Some of her earliest surviving paintings relate to the horrors of war: Accumulation of the Corpses (Prisoner Surrounded by the Curtain of Depersonalization) and Earth of Accumulation, both dating from 1950, show bleak, war-torn landscapes where even plant life struggles to survive.
In the 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, Kusama staged actions in New York, counteracting violence with activism in the form of naked body painting happenings and orgiastic love-ins. Her first Anatomic Explosion featuring naked dancers took place on 15 October 1968 opposite the New York Stock Exchange, and was prefaced by a press release that stated, ‘The money made with this stock is enabling the war to continue. We protest this cruel, greedy instrument of the war establishment.’
Later that year Kusama produced An Open Letter to My Hero, Richard M. Nixon in which she wrote ‘Our earth is like one little polka dot, among millions of other celestial bodies, one orb full of hatred and strife amid the peaceful, silent spheres. Let’s you and I change all that and make this world a new Garden of Eden…. You can’t eradicate violence by using more violence.’
Later, on her return to Japan, Kusama made a series of devastating collages indicting war. War, Tidal Waves of War and Graves of the Unknown Soldiers feature harrowing images of from news magazines overlaid with watercolour and pastel. In 1995 Kusama responded to a commission from the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art to produce a new work commemorating the victims of the atomic bomb. She responded with the large-scale triptych Revived Soul. Unusually for the artist’s work of the period, the painting is drained of colour, featuring abstracted waving vertical bands of black and white that suggest a forest of desiccated trees, all covered in her signature polka dots.