Yayoi Kusama has been making conceptual, “obsessive” art for well over a half-century. Since emigrating from Japan in the late ’50s and bursting quietly onto the New York avant-garde scene with her painstakingly studied “infinity nets” (large swaths covered in polka dots), Kusama has approached art as a means of coping with mental illness. Her art—which ranges from painting, to collage, to nude “happenings” and environmental installations—is comprised of elaborate compositions, which she clinically describes as acts of “depersonalization,” a way in which to normalize her fears, anxieties and visions through repetition. She’s touched and influenced many artists and peers like Donald Judd, Joseph Cornell (with whom she had a significant but chaste romantic relationship) and Claes Oldenburg, as well as Georgia O’Keeffe, with whom Kusama corresponded since she was an aspiring young artist in Japan. Since 1977, Kusama has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric institution, and continues to produce work, commuting to a studio across the street. In 2008, Christie’s auctioned a Kusama piece for $5.1 million, at that time, a record sum for any living female artist. The following is an excerpt from her autobiography, Infinity Net, which has been translated into English for the first time and will be published in conjunction with a brand new exhibition at London’s Tate Modern (February 9-June 5) and will travel to the Whitney in New York this summer. In it, she describes her earliest encounters with psychosis, and in turn, the seeds of her artistic life.
I was twenty-seven when I went to the United States. If I had not made it to the USA, I do not think I would be who I am today. The environment I grew up in was exceedingly conservative, and escaping it at the earliest possible moment had been my dream, and my struggle. I would have preferred to leave much earlier but was delayed because of the difficulty of traveling overseas in those days and the fierce opposition of my family—in particular my mother. Still, I made it, and I am glad I did. If I had stayed in Japan, I would never have grown as I have, either as an artist or as a human being. America is really the country that raised me, and I owe what I have become to her.
I was born on 22 March 1929, in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, the youngest child of Kamon and Shigeru Kusama. My family was an old one, of high social standing, having for the past century or so managed wholesale seed nurseries on vast tracts of land. Each day a crowd of workers came to collect the seeds of violets or zinnias or whatever it might be, for resale all over Japan. We had six large hothouses, which were so rare in those days that sometimes groups of schoolchildren came on field trips to look at them. Propertied and wealthy, my family supported local painters and had a standard understanding of art. But the prospect of their youngest child becoming a painter was a different matter altogether.
My grandfather was an ambitious man, active in both business and politics, and my mother had inherited his blood and his fiery temperament. My father married into the family and adopted the Kusama name. The tension and pressure that arose from that arrangement was certainly responsible to a large degree for the oppressive atmosphere that dominated my infancy and childhood. I entered Kamata Elementary School in 1935. By 1941, the year I matriculated at Matsumoto First Girls’ High School, the war that had been going on for so long had ignited into the Second World War. And it was from about that time that I began to experience regular visual and aural hallucinations—seeing auras around objects, or hearing the speech of plants and animals.