Polka dots are currently trendy in modern art, but Japanese avant-garde Yayoi Kusama has been painting them for a long, long time. In fact, the 83-year-old artist has been working with polka dots since the 1960s, placing them on traditional mediums like canvas, as well as installations shaped like pumpkins and tentacles. Her current retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York also has Kusama’s polka dots sparkling on water and mirrors, like fireflies.
She has also recently collaborated with French fashion brand Louis Vuitton for a signature line of bags, sunglasses, shoes, and coats. The collaboration came about as a result of her friendship with Louis Vuitton’s creative director Marc Jacobs. Vuitton has had a successful collaboration ten years ago, with another Japanese artist named Takashi Murakami. Kusama’s collection is currently being showcased at boutiques in New York, Paris, Tokyo, and Singapore.
Kusama’s parents, who ran a flower nursery in Japan, wanted her to get married, so in 1958, she left Japan for America. In New York throughout the 1960s, she became active in “happening” anti-war protests, placing paper polka dots on people, and even horses. During that time, artists such as Andy Warhol and Georgia O’Keefe praised her work, but “action painting” was the popular style at the time, so Kusama lived for a long time in poverty and obscurity, painting her polka dots all the while.
Kusama, who moved back to Japan 40 years ago, has lived in psychiatric institutions and been kept on medication to prevent depression. But she has remained a prolific artist all the while, creating not only polka-dot art, but also films and several novels. “I want to create a thousand paintings, maybe two thousand paintings, as many as I can draw,” she says. “I will keep painting until I die.”
Her work was auctioned in 2008 for $5.8 million by Christie’s. The Whitney’s retrospective was previously seen in Paris at the Centre Pompidou and In London, at the Tate Modern.