—and the talent—to create a future for herself that no one around her really thought was possible,” says Suzuki. “She’s quite a remarkable woman.”
The artist has become synonymous with otherworldly sculptures and paintings born out of personal ruminations on eternity and mortality, and the beloved “Infinity Rooms”—chambers filled with mirrors and flickers of light and color—which see museumgoers queue up for hours on end to witness (and Instagram). Now 88, she just debuted her own museum in Tokyo. From her earliest years as an artist in 1950s New York, she was a pioneer, making a series of “Infinity Nets” paintings and performances where she painted her friends with dots.
Translating the artist’s legacy (which is still ongoing) into a succinct, upbeat tale for children was no easy task. Suzuki approached the project as she does with much of her research on artists—she read everything she could, including the artist’s autobiography and past interviews. She examined Kusama’s work and thought back on her favorite children’s books. “I tried to get to the essence of why I loved them so much, and why they stayed with me,” she offers.
The book begins with Kusama as a child in Matsumoto City, Japan, drawing outdoors in the flower-filled nurseries her parents owned, dreaming of leaving home to pursue art. It follows her journey to New York in 1957, at the age of 28, and her early years as a struggling artist in the city. The narrative finishes with her return to Japan, where “she continues to paint her dots every day.”
“I really wanted the book to be about Kusama’s work as an artist, and the dots allowed me to do that,” Suzuki says. The narrative and illustrations do well to let readers understand the artist’s view of the world—the way Kusama sees her signature dots everywhere, from the pebbles in a riverbed near her childhood home, to the bustling streets of New York, seen from the top of the Empire State Building.
Kusama herself signed off on the text and illustrations. (“We wouldn’t have gone ahead with it if she had objections or reservations,” Suzuki explains.) Those familiar with the artist’s life will notice a notable absence: Namely, there is no mention of Kusama’s lifelong struggles with mental health, which have lead to her living in a Japanese mental hospital. “There are many books that could be written about Kusama—she has had an incredible life and career—and certainly there could be one that’s written from a mental health angle,” Suzuki says, though adds that she wouldn’t be the right writer for such a project.
So what do we stand to gain by learning about Kusama from an early age? “It’s so exciting to think about young readers engaging with the work of contemporary artists,” Suzuki says. “Kusama is so present in global culture, both in the art world and in the popular sphere, and I hope knowing more about her life and her work will enrich the experience of those going to an Infinity Room—or wearing her work on a Uniqlo t-shirt.”
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.