Yayoi Kusama is a record breaker. The Japanese artist and writer held the record for most expensive artwork sold by a living female artist, a feat she achieved when her work White No. 28 (1960) sold for $7.1 million at a Christie’s Auction in 2014. Her works, which explore the realms of psychology, sexuality, and surrealism among other personal topics, are consistently in high demand, which led art.net to name her the most popular artist in the world, in 2015.
Kusama was born in Matsumoto, located in the Nagano prefecture of Japan, in 1929. She was creative from an early age and started painting as a child. After training in the rigorous Nihonga style, Kusama broke away to study the avant-garde techniques of American and European artists. In 1957, after some counseling from fellow artist and friend Georgia O’Keefe, Kusama moved to New York. During her New York tenure, Kusama became a leader of the avant-garde movement and had her works exhibited alongside contemporaries like Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and George Segal. Kusama also organized public events, often involving nudity, as protests against the Vietnam War in various public locations like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge. Events like the Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at the MoMA brought Kusama major attention for her eccentric performances.
After a decline in her health, Kusama moved back to Japan in 1973. Shortly before her return to Japan, Kusama began writing about her personal experiences. She continued to write when she arrived in Japan, and this work would later become emotional and surrealistic novels. In 1977, Kusama voluntarily committed herself to the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she resides to this day.
Throughout her career, Kusama’s work has been largely focused on polka dots. Kusama has experienced hallucinations since her early childhood in Japan, and these hallucinations drive a majority of creation. She endlessly paints polka dots on life-sized canvasses which become “Infinity Nets.” The works included in this series have gone on to sell for millions of dollars, including the work sold by Christie’s. Kusama has been the subject of solo shows at major institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art, Gagosian Gallery of Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Kusuma still produces work from a studio a short walk from the hospital. Painting has been the driving force in her life, she says, “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.” This driving force has made her the highest-earning living female artist, and this popularity only continues to grow.