Davis Desk

Disability Pride Month 2021 - Yayoi Kusama

By Karl Cole, posted on Jul 22, 2021

July is Disability Pride Month! As we continue to celebrate this annual observance that promotes the pride felt by people with disabilities, today we share artist Yayoi Kusama.

During her long and distinguished artistic career, Kusama has explored painting, sculpture, Conceptual Art, Performance Art, and installation with sound. She has overcome her disabilities to create a truly unique aesthetic vision for generations to come.

Disability Pride Month 2021 - Yayoi Kusama
Flowers—Overcoat, 1964, cloth overcoat, plastic flowers, metallic paint, 128.9 x 73.3 x 14.6 cm Courtesy of the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC  (SI-616)

Yayoi Kusama has been a pioneer in Japanese modernism. Born in Matsumoto City, Kusama was raised in a conservative, strict, some would say “abusive” household. Despite her parents’ traditional values, Kusama was producing watercolors of polka dot and net motifs as early as the age of ten. She has explained that even as a child, she experienced auditory and visual hallucinations with elements of nature that she would immediately rush home and draw.

In 1948, Kusama started formal art training in Kyoto. She was taught the conservative Nihon-ga (Japanese style), a style that was an attempt by certain Japanese artists to maintain traditional Japanese styles and subject matter with limited influences from Western art.

Rejecting the rigidity of the genre, in 1952 she began to study Western modernist styles in magazines, including Surrealism, Cubism, and the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), absorbing these styles into her own work. She began a correspondence with O’Keeffe thereafter. The large, simplified, up-close forms in O’Keeffe’s paintings had a major impact on Kusama’s own painting.

Seeking the experimentation happening in the New York art scene, Kusama traveled to the US in 1957, settling in New York from 1958 until 1968. Her first years there were psychologically and financially difficult, although Kusama was in the company of Abstract Expressionists and the vibrant gallery scene. No matter what success she had in her art, her hallucinations and panic attacks got increasingly worse. In the early 1970s, she returned to Japan and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, from where to this day she goes every day to her studio across the street to make art.

Discover our collection of Adaptive Art lessons to use with students from author Bette Naughton. In this collection, you’ll find a wonderfully engaging lesson based on the art of Yayoi Kusama.

About the Image: Along with polka dots, flowers have played an integral part in Kusama’s work throughout her career. The first known photograph of Yayoi Kusama dates from 1939. It shows her small face surrounded by a bouquet of giant dahlias. It is almost as if her face becomes one with the giant flowers.

Early in her career while in New York in the early 1960s, Kusama was primarily known for her “happenings” (performance art). It is not unusual that art and fashion often feed off one another. Kusama used clothing as her “support” producing Conceptual works that mirrored the obsessive use of flowers and dots as her primary forms in her paintings. The plastic flowers adorning this common raincoat present a banal subject that prefigures similar work by the German Conceptual artist Josef Beuys (1921–1986).

In 1969, Kusama opened her own “fashion line,” although many of the pieces shared the same tongue-in-cheek style as Flowers—Overcoat. Many of her fashions were meant to make a political statement, generally through holes that were strategically placed in the garment, making it not practical to wear in public.