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10 Fun Facts about Yayoi Kusama

Written By: Elliott Ro |

10 Fun Facts about Yayoi Kusama

Of all of the Art Shows on our schedule this year, the one we have been most excited about is Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrors, which is currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Offering a unique and completely immersive art experience, Kusama's show has sold out at most venues around the world and drawn rave reviews from its attendees. Kusama is definitely an example of where the details of the life of the artist just as interesting as art itself. Here are a few interesting facts to know about her.

1. She is trained in Nihonga painting, a modern Japanese painting style

Becoming an artist was the ultimate rebellion for Kusama. As a child her mother had taken away her canvases and paints. Her parents, who were traditional Japanese farm merchants, wanted her to become a housewife. She refused and moved to Kyoto to study Nihonga at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. She later found the techniques too restrictive and formal and later dropped out. She now refers to her style of art as simply, "Kusama art".

2. Georgia O'Keefe was an early mentor 

As a young artist in Japan, Kusama had discovered a book of O'Keefe's paintings and written to her. She was delighted when O'Keefe wrote back to her and encouraged her to move to New York to explore her career in art. In an interview, Kusama said, "Of all the many remarkable people I have known in my life, the first I must mention is Georgia O’Keeffe. If she had not so kindly answered my clumsy and reckless letter to her, I am not sure I would ever have made it to America. She was my first and greatest benefactor; it was because of her that I was able to go to the USA and begin my artistic career in earnest." O'Keefe even paid her a visit when she moved to New York, and Kusama says it is one of her regrets that her camera had run out of film at the time, and she missed the opportunity to take a picture of them together. 


3. She began creating her iconic Infinity Rooms in 1962

Her initial works used just LED lights, an immersive recreation of her hallucinations. Kusama began experimenting with mirrors in Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field (1965), a small room surrounded by mirrors and filled with polka-dotted phalluses to create the illusion of vastness. Kusama continued with the use of mirrors for her Infinity Rooms. Her latest Infinity Room is All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016) is filled with polka dotted pumpkins. 

4. She considered Andy Warhol a friend, but they had a complicated relationship

Kusama considered Andy Warhol a good friend, and they spent much time together in New York, but she later accused him of stealing her ideas. For a show in New York in 1963 she covered a rowing boat with phalluses and wallpapered the room with repeated identical photocopies of the image. Warhol used wallpaper at a show in 1966, a repeating vibrant screen print of a cow, and again in later shows.

5. Kusama's obsession with polka dots is actually the result of hallucinations she has experienced since childhood

The motifs first came to Kusama in childhood. Born in 1929 in Matsumoto in the Japanese Alps, she started seeing a psychiatrist at the age of 10 after she became gripped by visions of dots, nets and violet flowers that covered everything she saw. "I call them my repetitive vision," she says. "I still see them. [They] cover the canvas and grow on to the floor, the ceiling, chairs and tables. Then the polka dots move to the body, on to my clothes and into my spirit. It is an obsession."


6. Sex was a recurring theme in Kusama's work, however, she describes herself as asexual. 

 Kusama has always been open about her tense relationship to sex­uality: “People often assume that I must be mad about sex, because I make so many such objects, but that’s a complete misunderstanding. It’s quite the opposite – I make the objects because they horrify me.”  She was frequently sent my her mother to spy on her father having extra-marital affairs and he eventually deserted his family to be with a geisha in Tokyo. It damaged her mother and caused great pain to a young Kusama. "I was stuck in the middle of a long-running feud and I felt mentally cornered. That's why I started hallucinating. I started seeing a psychiatrist, and it was he who first encouraged me to develop as an artist."

7. Kusama had a relationship with artist Joseph Cornell

Kusama doesn't speak much about her romantic relationships, but she did have an intense relationship with the reclusive artist, Joseph Cornell which lasted for over ten years. When they first met in the mid-1960s, Kusama was in her thirties; Cornell was twenty-six years her senior.  Kusama has described their relationship as passionate yet platonic.

Cornell became infatuated with Kusama, calling her several times a day and making and sending her charming collages with personal messages (seen above). Ultimately, it was the involvement of Cornell’s jealous mother — who once poured a bucket of water over the couple after discovering them kissing — that brought the relationship to an end. ‘I have lost count of the times I thought about giving that fat old woman a good swift kick,’ Kusama wrote in her 2002 autobiography, Infinity Net.  Cornell died in 1972, and Kusama felt this loss deeply.  Kusama still owns a number of drawings Cornell made of her.

8. She was briefly an art dealer 

During the early 1970's, Kusama was living hand to mouth, and Cornell, taking pity on her situation, gave her a number of his works to sell. This early experience of art dealing was to lead Kusama to a temporary new profession on her return to Tokyo, when for a time she acted as an art import agent, sourcing Western works to sell to Japanese clients. Her sales career was short-lived however, as the oil crisis and subsequent recession destroyed her market.

9. Kusama is self-admitted into a mental institution 

Kusama's mental health deteriorated to such an extent that, in 1973, she returned home for treatment. In 1975 she checked herself into the psychiatric hospital she still calls home, finding that the routine gave her the order she needed to concentrate on her work. She slowly crept back into the public consciousness, and in 2006 she was awarded the Praemium Imperiale, one of Japan's most prestigious arts prizes.

Kusama has often said that if it weren't for art, she would have killed herself long ago. "I only slept two hours last night. When I get tired from making pictures, I find it really difficult to go to sleep. But it's how I get away from my illness and escape the hallucinations. I call it psychosomatic art." 

10. She is the world's highest selling living female artist 

One of the first art critics to report on her work was Donald Judd, saying in 1959 that the effect was "both complex and simple" At that time, her paintings sold for $200 each. Recently one of the infinity new paintings set a record a Christie's, selling for $7.1 million in 2014. Her touring retrospective shows continue to sell out across the globe and have been noted as attracting the highest global audience for the past few years running.

Learn more about Yayoi Kusama's current show at the AGO here.

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