Ask almost any painter or sculptor, famous or not, why they do what they do and they’ll give you the same answer: it’s a compulsion. Ask them what advice they might have for an aspiring artist and they’ll probably caution you not to attempt a career as one unless you feel you have absolutely no other option. The seasoned artist knows, usually through bitter experience, that making art can be a miserable, endless cycle of frustration and disappointment. The French artist Paul Cézanne, perhaps the greatest painter of the modern era, died in 1906 thinking he had failed.
Even for cheerier souls such as Britain’s David Hockney—for whom making pictures is a joy—art is a life-defining obsession. If he’s not painting, which he does pretty much every day, he’s thinking about it or talking about it or looking at it. He cannot stop expressing himself in pictures, it is an irresistible urge. The fact is, art isn’t so much a vocation as an addiction.
It is an addiction sometimes born out of a need to address a deep psychological trauma. You only have to look at those tortured works by the German Expressionists in the years following their horrific experiences during the First World War. George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann were all traumatized by what they saw and did between 1914 and 1918, which led to various nervous breakdowns and mental instability. Their jagged, fractured paintings, so full of pain and suffering, were a way of exorcizing their troubled minds.
The contemporary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (born in 1929) is another for whom making art is a form of therapy. She, too, was left psychologically disturbed by the brutality of war, working day and night in a military factory while a schoolgirl during the Second World War, sewing parachutes and stitching uniforms for Japanese soldiers. She was a fragile, anxious teenager when two atomic bombs were dropped on her country.
Long before she made her crowd-pleasing dotty environments, when she was just out of art school, Kusama produced pictures that dealt specifically with the anguish caused by war. In 1950 she painted the dark, expressionistic Accumulation of the Corpses (Prisoner Surrounded by the Curtain of Depersonalization), featuring a Dante-like circle of hell spiraling down to a central void, empty save for the charred remains of two dead trees.
It’s a creepy picture, with its red and black tubes that look like a diseased human intestine. It is a long way from the conventional Japanese style the then twenty-one-year-old Yayoi had been taught—it owed more to the European Surrealists, particularly Max Ernst, than to the gentle celebration of nature typical of traditional Nihonga paintings.
“I am pursuing art to correct the disability which began in my childhood,” she said. A childhood in which an already sensitive little girl was left distraught by a mother who banned her talented daughter from painting and drawing and instead insisted she spy on her philandering father.
This early psychotic “bad trip” became the basis for all her work and for how she sees. Drawing and painting are Kusama’s way of coping, of countering her deepest fears.
The English writer Philip Larkin wrote a famous poem, “This Be the Verse,” about parents like Yayoi’s. The “disability” to which she referred was, and is, a psychiatric condition. From a very early age Kusama has suffered from severe panic attacks and hallucinations, episodes during which pumpkins might talk to her, which is nice, or a sense that an entire universe of patterns was eliminating her, which is not.
She has told the story many times about an incident that haunts her to this day. There she was, at home, in the provincial city of Matsumoto in the mountainous central area of Japan. She was a child, sitting at a table and quietly appreciating the red flower pattern on the tablecloth. She looked up and was shocked to see the same pattern on the walls, and the ceiling above. And then the floor below! It was horribly weird. And then she realized she too had become obliterated and disappeared in the red flowers.
She got up and ran into the hall to chase the flower pattern away, but it covered everything, including the stairs on which she was now standing. The wooden structure gave way, leaving her to fall into a huge void not unlike the one she depicts in Accumulation of the Corpses (Prisoner Surrounded by the Curtain of Depersonalization). She felt herself disappearing into a limitless universe and was terrified, saying later: “I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.”
This early psychotic “bad trip” became the basis for all her work and for how she sees. Drawing and painting are Kusama’s way of coping, of countering her deepest fears. She says art is her “medicine” and that she turns her “psychological problems into art.” It might sound odd, but art can serve that purpose for all of us. Horror films, cautionary fairy tales, disaster movies, crime novels and action-hero comic characters all force us to confront our repressed anxieties.
Relief comes from acknowledgement of a fear and a preparedness to deal with it. The primal dread of death is allayed; we survived. Not only that, we get the added benefit of the euphoric feeling produced by our body’s fight-or-flight stress response system, which releases enlivening endorphins and adrenalin to course through our veins. In these moments we truly feel the life-force, an affirmation of existence Yayoi calls “the energy of life”—this is the raw material she turns into art.
Her intention is to create her own “Kusama World”: a physical manifestation of her imagination that transforms those ghastly blood-colored flowers with the menacing round faces that chased her around her house into friendly red polka dots on pristine white backgrounds (or vice versa). She began painting dots and spots when she was around ten years old and has continued ever since. They started out looking like drops of rain on the canvas, or livid nodes on a strange-looking creature. This was as far as it went while she was a young artist living in Japan, a country that she found stifling. To develop artistically and intellectually she had to escape:
Staying in Japan was out of the question. My parents, the house, the land, the shackles, the conventions, the prejudice….For art like mine—art that does battle at the boundary between life and death, questioning what we are and what it means to live and die—this country was too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women. My art needed a more unlimited freedom, and a wider world.
She went to America—Seattle at first, and then, in 1958, New York. Her English was poor but her parents were not. They owned a large flower and vegetable seed business, which might have been an early trigger for their daughter’s panic attacks—and gave Yayoi enough money to survive for a while, in cash, which she sewed into the lining of her kimono. The young artist was still in her surrealist phase when she arrived in the US, and was immediately struck by the Abstract Expressionist work of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
She saw the emotional effects that could be achieved by making big pictures with dynamic brushstrokes. Pollock was painting to lay his own demons to rest; Yayoi took notice and started to cover huge canvases with thickly applied white and black paint to deal with hers.
The result was a series of large monochrome pictures, one measuring about 10 meters long, collectively called the Infinity Net paintings. Kusama says the idea came to her while flying over the Pacific on her way to America, when she looked down and saw “ever-expanding nets on the ocean.” And sure enough, her net pictures do have the appearance of a slightly choppy sea as seen from above, with curls of white impasto paint lifting off the surface like waves to reveal a black background beneath.
For Kusama, the black paint represented the infinite universe into which she would fall if it wasn’t for the nets. They are mesmerizing paintings to stand in front of and study, a combination of Eastern and Western aesthetics that appears benign at first but quickly becomes more troubling the closer you look—as if the dark matter below the sea is pulling you towards an eternal abyss.
These are the first paintings in which Kusama fully addresses her fears, without the distraction of over-elaboration. They are direct and pure, nothing more than monotone organic forms repeated countless times spread across a massive surface. They were a breakthrough for her and for art more generally. Although they could be read as having derived from Abstract Expressionism, their stark simplicity marks them out as early examples of what would become known as Minimalist art. In fact, one of Minimalism’s founding fathers, the American sculptor Donald Judd, not only wrote enthusiastically about Yayoi’s Infinity Nets paintings, but was also one of the first people to buy one.
The two artists became good friends. They had studios in the same building, and, when it was time for Kusama to confront another one of her childhood anxieties, Judd was on hand to help. Her dread of “self-obliteration” in a swarm of flowers was matched by a phobia about sex—possibly due to being forced to spy on her father being unfaithful to her mother. Once again, she turned a revulsion into art, using the same technique of endlessly repeating forms until they overwhelm, a process she described as “accumulations”: “things piled one on top of another create an expanding world that reaches out to the edges of the universe. That is the simple image I have…. Accumulations is the result of my obsession, and that philosophy is the main theme of my art.”
This time round the forms weren’t paintings of waves but objects made from off-white sock-like material stuffed to look like penises. Yayoi and Donald spent days making thousands of phallic-shaped forms to construct what Kusama called her “soft sculptures,” chairs and sofas covered in her cloth cocks, turning objects of fear into everyday items.
In one related work she adorned a rowing boat—inside and out—with phalluses and then took a photo of her handiwork and reprinted hundreds of posters to produce a wallpaper that covered walls, floor and ceiling (a call back to that childhood episode with the flowery tablecloth). Andy Warhol liked the effect of her Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show (1963) so much he is said to have copied the idea with his Cow Wallpaper (1966), which upset Yayoi, who felt she—a pioneering Asian woman—was being ignored and ripped off by an art establishment privileging white, Western, male artists.
She had to stand out and stand up for herself to have any chance of making it as an unknown Japanese woman in the man’s world that was America’s post-war art scene. And she is her art, inside and out.
The panic attacks returned, as did suicidal thoughts. Her American Dream was turning bad. Still, she had one card left up her sleeve. She was a brilliant self-publicist as well as a gifted image-generator. Put those two things together and, you know, you might make the news. And she did put them together and make the news. Kusama got the attention of the world’s press with her naked New York “happenings” in protest against the Vietnam War. Typically, these live, staged events would involve her painting her naked body in polka-dots as well as those performing sit-ins and protest walks with her. Now the press were paying her attention, pens poised, cameras clicking.
She then charmed the art world with her “pop-up” installation called Narcissus Garden Kusama at the 1966 Venice Biennale, in which she laid out 1,500 mirror balls in front of the main Italian Pavilion and offered them for sale at $2 each with a sign reading: “Your Narcisium [sic] for Sale $2.” The organizers didn’t see the funny side and closed her down, but not before she could change out of her kimono and put on a paparazzi-attracting bright red leotard in which she posed for the cameras while basking in the reflections caused by her ocean of shiny balls.
The impulsive conclusion might be to write Kusama off as a media-manipulating show-off. That was certainly the opinion the press reached in both America and Japan by the early 1970s. And they were right, up to a point. She was and is a savvy operator when it comes to attention-grabbing public relations. But with good reason. First, she had to stand out and stand up for herself to have any chance of making it as an unknown Japanese woman in the man’s world that was America’s post-war art scene. And second, she is her art, inside and out. She turns her panic-inducing alarm into positive, life-enhancing experiences. By going that extra step, and placing herself in her art and inhabiting her Kusama World, she is completing the artwork—the star in her universe enjoying the fantasy and the freedom: Alice in her Wonderland.
Everything came together in 1965 when she presented Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field, an all-encompassing, 25-square-meter mirrored room filled with polka-dot-covered fabric penises. It combines her anxiety around sex with her disturbing hallucinogenic episodes. It is bad karma brought to heel, bent to her will, neutralized, and then owned. She doesn’t simply see her traumas, she brings them to life, and in doing so makes art that touches millions of people around the world. Young and old queue for hours to step into a Kusama mirrored infinity room, or gallery covered in polka-dots—for the chance to observe life from the artist’s perspective.
Yayoi Kusama is far from unique in using art as therapy to overcome extreme anxiety; fear is one of the most common sources of creative inspiration. But her psychological experiences are unique, as are yours and mine. They could have crushed her, but instead they were the making of her. She used them to see and be seen, and to become one of the most original, ground-breaking artists of our time. She says she was born into a family and a culture that suppressed emotions, but despite resistance from her parents and periods of ridicule during her career, she has prevailed by showing the world the healing power of confronting the thoughts that frightened her.
It hasn’t been easy. When Kusama returned to Japan from America in 1973 she was in a desperate state, having had physical health issues and, on top of that, suffering a nervous breakdown and a subsequent depression that she struggled through on a daily basis. In 1977 she voluntarily checked into a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, where she remains to this day. Every morning she gets up and goes to her studio a couple of blocks away, where she sits down and works all day.
The irony is that she is far more famous and appreciated now that she has removed herself from the rat race. She even got invited back to the Venice Biennale in 1993—not to reprise her pop-up installation but as the first female artist to solely represent Japan at the prestigious event. It is quite a turn-around, from a terror of obliteration to international adoration—she has shown us the world as she sees it, a world full of love and polka dots.
See What You’re Missing: New Ways of Looking at the World Through Art by Will Gompertz is available via Pegasus Books.