Art Blooms at the Edges, a story about Yayoi Kusama

From Al's latest book
The Power of Disability, 10 Lessons for Surviving, Thriving, and Changing the World

My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings.
– Yayoi Kusama

Art beautifies what we dread (the terrible).

Yayoi Kusama with Pumpkin
Yayoi Kusama with Pumpkin, 2010

The first pumpkin that artist Yayoi Kusama saw was growing on a farm she was visiting with her grandfather when she was eleven. When she went to pick it up, it began speaking to her. She made a painting of it and won a prize. Eighty years later, one of her large silver pumpkin sculptures sold for half a million dollars. The sources of Kusama’s sculptures, paintings, and writings are the obsessional images that she has experienced since childhood.

Kusama left Japan to escape an abusive family and a Japanese culture that was “too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women.” She was an integral part of the 1960s avant-garde scene in New York. The painter Georgia O’Keeffe was her business adviser. She became friends with Andy Warhol and influenced his painting style. Her mission was to democratize art. In her autobiography, she wrote that her “commitment to a revolution in art caused blood to run hot in my veins and even made me forget my anger.” However, her hallucinations and panic attacks were increasing in intensity. In the early 1970s, she left the United States and returned to Japan.

She checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, where she still lives. Every morning, she leaves and crosses the road to her studio, where she continues to create. She views her paintings as diary entries and connected to her illness. The art world forgot about her for decades. A retrospective show in 1989 just before the fall of the Berlin Wall turned things around. Today she is the most popular artist in the world, as calculated by the number of people who attend her installations in museums and art galleries. Time magazine named her to its “100 Most Influential People” list. In 2018, her artwork netted more than $108 million at auction.

Kusama is called the “priestess of polka dots” because she paints polka dots on everything. She says it is her response to the waves of infinity and nothingness that threaten to dissolve her. “If there’s a cat, I obliterate it by putting polka dot stickers on it. I obliterate a horse by putting polka dot stickers on it. And I obliterated myself by putting the same polka dot stickers on myself,” she said in an interview.

I photography of the infinity mirror room
Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room, Nov 2019 in NYC

Kusama is now in her ninth decade. She still wears bright red wigs and polka dot dresses and uses a polka-dotted wheelchair. Her most famous installations are mirrored constructions titled Infinity Room. Inside the room are glowing polka dots, orbs of every size, changing colors and floating silently. They encompass the visitor. They invite you to ponder the mysteries of the universe. Kusama wants us to feel humbled. “Our earth is only one polka dot among million of stars in the cosmos,” she said in a documentary about her work. She wants us to appreciate our place in the universe. “Forget yourself. Become one with eternity. Become part of your environment.” And she wants us to be comforted. “Far beyond the reaches of the universe, infinity is trying to communicate with us.” We leave feeling more connected. Her hope becomes ours. At the opening of one of her exhibitions, she said, “I think I will be able to, in the end, rise above the clouds and climb the stairs to heaven, and I will look down on my beautiful life.


This is an excerpt from Al’s new book, The Power of Disability – 10 Lessons for Surviving, Thriving, and Changing the World.


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