[Yayoi Kusama]: My wish was to be a painter one day. So I started painting a lot of pictures from the age of 10. My mother told me that I was not allowed to paint, that one day, I would have to marry someone from a rich family and become a housewife. When I was a girl, she took away all my inks and canvases.

[Francis Morris, Curator Yayoi Kusama, Tate 2012] : Making art was something that she seems to have done in opposition to her family but she also was innately talented. You look at the early drawings and they are completely exquisite. The challenges to become an accomplished artist in a Japanese provincial milieu must have driven this notion that, at some point, she would have to escape.

She was on a train to stardom, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. She had a suitcase full of drawings and she set about selling herself.

[Yayoi Kusama]: When I first arrived in New York, I went to the top of the Empire State Building. Seeing this big city, I promised myself that one day I would conquer New York and make my name in the world with my passion for the arts and mountains of creative energy stored inside myself.

[Francis Morris]: When she first came to New York, it was a man's world. The art world was aggressively male. It was a cut-throat period. I think it was very difficult to be a woman artist.

[Yayoi Kusama]: In New York, I devoted myself to my work. I drew everyday and started painting ‘nets’. Eventually the canvases were up to 33 feet long and I painted ‘nets’ from dawn to dusk. When I was drawing, the pattern would expand outside of the canvas to fill the floor and the wall. So when I looked far away, I would see the hallucination, and I would get surrounded by that vision. That is how I became an environmental artist.

[Richard Castellane, Former Owner of the Castellane Gallery]: She was taking away your ability to focus breaking all boundaries of space and the exhibitions that I had, in particular the 'Peepshow' that did the job.

It was an octagonal room, it was painted black and there were openings where you could stick your head in. The ceiling of it set up a series of lights. The rhythm of that machine was, brrrrr, faster and faster.

Up till Kusama, there were many artists from the Renaissance on, who were involved with perspective and infinity but it was all a fake because you knew, you were the viewer you were always aware that you were the master.

That it was a painting that was encompassed by a frame and the artist was playing with space but it wasn’t enveloping you.

[Yayoi Kusama]: Obsessions, phallus obsessions, obsessions of fear, are the main themes of my art. Accumulation is how the stars and the earth don’t exist alone, but rather the entire universe is made of an accumulation of the stars. It is just like when you see the flowers, I see the flowers everywhere and there are so many, and I feel panicked and become so overwhelmed that I want to eat them all. Eventually, I began to feel ill, because I painted too much. [Exhausted, I returned here [Japan].

[Francis Morris]: To go back to Tokyo and to start from scratch again for Kusama was quite extraordinary because she wasn’t known there, and she hadn't been recognised. Clearly, the strains and stresses of life, the memories, forced her to withdraw.

But what she's always done, she has always managed that process incredibly well. Kusama is now living in a mental institution but, by day, she occupies across the street in a busy suburban neighbourhood of Tokyo a very well-appointed studio facility where she has a team of assistants.

She has a space for painting, she has a space for a library, her archive and every morning she gets there and she's the consummate professional and she works from nine till six. I think there's a sort of managing madness about Kusama, which is so utterly sane which is really interesting.

She's used her trauma; she's used these experiences in her past she's been able to harness experiences that might drive other people insane to enormously productive ends. She's an extraordinary person in that way.

Tate Modern

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Rooms

18 May 2021 – 12 June 2022

Step into infinite space

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The nine decades of artist Yayoi Kusama’s life have taken her from rural Japan to the New York art scene to contemporary Tokyo, in a career in which she has continuously innovated and re-invented her style.

Well-known for her repeating dot patterns, her art encompasses an astonishing variety of media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, film, performance and immersive installation. It ranges from works on paper featuring intense semi-abstract imagery, to soft sculpture known as Accumulations to her Infinity Net paintings, made up of carefully repeated arcs of paint built up into large patterns.

Since 1977 Kusama has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric institution, and much of her work has been marked with obsessiveness and a desire to escape from psychological trauma. In an attempt to share her experiences, she creates installations that immerse the viewer in her obsessive vision of endless dots and nets or infinitely mirrored space.

At the centre of the art world in the 1960s, she came into contact with artists including Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell and Claes Oldenburg, influencing many along the way. She has traded on her identity as an ‘outsider’ in many contexts – as a female artist in a male-dominated society, as a Japanese person in the Western art world, and as a victim of her own neurotic and obsessional symptoms.

After achieving fame and notoriety with groundbreaking art happenings and events, she returned to her country of birth and is now Japan’s most prominent contemporary artist.