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Yayoi Kusama is acknowledged as one of the most important living artists to come out of Japan. Born in 1929, she has spent the nine decades of her life in rural Japan, New York’s art scene and finally in contemporary Tokyo.
Kusama has also enjoyed incredible commercial success, collaborating with luxury brands including Lancôme and Louis Vuitton. The likes of Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow and Eli Broad have also chosen to invest in Yayoi Kusama art for their private collections.
However, her early paintings from the 1950s and 1960s achieve the highest prices, and Kusama became the most expensive living female artist at auction in 2014 when White No. 28 (1960) from her iconic Infinity Nets series sold at Christie's for $7.1 million.
The contemporary artist mostly works in sculpture and installation, but also experiments with painting, performance, film, fashion and writing. If you are looking to buy Yayoi Kusama art as an investment that can be enjoyed in the home and passed onto your loved ones, please speak with one of our Sotheby’s-trained art consultants to find out more.
Yayoi Kusama art is inextricably linked to her history of mental health struggles. At ten years old, she began to see “flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots.” Her hallucinations also included flowers and patterns in fabric that came to life and engulfed her. Kusama carried this into her artistic career, calling the process “self-obliteration.”
“One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows, and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.” – Yayoi Kusama
At 13 years old, she began sewing parachutes in a military factory as part of the World War II efforts. Spending her adolescence “in closed darkness” and surrounded by the sounds of war also had a big influence on her art, and notions of personal and creative freedom.
Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets series takes inspiration from her hallucinations. Her first series of large-scale canvas paintings were entirely covered in a sequence of nets and dots, using only one or two colours. Upon arriving in New York, these works quickly gathered comparisons to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.
“Since my childhood, I have always made works with polka dots. Earth, moon, sun and human beings all represent dots; a single particle among billions.” – Yayoi Kusama
From 1963, Kusama’s Mirror/Infinity rooms series continued this theme. Purpose-built rooms housed infinity mirror installations and neon-coloured balls hanging at various heights above the viewer. Standing inside, viewers face the illusion of a never-ending space.
Kusama also appeared unofficially at Venice Biennale in 1966, staging Narcissus Garden on the lawn outside the Italian Pavilion. 1,500 tightly packed mirror balls created an infinite reflective field that shows visitors distorted images of themselves, the artist and landscape. Kusama then sold individual globes to visitors, earning international press coverage.
Kusama initially trained in traditional Japanese painting styles at the Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts, but was inspired by American Abstract Impressionism and moved to New York in 1958, considering Japanese society “too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women.”
During her time in the US, she quickly established a reputation in the 1960s avant-garde and pop art movement, embracing the hippie counterculture. Often appearing in bobbed neon wigs and colourful outfits, Yayoi Kusama was renowned for her persona as much as her art.
In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan in ill health, where she began writing surrealistic novels, short stories and poetry. She checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo in 1977, where she eventually chose to take up permanent residence. Kusama’s studio is located nearby, and she continues to produce work in the same location since the mid-1970s.
“My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings.” – Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama art has featured in major retrospectives at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American art in New York, and the Tate Modern in London. Tokyo also hosts the Yayoi Kusama Museum.
These retrospectives revitalised international interest, and in 1993 she was officially invited to represent Japan at the 45th Venice Biennale. Kusama transformed the Japanese pavilion into a mirrored room filled with polka dot pumpkin sculptures, in which she was present in a suitably colour-coordinated outfit.
Kusama has received many awards, and in 2006 became the first Japanese woman to receive the Praemium Imperiale, one of Japan's highest honours for internationally recognised artists.