Ten Things You Might Not Know About Yayoi Kusama

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Kusama with Pumpkin, 2010
Kusama with Pumpkin, 2010Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/ Singapore and Victoria Miro Gallery

To coincide with a new major retrospective of her work, we reveal ten little-known facts about the Japanese queen of contemporary art

Yayoi Kusama is the matriarch of contemporary art – well known for her hallucinogenic works, she stands in the midst of a boundless visual universe merging with her radiant and riotous art, which is deeply personal, obsessive and affecting. To celebrate a major retrospective of the artist entitled In Infinity at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, AnOther delves into the archives to find ten facts you might not know about the Japanese queen of colour and pattern.

1. Kusama has a life-long obsession with fashion
In the 1960s she launched her own label creating patterned avant-garde clothes and costumes that featured heavily in her performances and happenings, and more recently collaborated with French fashion powerhouse Louis Vuitton, for whom she used her signature polka dot motif to decorate their iconic monogrammed handbags.

2. She has spent the last 37 years in a mental health hospital
After her business as an art-dealer in Japan folded, Kusama began experiencing severe mental health problems and checked herself in to a Japanese hospital where she has lived since 1977. From there, she has continued to create art, publish novels and write poetry, while maintaining a studio near the hospital for her large scale installations.

3. She views her recent paintings as diary entries
When overcome with a nightmarish hallucination, Kusama sits down at a canvas and begins to document the vision, completing the work in one sitting. The series are always completed on the same size canvas and create a visual log of her obsessive thoughts. Despite their bright colours, the works have titles such as The Far End of my Sorrow and All About Joy that show how underneath, she is deeply troubled.

4. Her education makes her nauseous
She left home for Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1948 and studied Japanese art under the traditional Japanese Master-Disciple system, which she found rigid and uninspiring. She refers to her time in Kyoto as making her want to vomit.

5. She refers to her polka dots as Infinity Nets
Since the age of ten, she has been obsessed with polka dots, covering at first her drawings, then later canvases, walls, household objects and even her assistants in them. She regards her mirrored rooms that are illuminated by hanging orbs as an extension of this – a type of immersive polka dot net that “obliterates” everything it covers through infinite space.

6. Georgia O’Keeffe was her business advisor
The famous flower-painting, female artist was business savvy and successful in the 1950s, and Kusama began writing to while in her 20’s asking for advice about how to succeed in the New York art scene. O’Keeffe even persuaded her own dealer to buy several of Kusama’s works when she was in a period of financial trouble due to being hospitalised from exhaustion.

7. In 1966 she was ejected from the Venice Biennale
At her first Biennale she exhibited her work Narcissus Garden, which consisted of hundreds of mirrored spheres that she began selling for $2 each while wearing a gold kimono – a comment on the commercialisation of art and self-promotion that didn’t sit well with the organisers of the Biennale and she was promptly escorted from the premises.

8. She is business-savvy and prolific
Kusama’s CV reads like a roll call of creative industries; she founded an erotic newspaper entitled Kusama’s Orgy, has published 8 novels, several books of poetry, designed a bus and has produced films – even making one with the English musician Peter Gabriel.

9. She has collectors frenzied
Kusama currently holds the record for the most expensive artwork sold at auction by a living female artist at $7.1 million in 2014 for White Net No. 28 (1960). O’Keeffe’s advice apparently paid off and Kusama has set a precedent for female artists in the 21st century. 

10. Spots saved her life
A conversation about Kusama wouldn’t exist without mentioning spots, and Kusama claims neither would she – she said without her art she would have committed suicide a long time ago, and refers to her spots as the overwhelming power in her life – famously saying, “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.”

In Infinity is at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark until January 24, 2016.