“Take your broken heart and turn it into art.” – Meryl Streep, Golden Globe Speech, 2017
Plenty of people suffer from visual hallucinations and don’t become international superstars of the art world. So even though this artist’s inspiration sprang from what the world calls mental illness, it would be a mistake to consider her artwork anything but a triumph of creativity.
Critics call multi-talented Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama the pioneer of pop art, but unlike those who followed her lead, including Andy Warhol and sculptor Claes Oldenburg, she wasn’t trying to define a new movement or style.
Rather, she did what all great artist do – she created a powerful expression of her inner world. Kusama, who has been living and working in a mental institution since 1977, acknowledges that making art helped her cope with a traumatic childhood, repeated nervous breakdowns, panic attacks, auditory and visual hallucinations and multiple suicide attempts. She refers to her style as “psychosomatic art.”
In her autobiography, Kusama describes the 15 years she spent in New York trying and failing to get galleries to show her work as “hell on earth.” Watching her male, all-American peers steal her ideas one by one and get famous while she starved, eventually sent her into suicidal depressions. In one attempt, she threw herself from a window – she might have lost her life if she hadn’t landed on a bicycle that broke her fall.
During these years, she slept on a door she brought up from the street for a bed and ate “from the fishmonger’s rubbish,” she wrote. Her horrible apartment had no heat, so in the winter, she painted all night to exhaustion just to stay warm. Eventually, she left New York in disgust and immediately checked into the Seiwa Hospital for the mentally ill in Tokyo.
Today, crowds wait hours in line to see her the work, including what she made then as well as what she’s making now. Despite its backstory, Kusama’s vivid, brightly colorful art strikes many as joyful, playful, and alive.
Now in her mid 90s, Kusama’s shows routinely sell out around the globe, and she is the most famous and successful living female artist in the world. She’s at the peak of her powers and her career, and we are all the better for it.
You can find out more about her all over the Internet, but The New York Post put together quite a succinct piece a couple years ago. Here’s an excerpt:
“According to ARTnews, Kusama’s auction sales have increased more than tenfold, from $9.3 million in 2009 to $98 million in 2019. Kusama still paints daily from her studio, which is a short stroll from the institution.”
“A great artist is someone who changes the way we think and Kusama is that …. She wanted to change the world [and] she has.”
Making a Splash
Streamline video artist Shung Li appears in an interview on the Creative Catalyst website, in which she discusses her methods of working en plein air, including the importance of planning ahead and her renowned techniques for painting water.