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Princess of Polka Dots

How does Yayoi Kusama overcome adversity through her art?

Yayoi Kusama, The Flower No 8, 1952. Watercolor on paper. ©Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai; Victoria Miro, London/Venice.

Identify the “nets” in this painting.

Have you ever had a goal that seemed impossible? Contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama (yah-yoy koo-sahmah) proves that if you keep trying, you can overcome any obstacle. Faced with one hurdle after another, Kusama kept making art and found her way to international fame. “No matter what happened, I went on drawing and painting, piling up a tremendous number of works in stacks that spiraled to the ceiling,” she remembers. Today, the artist’s polka-dot- covered artworks are among the most recognizable in the world.

Have you ever wanted to do something that seemed impossible? Contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama (yah-yoy koo-sah-mah) has. She proves that hard work can help you through difficult times. Kusama has faced many challenges. But she kept making art and became a famous artist. “No matter what happened, I went on drawing and painting,” she says. Today, Kusama’s art is known all around the world.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Untitled, 1939. Pencil on paper. ©Yayoi Kusama.

Why does Kusama cover this portrait with tiny circles?

Challenging Childhood

Kusama was born in 1929 in Japan. At around age 10, she began experiencing hallucinations. When someone hallucinates, they see or hear things that aren't really there. Kusama's hallucinations resemble “flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots.” She creates artworks, including the early portrait, above left, representing these patterns.

Painting repeating net patterns and dots, as in the 1952 work above, helps Kusama cope with her hallucinations. She calls this technique “self-obliteration.” It has guided her artistic process since she was young.

Kusama’s mother didn’t support her pursuit of art. “When she found me painting, she would overturn the desk or rip up the pictures and throw them away,” Kusama says. Determined to become an artist, Kusama traveled to America.

Kusama was born in 1929 in Japan. When she was about 10, she started having hallucinations. Hallucinations are when a person experiences things that aren’t real. She sees flashes of light, nets, and dots. Kusama makes art showing these patterns. She covers the portrait, above, with small circles.

Painting patterns helps Kusama control the things she sees. She paints nets and dot patterns in her 1952 artwork The Flower No. 8, above. Kusama’s mother didn’t want her to be an artist. “When she found me painting, she would overturn the desk or rip up the pictures and throw them away,” Kusama says. But Kusama was set on becoming an artist no matter what.

Yayoi Kusama with Infinity Mirrored Room-Phalli’s Field, 1965. Sewn stuffed fabric and mirrors. ©Yayoi Kusama.

Kusama stands in one of her installations in 1965.

Adventures Abroad

In 1958, Kusama moved to New York City. At the time, it was “fierce and violent,” she recalls, and the young woman spoke little English. “I found it all extremely stressful.” She used up her savings and was soon living in poverty. She struggled to afford food, used what little money she had to buy art supplies, and was often sick. But Kusama didn’t lose hope. When she felt down, she’d go to the top of the Empire State Building to observe the city and remind herself that anything is possible.

Kusama immersed herself in the New York art scene. At that time, many artists, including Kusama, were experimenting with Happenings, an early type of Performance Art. In the photograph above of a 1965 installation, Kusama stands in a room with mirrors reflecting infinitely. The artist fills the space with small sculptures covered with red dots. The endless repetition of shapes and patterns is an early example of Kusama’s interest in representing infinity.

Kusama moved to New York City in 1958. Living in New York was difficult. The artist didn’t speak much English and she quickly used up the money she had saved. When she had some money, she bought art supplies.

Kusama spent time with other artists in the city. Many of them experimented with Performance Art, an art form that invites artists to perform as part of the work. The photo above shows a 1965 Kusama performance. She stands in a room with mirrors reflecting the small dotted sculptures in the space. The repeating shapes and patterns make the space seem infinite, or endless.

“Our Earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity.”

— Yayoi Kusama

Infinite Obsession by Yayoi Kusama at the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 11, 2013. Credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images.

How does Kusama explore infinity in this artwork?

Infinity and Beyond

Kusama soon began developing Infinity Mirror Rooms. For each, she installs mirrors on the interior walls and ceiling of a small constructed room. Kusama places sculptures on the floor or suspends them from the ceiling. Sometimes she fills the spaces with tiny lights, like in the example above. When viewers step inside, their reflections repeat endlessly.

Kusama—sometimes called the Princess of Polka Dots—draws crowds wherever she shows her art. Fans wait for hours to experience an Infinity Mirror Room. Then they post their photos on social media, adding to Kusama's popularity.

In 1973, the artist returned to Japan. After years of struggling with hallucinations, she decided to permanently live in a psychiatric institution.* Since then, Kusama has effectively used her art and mental health treatment to manage her symptoms. She is still working today. “I just dig deeper into myself,” she explains. “I love painting so much that nothing else matters.”

Kusama soon began creating Infinity Mirror Rooms. For each, she puts mirrors on the walls and ceiling of a small room. She places sculptures on the floor or hangs them from the ceiling. Sometimes she fills the spaces with tiny lights, like in the work shown above. When people step inside, they see their reflections, the lights, and sculptures repeating in the mirrors around them.

People wait in line for hours to visit Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms. They post photos of their experiences on social media, making Kusama more popular. Some people call her the Princess of Polka Dots.

In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan. She continued to have hallucinations. She decided to live in a hospital*. Kusama still makes art today. “I love painting so much that nothing else matters,” she says.

*If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, help is available. Go to www.teenmentalhealth.org or call 800-950-NAMI for more info.

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