Laura Hoptman, Yayoi Kusama: A Reckoning, London 2000, p. 14
Dots Obsession is an example of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s most personal and renowned body of work. The present work, created in 2005, directly relates to the canvases the artist began painting in New York in the late 1950s. However, this example is far more compositionally complex than its predecessors. The intricate interweaving of dots shows a mature manifestation of the artist’s original concept. Gazing upon this work we are sent down the intimate spiraling staircase of Kusama’s brilliant, complicated mind. Enchanted by these Dots, a viewer becomes lost in their personal associations and mesmerized by a mixture of abstraction, ethereality and true infiniteness. Kusama commented on the all-encompassing nature of her work in a 2000 interview with art historian, writer and poet Akira Tatehata, “I am not concerned with Surrealism, Pop Art, Minimal Art or whatever. I am so absorbed in living my life.” (Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 14). As she is absorbed in ‘living her life,’ finding solace and easing her anxiety through her art, we too become absorbed in the work before us. Engulfed in a world of orbs and dots, a viewer becomes transfixed, as the work oscillates before our very eyes.
Growing up and living in Japan into her mid-twenties Yayoi Kusama felt ostracized by Japanese society for her mental illness and was harshly treated by her mother. In 1957, at twenty-seven years old, Kusama moved to New York City seeking refuge from her depersonalization attacks, her family, and her home country and aspired to accomplish something marvelous and become celebrated for it. It was during this time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s that she developed the Infinity Net and the polka dot, motifs that came to her in visions and occupied a large part of her conscience. As these patterns represented a constant hallucinatory vision for Kusama, she painted proliferating nets and dots in order to relieve her psychosomatic anxiety. Tatehata commented in her interview with Kusama about the unique way she confronts her anxiety, “You attempt to flee from psychic obsession by choosing to paint the very vision of fear, from which one would ordinarily avert one’s eyes.” Kusama responds, “I paint them in quantity; in doing so, I try to escape…” (Yayoi Kusama, London 2000, p. 14). Through this escape, Kusama is not only able to alleviate her own mental anguish, but also showcase her ability to create a mesmerizing visual language that entrances the viewer.
In New York, Kusama met other great artistic visionaries who became her friends, lovers, and supporters. This circle included Lucio Fontana, Joseph Cornell, Larry Rivers, John Chamberlain, On Kawara, and Donald Judd. Kawara, when living upstairs from Kusama in Soho, helped mitigate her nightly attacks that often ended in trips to the hospital. She met her first boyfriend, Donald Judd, while he was an art critic and studying at Columbia University. Judd celebrated Kusama’s work in an October 1959 edition of Artnews, “Yayoi Kusama is an original painter. The expression transcends the question of whether it is Oriental or American. Although it is something of both, certainly of such Americans as Rothko, Still and Newman, it is not at all a synthesis and is thoroughly independent” (Donald Judd, “Reviews and Previews: New Names This Month- Yayoi Kusama,” Artnews 58, No. 6). This ‘thoroughly independent’ work is not only vastly art-historically interesting, but also, and more importantly for Kusama, a form of self-therapy; a way for the artist to find a sense of calm and a peace of mind through this process she calls ‘self-obliteration.'
Kusama, throughout her long and prolific career, has been categorized as a Surrealist, Pop artist, Feminist, and Fetishist among other labels. However, even now, at the age of ninety-six, she refuses to be singularly characterized by any of the above. In the artist’s 2000 interview with Tatehata, Kusama expresses her distaste for being defined: “Nowadays, some people in New York call me a “Surrealist-Pop’ artist. I do not care for this kind of labeling…People are confused and don’t know how to understand me” (Yayoi Kusama, London 2000, p. 14). Throughout her entire life, even with her renowned artistic practice and critically acclaimed career, Kusama has in many ways been an outsider. Perhaps this is the reason her polka dots continue to intrigue and allure us, they give a viewer a glimpse into the very special, intimate world of Kusama.
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