Over her long and prolific career the infinity net pattern of ceaseless polka-dots has become a metonymic identity for Kusama herself. Plagued by neurosis since she was a child, Kusama first began painting infinity nets as images of her hallucinations and the apparent “veil” of dots that formed halos before her eyes and eclipsed her sight. Thus the infinity net pattern began as a compulsory release and reflection of her emotional psychology. Throughout the years, however, the polka dots have ceased to merely represent Kusama; now, the pattern has wholly absorbed Kusama, and she it. A natural, effortless osmosis has taken place, fusing symbol and artist into an inseparable identity and insoluble solution. Kusama and her dots alike are an international famed icon—a powerful, sought-after brand that has proliferated the art, design, fashion, media and entertainment worlds.
Kusama grew up in Matsumoto City, Japan while the nation was at war. During her adolescence in Japan, she began to experience hallucinations and fits of madness that would eventually evolve into a lifelong mental illness that became the powerful engine behind her astonishing productivity and a main theme of her art. When Kusama moved to the United States in the late 1950s and emerged on the New York art scene during the 1960s, one can imagine the young artist’s instinct to contextualize and align her work within the artistic developments of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism. Certain trends and parallels emerge; for example, Kusama’s scale and all-over abstraction style reflects the progress of the Abstract Expressionists. Her kitschy imagery feels instantaneously pop. The detached rote automatism of her working method attracted the attention of minimalists and the affirmation of Donald Judd. Rather than attempt to narrow or cater her style to any one of these emerging movements during the sixties, Kusama remained zealous and true to her own genius. From a distance her work might have appeared to mirror the machine-like production and monotonous exercise of the Minimalists, but her work was far from dispassionate. Indeed to this day her work remains deeply intimate, born of her own psyche and irrevocably intertwined with her personal expression.
During those initial years in New York, Kusama struggled immensely and threw herself entirely into her work, painting for days at a time with minimal breaks from the canvas. Kusama’s dot obsession emerged from her illness and also sustained it, cultivating inside of her an inescapable drive toward work and production that involved days upon days of painting dots over thousands of feet of canvas. When asked about the idiosyncratic nature of her infinity nets, Kusama says: “I have no interest in the conventional logic and philosophy of art. I forgot all the theories of composition and colour. This style resulted in empty, nihilistic canvases that the critics did not always understand.” Referring to her lifelong infatuation with the nets, Kusama remarks: “I guess I came under a spell...the spell of repetition and aggregation. My nets grew beyond myself and beyond the canvases I was covering with them. They began to cover the walls, the ceiling, and finally the whole universe. I was standing at the center of obsession” (the artist in conversation with Gordon Brown in Laura Hoptman, Akira Tatehata, and Udo Kultermann, Eds., Yayoi Kusama, London 2000, p. 103).
Some might interpret the relationship between Kusama’s illness and her work by saying that art is a coping mechanism. Yet is seems apparent that for Kusama, art is much more than coping—it is survival and self-affirmation. Through her work, she commits to a continual, neurotic cycle of self-negation by which she removes, then replaces herself with her pattern, which is the DNA by which she asserts her very existence—a beautiful, arresting Descartian-type cogito ergo sum proclamation of “I am.”
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