Yayoi Kusama: The Princess of Polka Dots

Known for her bright, bold polka-dotted works, the 88-year-old is one of the most respected artists in the world.

Inside a three-storey complex in Shinjuku, Japan, you will see an 88-year-old woman with vibrant red hair surrounded by towering, colourful abstract paintings. The woman is quietly painting. She hovers over a table that balances a gigantic white canvas.

The small woman meticulously decorates the empty spaces with radiant colours, rich patterns, and vivid, subconscious symbolism.

The unassuming elderly woman is Yayoi Kusama. She is one of the most renowned, respected artists in the world.

Her closest admirers call her sensei, or master. Others dub her the Dame of Avant-Garde. Kusama is more popularly known as the Princess of Polka Dots for her bright, bold polka-dotted works.

The Japanese artist is a conceptual artist. In the art discipline, ideas take precedence over the aesthetic qualities of the work.

Kusama explores sexual, psychological, and feminist themes within her pieces. She also incorporates the artistic styles of Minimalism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. The visionary has also explored Pop art and Art Brut (Outsider Art).

The renowned artist has held several one-woman art shows including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum, and Tate Museum. Kusama's artwork has only grown in popularity as she's aged.


Childhood: 1929-1949

Kusama was born on March 22, 1929. She spent her childhood in Matsumoto, a city in Japan's Nagano prefecture. The artist's parents were wealthy seed merchants that owned a plant nursery and farm. Her father adopted the name of her mother's family, Kusama.

Her parents were strict, traditional, and conservative. Her mother was physically abusive toward her. The artist created her first illustrations and polka-dotted paintings as a kid.

The artist's father was a philanderer. He had a number of extramarital affairs with geisha. Her mother suspected that he was cheating. She sent Kusama to spy on her father. The young girl had to report about what she saw. The explicit acts profoundly impacted own sexuality and artistic expression. Phallic symbols are a prominent part of her artwork.

Kusama began hallucinating at the age of ten. She had vivid visual and aural hallucinations. The world around her sparkled and glimmered. In her autobiography, Kusama wrote about an intense hallucination that haunted her.  The artist sat in a beautiful field of violets when she noticed that each flower had individual human faces. The flowers spoke to directly to her.

The young girl also saw fields of polka dots in her visions.

Yayoi couldn't forget these intense hallucinations. She drew these visions on paper, so she would never forget them.

Her mother did not want her to be an artist. When the budding artist draws pictures, her mother destroyed them. Kusama would create more pictures. Sometimes, she could not afford supplies, so she used mud and sacks to make art.


Kusama's Art Education

After World War II, Kusama persuaded her parents to allow her to study art in 1948. She left Matsumoto and moved to Kyoto, Japan.

In the city, she learned Nihonga. The traditional painting style blended Japanese art with Western forms. Kusama despised the school. She didn't enjoy the master-student teaching style taught by Kyoto's artists. She wanted to learn Western art forms.

Kusama was fascinated by Modern Art. She flipped through magazines to study international artists. She admired Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and other art forms. She copied the styles she admired in the magazines.

The artist's work became popular. She held several art shows and exhibits.

Kusama also travelled abroad to Tokyo and France.


Corresponding with Georgia O'Keeffe

Kusama continued studying the work of other artists. She was fascinated with the work of American painter Georgia O'Keeffe. Kusama loved her gorgeous, floral watercolours used to symbolise the female form. The artist decided to write to O’Keefe. Kusama enclosed several watercolours that she hand-painted. To Kusama's surprise, O'Keeffe wrote back. She encouraged the young girl to keep painting. The two began a long-term correspondence.


Journey to America (1957-1972)

Kusama wanted to travel to America to join the growing modern art scene. The artist believed she belonged there. In a letter, O'Keeffe warned her that life would be tough for a single Japanese woman in NYC. Kusama braved the journey anyway. She was 27 years old.

Japan restricted the amount of money that passengers could carry out of the country. Kusama sewed bundles of money into her clothing. She landed in Seattle, then eventually made her way to New York City where she held her first exhibit.

New York City's cutting-edge, creative art scene attracted the feisty artist. The city's chaotic pace and vibrant art scene were different from her life back home.

At the time, abstract expressionism dominated. Movement artists used personal expressions, bold fields of colour, and abstract forms in their paintings. Masters like William de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Philip Guston were prominent.

Kusama lived in a sparse apartment without heating. She called her first years there a living hell. She dug fish heads out of trash cans to eat. Kusama couldn't sleep during the brutally cold nights. She stayed up late and painted.

The artist experimented with any medium she could obtain. Kusama became ill. O'Keeffe worried about her health. Kusama saw a psychologist. He told her the cause of her sickness was that she painted too much. She ignored his diagnosis and continued creating art.

"I don't want to cure my mental problems," she told an interviewer. "I want to use it as a generating force for my art."

Kusama said the American city raised her, shaped her, and matured her.

A year later, Kusama decided to officially enter the New York art world. She decided to initiate her own revolution. She wanted to conquer the New York City art world one polka dot at a time.


Kusama's Artistic Impact

She began creating Infinity Nets, or fields of polka dots and netting, based on her hallucinations. She filled large canvases with endless loops of white painting. These beautiful, 30 ft. tall works became her trademark style.

During the 1960s, Kusama began decorating everyday items with polka dots. She adorned chairs, sofas,  and other items with patterns. She sewed dotted, fabric phalluses. She didn't like sex. Kusama disliked phalluses after witnessing her father's extramarital affairs.

Kusama argued that her art helped her to process her subconscious fears. The endless repetition of dots helped stamp out her anxieties. She believed that polka dots were a door to infinity.

"When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots," Kusama said. "We become part of the unity of our environment,"

The visionary was one of the first artists to stage public performances.  She and her friend Allan Kaprow nicknamed them "Happenings." During these staged events, Kusama wanted to blur the lines between art and non-art.

The artist created a piece called Phalli's Field. She sewed endless polka dotted phalluses on 14th Street. Photographers captured the moment on camera. She created another piece for the Gertrude Stein Gallery called "Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show." The artist painted a boat with phalluses and surrounded the room with photographs of the same boat.

She travelled to Italy to the Venice Biennale without an invitation. She began selling 1,500 mirrored balls in front of the location for 1,200 lire a piece. Italian authorities ordered her to stop. Other artists were inspired by her. Kusama claimed that famous New York artist Andy Warhol started copying her.

Kusama held "Naked Happenings" in iconic places like Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange. Long before the flash mobs, Kusama held impromptu pop up shows. She advertised for followers. When they would show up, she painted their naked bodies with dots. Kusama said that she wanted to obliterate Wall Street men with polka dots.

The gifted woman even launched her own magazine, Kusama Orgy.


Return to Japan

By 1973, Kusama's brief fame evaporated. The artist went broke. She left New York City. She returned to Japan. She knew no one in the Japanese art world, but her reputation preceded her. She received a chilly welcome.

Kusama checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill. She has resided there ever since.


Literary Following and Art Revival

In the 1970s and 80s, she began disappearing into obscurity. Kusama began writing poetry and developed a cult following.

New York's Center for International Contemporary Arts held a retrospective of her work in 1989. The show revived interest in her artwork. She began to create art once more. Kusama held one-woman art shows featuring her polka-dotted masterpieces. She was even officially invited by the Venice Biennale to return. She created a mirrored room filled with pumpkin sculptures for the gallery. Her pumpkin sculptures now sell for $1 million each.

Yayoi Kusama is almost 90 years old and continues to display her work all around the world. Kusama is now best known for her mirrored infinity rooms that allow audiences to transcend space and time. She has also completed novels and other literary works, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women's Caucus for Art in 2016. You can catch Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Obliteration Room’ at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial exhibition until April.

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