In mid-April, 91-year-old artist Yayoi Kusama had words for the coronavirus. The pandemic had caused numerous disruptions to her world. The psychiatric hospital where she lives in Tokyo was on lockdown, preventing her from going to work at her nearby studio. Her corporation, KUSAMA YAYOI Co., Ltd., was forced to suspend authentication and registration of artworks. But her statement ignored these inconveniences. Citing her role as “Revolutionist of the world by the Art,” Kusama rallied humanity to fight, and commanded the virus “to Disappear from this earth.” The bold gesture recalled the artist’s open letter to Richard Nixon in 1968, where she proposed an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam in exchange for painting polka dots of Eternal Truth all over the president-elect’s “hard, masculine body.” That plea was read aloud to nude groupies at a Happening in her New York studio. Kusama’s new message of light and love was addressed “TO THE WHOLE WORLD,” and thanks to her massive popularity on social media and the publicists for her global network of galleries—the whole world heard it.
Fueled by visions of nets, flowers, and polka dots extending infinitely from her artworks, Kusama’s own project has long had viral ambitions. In the catalogue for the show that put her back on the art-world map in 1998 after years of neglect, curator Lynn Zelevansky wrote that Kusama “wanted her work to invade and conquer the world like an epidemic.” Twenty-two years and 122 museum shows later, Kusama is well on her way, and even an actual pandemic has barely flattened her curve. Covid-19 prompted postponement of two major exhibitions, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the New York Botanical Garden, but her largest retrospective to date in Europe, at the Gropius-Bau in Berlin, is still on for September, and the prime attraction there is the debut of a new “Infinity Mirror Room.”
These kaleidoscopic cubicle sculptures are a major reason why Kusama has become the most popular artist in our socially mediated world. Visitors queue for hours to spend less than a minute alone in the mirror-lined rooms filled with twinkle lights, pumpkins, and sometimes, stuffed phalluses. Given barely enough time to take a selfie, much less contemplate the universe, most people opt for the selfie. After the pandemic closed museums, The Broad in Los Angeles began livestreaming their installation on Instagram; more than 20,000 viewers joined the first session.
Kusama delivers everything a 21st-century museum could ask for—art, experience crowds, social media likes, and money—in one sleek mirrored box. Since 2011 Kusama museum shows have dotted the globe, with five major exhibitions touring 34 cities. In 2014, the Kusama retrospective “Infinite Obsession” in Central and South America had the highest museum exhibition attendance rate globally, according to The Art Newspaper’s annual survey, with more than 2 million people. “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” which toured six North American institutions between 2017 and 2019, originated at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and was curated by Mika Yoshitake. It was made up of six of the artist’s 20 mirror rooms, and drew more than 800,000 visitors, validating the Instagrammable showcases as the institutional acquisition of choice.
Kusama’s enormous popularity stems not just from the transformative experience of her photogenic art or its digital reach, but from her compelling personal narrative as well. Her cultural brand as Pop art’s eccentric auntie at once understates her art-historical significance and stokes the flames of her art market success. Collectors and museums jockey to buy new, seven-figure pieces from her powerful dealer network, while auction houses have sold more than $550 million worth of Kusama artworks in the last ten years. With an auction record of $7.9 million for one of her historic 1959 “Infinity Net” paintings, Kusama is both the world’s top-selling living female artist, and still undervalued relative to her peers. This global activity is the culmination of the artist’s own extraordinary ambition, which has driven her practice for 70 years. But it is also the result of a supporting structure that brings together hospital, studio, fabricators, and galleries to surround her like an exoskeleton. Encased within this super-powered mech suit, she produces the artworks, exhibitions, and merch that form the infinitely dazzling Kusama spectacle we see today.
Kusama has made aspects of her life story inseparable from her art production. One “well-rehearsed feature of Kusama scholarship,” as Yoshitake puts it, is that Kusama’s art depicts hallucinations that began in her traumatic childhood in rural Japan. New research is rewriting that script, while underscoring Kusama’s tenacious embrace of art making as a source of stability in a tumultuous life.
During Kusama’s 15-year stay in New York, from 1958 to 1973, though she was as relentless in developing her major series of artworks—“Infinity Net” paintings, stuffed-phallus-covered “Accumulation” objects, “Infinity Mirror Rooms,” and performances and polka-dot-painting Happenings—as she was in trying to make a living, she faced hardship and disappointment at nearly every turn.
She began with a cold open, going door-to-door to galleries and frame shops, trying to sell some of the 2,000 watercolors she’d brought with her from Japan. She got a studio and taught herself to paint with oil, developing a style that was entirely her own. Her first show of five “Infinity Net” paintings in 1959 was an immediate revelation to her fellow artists, including her friend the graduate student-slash-critic Donald Judd. Judd’s review in this magazine of that show begins, “Yayoi Kusama is an original painter.” Judd and Kusama became and remained close. He moved into the loft above hers on East 19th Street. He bought one of her first paintings. He helped haul chairs and a rowboat into her studio, and cover them with thousands of phallic protuberances to create her “Accumulations.” They debated theories of contemporary art with his friend Dan Flavin, Eva Hesse, and others into the wee hours.
It was Kusama who introduced Judd to Dick Bellamy, the Asian-American proprietor of the Green Gallery, during a studio visit. Both Judd and Flavin ended up joining the gallery. Kusama did not.
Kusama grew increasingly desperate to join a major gallery in New York. Her shows at Beatrice Perry’s Gres Gallery in Washington, D.C., then at lesser-known galleries in New York, including Richard Castellane’s, were immensely important to Kusama, but to the art market, not so much. Perry and Castellane both supported Kusama by acquiring dozens of works apiece, but they had no pull with influential curators or collectors. Art historian Midori Yamamura draws connections between Kusama’s deteriorating mental health, her career stress, and the triumphalist political and cultural climate of the New York art world in the 1960s, which, in the era of its most influential dealer, Leo Castelli, was decidedly American, white, and male. In July 1960, two days after an assistant at the Martha Jackson Gallery canceled a long sought-after studio visit with Kusama, the distraught artist threw herself out her second-story window. She spent the next six weeks recovering from her injuries and unable to work.
Another incident that began as a hint of success turned into decades of lingering pain. In June 1962, Kusama showed her soft-sculpture “Accumulation” objects for the first time in a group show at Green Gallery. Dick Bellamy included a phallus-encrusted chair and love seat alongside a Warhol dollar painting and a Claes Oldenburg plaster suit. In a 1999 interview, Kusama said Bellamy offered her a September show of “Accumulation” objects, but that she didn’t have the money to pull it off. The September slot went to Oldenburg, who turned the gallery into a summer studio, where his wife, Patty Mucha, sewed an entire show of soft sculptures of numbers, furniture, and food.
In fact, it’s likely Bellamy never offered her a show at all. At that moment, Kusama’s studio was full of “Accumulation” objects, and she was devastated by Oldenburg’s betrayal. Within days of Oldenburg’s opening, she took photos documenting herself surrounded by her soft sculptures, including the Judd-assisted rowboat she would show two years later. In the same week, Kusama’s calendar notes her first prescription for tranquilizers. She experienced a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized after another possible suicide attempt. Her medication dulled the fine motor skills she relied on to create her paintings. Another side effect, as she explained to a friend in her hometown of Matsumoto, Japan, was hallucinations. This medication for work-related anxiety, and not her childhood traumas, is the first mention of hallucinations in Kusama’s archive.
Facing obstacles in New York, Kusama was nevertheless in demand for group shows in Europe, though sales were problematic at best. In late 1965 she spent months in Italy creating Driving Image, a large “Accumulation” installation featuring a phallus-covered table, for an exhibition at Galleria d’Arte il Naviglio in Milan. The unsold work was shipped to London as “furniture,” where it got stuck in customs. (A friendly dealer in Amsterdam eventually rescued the lot, but somewhere along the way, and without Kusama’s knowledge, the multipart artwork was broken up and sold in parts; half ended up in the collection of Peter Ludwig in Cologne.)
With space and support from artist Lucio Fontana, Kusama prepared for an unofficial exhibition at the 1966 Venice Biennale. For Narcissus Garden she posed in a gold kimono among fifteen hundred mirrored spheres she had scattered across a lawn. Posting a sign reading, “Your Narcissism for Sale,” she offered the spheres for two dollars apiece. (Kusama’s later embellishments notwithstanding, organizers stopped her not because her critique of art commodification offended their delicate sensibilities, but because she was selling outside the Biennale’s approved channels.)
Even though it generated more exposure than actual sales, Kusama adopted photogenic performance art as her business model when she returned to New York. With the counterculture movement in full swing, she staged Happenings in the late ’60s at which she painted polka dots on participants’ nude bodies. She sold tickets—again, $2 was the price point—to nude Happening film screenings, and offered films for sale via mail order. She designed free love fashion (i.e., ass-less dresses) to sell in department stores, but which never left her studio. She lent her name to a downtown sex tabloid called Kusama Orgy. Of her various enterprises, the only one that seemed to bring in any money was a polka-dot body-painting studio, where customers booked a nude session with a young man or woman and obliterated each other with polka dots for half an hour ($12) or an hour ($20). Riding the unrest of the era, Kusama staged Happenings at politically charged sites, dotting her nude performers at the New York Stock Exchange and other such public places until police arrived. The local press, always invited, grew weary.
Kusama was 40 in 1969 when she visited Japan and attempted to stage nude polka-dot Happenings on a morning TV show and on the street in Tokyo. She was quickly censored and arrested, respectively. When she returned to Japan for good in 1973, she was broke, desperate, and in dire health. Her father died in 1974. In 1977 she moved into the psychiatric hospital where she still lives. The art therapy program there provided a supportive environment for Kusama to rebuild her life and her art practice.
In the 1980s, Kusama began showing work she made in an ersatz studio in her hospital. The objects were small and repetitive enough to fill a productive day, the kind of singular accomplishment that can fortify a troubled mind, but can also accumulate to greater effect. They included tiny, palm-size pumpkins, roughly molded from clay, plaster, or even papier-mâché, painted yellow and black, and covered with dots. They were joined by painted shoebox-size constructions of stuffed phalluses, and still life paintings of fruits and cocktails, obsessively filled in with nets, lines, or dots. She published experimental novels, which gained a cult following. Her repetitive, lurid tales of gay hustlers from the New York underworld served as much to process her own experience as to titillate her readers.
In 1982 the Fuji Television Gallery, operated by one of the country’s top networks, staged an exhibition of Kusama’s work and promoted it with a TV show. The show featured both old and new examples of Kusama’s iconic works. In her 50s at the time, Kusama was less a scandalous deviant than an eccentric oba-san, Japan’s kooky aunt who’d once lived it up in New York, and had stories to tell. The show’s catalogue was the first attempt to fact-check those stories. It featured two chronologies: the artist’s hyperbolic auto-hagiography, and a more circumspect account by the show’s curator, Shigeo Chiba, who saw his incomplete version as “a starting point” of the more credible, “scientific” history the gallery felt Kusama’s accomplishments deserved.
Kusama became increasingly popular in the booming Japan of the 1980s, with gallery shows all over the country, performances commissioned for TV, and increasing attention from museums. In preparation for a 1987 museum retrospective, she tried to boost her origin story by adding “Infinity Net”–style loops to old watercolors she had stored at her family’s home. Art historian Midori Yamamura uncovered this, as well as the artist’s retconning of having experienced hallucinations as a child, a claim that Kusama quietly dropped from her biography only in 2010.
By the time Akira Tatehata, the critic who had taken notice of Kusama in the mid-’70s, was appointed commissioner of the Japanese Pavilion for the 1993 Biennale, Kusama was a national figure. Tatehata, who would go on to co-curate the 1998 U.S. retrospective, proposed an unprecedented solo exhibition, adapting Mirror Room (Pumpkin), which Kusama originally designed in 1991 for an exhibition at the Fuji TV Gallery and the Hara Museum in Tokyo. Tatehata told filmmaker Heather Lenz in 2018 that he averted any official reservations over the artist’s mental health and the stigma of her living in a hospital by not mentioning it. Video from Venice shows a shaky Kusama walking around her stunning yellow-and-black polka-dot installation in a matching dress and wizard cap, distributing ¾-inch-wide pumpkins to visitors.
The Biennale was an inflection point for Kusama, where the scale of her artistic vision outstripped the confines of her hospital studio. Though she continued to make work in the hospital until almost 2000, she increasingly needed the production and management capacity of a professional studio, and a gallery.
Art dealer Hidenori Ota had worked with Kusama at Fuji TV Gallery. When he opened his own space, Ota Fine Arts, in Tokyo in 1994, Kusama joined his roster. For more than 35 years, Ota, who declined to speak for this article, has provided stability and guidance for this resurgent phase of Kusama’s career. He was a formative influence on her studio, the corporate entities around her, and ultimately, on her work. With his own established outposts in Singapore and Shanghai, Ota currently franchises sales of Kusama’s work to Victoria Miro in London, which began working with her in the late ’90s, and David Zwirner in New York.
The studio supports the artist’s intense production of paintings and hand-size models for giant, whimsical sculptures. These activities are punctuated by signing sessions for large-scale pumpkin sculptures, and meetings with curators around scale models of exhibitions. There are also merchandise, swag, and fashion collaborations. The artist’s trademark polka-dot camo outfits and wigs are kept there. She likes to review her press coverage regularly. Printmaking and the fabrication of sculptures, rooms, and installations are outsourced to workshops far from the expensive real estate of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, which the artist visits by car.
The power of Ota’s mech suit can be seen in the massive, high-production show Kusama staged in 2000 at Le Consortium in Dijon, France. The carte blanche show included multiple “Infinity Mirror Rooms” and installations of giant, polka-dotted balloons, and set down in seven museums in Europe and Korea in three years.
The related 2004 blockbuster at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, titled “Kusamatrix,” marks a major transformation of the Kusama Experience. Installed atop Roppongi Hills, the city’s most famous new skyscraper, and a destination in itself, “Kusamatrix” was visited by 520,000 people in three months. To a series of mirror rooms and immersive environments, “Kusamatrix” added giant fiberglass sculptures of polka-dotted dogs and children. Filmmaker Takako Matsumoto sees this as the moment Kusama trades obsession and edge for love and cuteness, or kawaii: “The up until now obsessive image of Kusama’s works has been transformed into ‘kawaii!’ To broaden the fan base and capture the hearts of men and women of all ages.”
There is another prosaic yet profound reason for the show’s impact, as a Getty photo of the Mori exhibition reveals. In it a young woman is seen holding up a cell phone inside the polka-dotted environment. It may be the earliest documentation of someone taking a cell phone picture of Kusama’s work. Kusama’s ubiquity in the 21st century is often discussed in terms of social media, particularly Instagram, which launched in 2010. But cell phone cameras predated that, especially in Japan, where they were already in wide use by 2004. The Mori exhibition was the first Kusama spectacle that asked to be—and actually could be—shared.
“Kusamatrix” marked the moment when New York’s angsty take started to matter less than Tokyo’s, Seoul’s, or Hong Kong’s. Asia would embrace kawaii Kusama, and send her back around the world as an avatar of Asian pop culture. Kusama’s career path in the 2000s resonated with another Japanese star of the internationalizing art world: Takashi Murakami. His studio, Kaikai Kiki, treated fine art as one luxurious product line among many, including toys, merchandise, and a handbag collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Both artists developed huge followings among Asian collectors, and both also joined Gagosian Gallery, the world’s largest, in 2006. Kusama’s collabo with Vuitton came in 2012, along with her retrospective at Tate, the Pompidou, the Reina Sofía, and the Whitney.
Filmmaker Matsumoto was documenting Kusama’s studio throughout this period, and she captured the artist’s relentless productivity, even past the age of 80. Along with staples like “Infinity Nets” and freeform dots, large series provided structure, a way to focus Kusama’s art-making compulsion on salable product. For “Love Forever” (2006–07), Kusama made a series of 50 giant dense drawings, one every two to three days. (She reproduced the works as silkscreens on canvas, then sold the prints and kept the originals for herself, like an avant-garde Thomas Kinkade.) Though in 2011 she first planned to make a series of 100 paintings for her Tate retrospective, when the show came and went, she did not stop. By 2020, “My Eternal Soul,” had grown to more than 600 canvases. “I want to paint 1,000 and 2,000 paintings. I want to keep painting even after I died,” Kusama said.
When the artist is ill—or on pandemic lockdown—the studio falls silent and waits, sometimes for days, for her return. Meanwhile, the works fabricated on her behalf are not beholden to the limitations of her physical art-making ability. Another series has continued rolling ahead: since the first re-creation at MoMA in 1998, more than 40 installations of Narcissus Garden have been realized around the world, including at least four distinct, permanent versions.
Kusama’s prices have seen a strong increase since 2009, the last financial crisis. The total amount grossed at auction for works by Kusama has increased more than tenfold, from $9.3 million in 2009 to $98 million in 2019. The biggest annual jump, more than 59 percent, from $65 million to $102 million, took place in 2017. The number of her works coming to auction has increased by 239 percent, from 208 lots in 2009, to 704 in 2019.
In 2013 Kusama left Gagosian for David Zwirner, whose rival mega-gallery is perhaps more complementary than competitive to Ota’s footprint and ambitions. Between Instagram and Vuitton’s boost, Kusama has become a global brand, and Zwirner’s shows of “Infinity Mirror Rooms” have ridden that wave, with long lines of visitors.
When Castellane showed Kusama’s first “Infinity Mirror Room” in 1965, he priced it at $5,000 ($2,500 for museums), but got no takers. In the last six years, “Infinity Mirror Rooms” have become to museums what pandas are to zoos: surefire crowd-pleasers whose costs are easily justified by their popularity. Between 2014 and 2019, at least 11 international institutions acquired rooms. The Broad, Tate, the Hirshhorn, and the Rubell Museum each acquired two. The Art Gallery of Ontario raised 40 percent of its $1.4 million room purchase through crowdfunding and early-bird ticket presales. At $1.2 million–$2 million on the primary market, and up to twice that cost in private secondary-market sales, the rooms are a relative Kusama bargain, at least compared to the artist’s priciest work, her historic “Infinity Net” paintings. With some in editions of three, they’re also more numerous, if not immediately available. The current record for a room at auction is $503,536, set in 2012, when Christie’s London sold Infinity Mirrored Room–Love Forever, from 1994.
What the other side of the pandemic holds for galleries, museums, or auctions is wildly uncertain. Will “Infinity Mirror Rooms” become viral infection vectors or the ultimate social distancing experience? The only thing we can count on is that whether she’s stuck in her hospital or back in her studio, Yayoi Kusama will be making art, right up until the very end. And perhaps even after that.