Born in 1929, she has spent the nine decades of her life in rural Japan, New York's art scene and contemporary Tokyo. Here we explore some of the key facts about the most expensive living female artist today, and one of the most important artists to come out of Japan.
Last year Yayoi Kusama maintained her position as the top-selling female artist with a turnover at auction of over $102 million with her early paintings from the 1950s and 1960s achieving some of the highest prices. She 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. In April 2019, Interminable Net#4, 1959 smashed the artist's record after it sold for HK$62.43m ($7.96m) in the Sotheby's Hong Kong spring auction sale, solidifying her position in the top ten post-war artists in 2019.
In 2018, 21 of her works fetched sums above the million-dollar limit worldwide, of which 15 were in Hong Kong, three were in New York, two in London and one in Seoul. She has also had a huge number of exhibitions (930) and solo shows (200) both in museums and galleries and collaborated 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.
Kusama's 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."
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.
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.
Infinity Mirror Rooms, Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2009
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.
New York in the late 1950s was not a welcoming place for a young, female Japanese artist. Kusama arrived in 1958 and set about developing her practice and building her profile with the mixture of ambition and determination that drew her from Japan in the first place.
She made huge black and white paintings made up of tiny arcs, which she called "infinity nets." She's continued to make them throughout her life, as well as "accumulation" sculptures (objects like couches and chairs covered with soft, phallic shapes), and staged happenings and performances. Sometimes that meant covering her own body - or other painting people's bodies - with dots. Other times it meant something completely different, as in Walking Piece, where she paced the streets of New York wearing a floral kimono and carrying a parasol, a fearless celebration of her own cultural heritage in a Western landscape.
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.
Kusama was unstoppable. In the late 1960s she established Kusama Enterprises, her own line of dresses and textiles. This was an exercise in self-branding, based around the dots for which she was already well-known. Kusama saw that through fashion, she could reach far more people.
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 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. Most recently, Kusama was set to exhibit Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Rooms at the Tate Modern from 11 May 2020-9 May 2021.