Yayoi Kusama’s 1945 to Now – Does resilience have a time limit?

words Isabel Armitage

New retrospective book 1945 to Now recounts Yayoi Kusama’s burgeoning career in the turbulent New York art world. 

Hong Kong’s M+ Museum celebrates its one year anniversary in 2023 with one of the largest retrospectives of Yayoi Kusama’s work to date. The exhibition 1945 to Now ending on 13th May 2023 is set to be an eclectic mix of paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations, unveiling Kusama’s rich history. At 93 years old, she is the world’s best selling female artist and her work is documented in the exhibition’s accompanying art book published by Thames and Hudson titled 1945 to Now, depicting the New York art scene as a pill, tough to swallow. 

Picture 1960s America. It comes with the territory that emerging from post war Japan to enter a pool of white cis male artists, Kusama needed to sink or swim. Her ever present bold colour palettes and delusional dotty clusters were first replicated back in the 1950s as confused, mottled but powerful. It was not until her premiere solo show in 1959 at the Brata Gallery that she solidified herself in the avant-garde of abstract art alongside her contemporaries Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg.

Yayoi Kusama book

With a desirable, unique style, the years that followed caused her to be subject to thievery, sexism and xenophobia whilst struggling with severe mental health problems. To this day, she lives in a psychiatric hospital. How has Kusama found enough resilience to still be alive, kicking and signing a brand deal with Louis Vuitton at the age of 93? 

“From the point of view of no one who creates, everything is a gamble, a leap into the unknown.” – Yayoi Kusama, Kusama: Infinity, 2018

Outlining how Kusama is a perfect example of an artist who has moved gracefully with the times. 1945 to Now sees her adapt her work to mix well with each decade, establishing her as ever-relevant and as one the most famous artists of the 21st century. 

Yayoi Kusama art book

Notable stunts include ‘Narcissus Garden’ at the Venice Biennale where Kusama sold hundreds of silver spheres made from plastic. The stunt shook the art market and at the unofficial exhibition, lucky viewers left with an original for as little as $2. The book also documents her life ambition to explore polka dots, a symbol which first appeared in a vision at the age of ten. The ongoing dedication to speckled artwork, the theme of infinity and making art accessible to all stirred the New York art scene in a way never witnessed before. 

Infused with psychological, autobiographical and sexual content, her ’Infinity’ trope was first established in 1965 where she produced the ‘Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field’. In the decades that followed, the idea of ‘infinity’ was replicated continuously across the globe including in current residence at the Tate Modern. Kusama pioneered installation art and elevated her polka dots into the 21st century before any of her rivals.

Yayoi Kusama book

Described as the “Most comprehensive survey of her work to date” the book touches on her mental health and chronologically explores her PTSD. Often viewed as an advocate for vocalising her mental health problems during a time when PTSD could be viewed as insanity; Kusama used her experiences within her artwork. The millions of polka dots so accustomed to her style are arguably a coping mechanism for the busyness of her head. It is typical that PTSD is dealt with through a calming repetition and Kusama clearly illustrates a yearning to repeat, over and over again. 

1945 to Now encompasses Kusama’s formidable career stretching across 80 years showcasing her vibrant artworks alongside a visual chronology of her life. She has produced quite literally millions of dots to convey how she feels; whilst now more polished and with a designer price tag, what remains the same was a feeling of making art engrossing, impossible to ignore.

‘Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now’ is available from Thames & Hudson

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