Yayoi Kusama, the most beloved artist on the planet, is back in New York with a show at the David Zwirner Gallery that runs until Dec. 14. The show, Every Day I Pray For Love, features her trademark polka dots on paintings and sculptures, plus an immersive installation and a new Infinity Room called Dancing Lights That Flew Up To The Universe. This is a mirror-lined room with hanging globes that change from black-and-white to red, then go abruptly dark before the cycle starts over. The mirrors give the illusion of infinity in every direction, and if one could spend some time in there, it would be a great place to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. As is, the long lines of visitors have to keep moving, and there’s barely enough time for a quick selfie.
Zwirner is expecting 100,000 visitors to the current show, up from 75,000 at the gallery’s last Kusama show in 2017. Her 2014 museum exhibit attracted an average of 9,000 visitors a day as it traveled the globe, leading the Independent newspaper to crown her “the most popular artist in the world.” What makes this 90-year-old polka-dot lady so universally likable?
All Kusama shows are fun and whimsical, with no elitist distinction between high and low art. Hanna Schouwink, a senior partner at David Zwirner, attributes Kusama’s popularity to her accessibility and her very moving life story: “She always concentrates on the positive while simultaneously acknowledging that there are very sad and difficult things in life.”
When we learn Kusama’s life story, it’s hard not to like her and root for her. In her essay "Why Do I Create Art?," Kusama describes growing up “truly miserable… I was an unwanted child born of unloving parents. If it hadn’t been for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.” While she was a central figure in the New York art scene of the ’60s, influencing the likes of Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, she also found herself fighting a racist and sexist art world. “If she would’ve been a white male, she would’ve been successful already back then,” says Schouwink.
Kusama returned to her native Japan in 1973 and was diagnosed with rijinsho—literally, "separate-person syndrome." She experienced frequent hallucinations and severe depression. In 1977, when her neurosis became unmanageable, she checked herself into a mental hospital, where she has lived ever since.
Kusama says she also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and must paint in order to stay alive and somewhat sane. A Zwirner pamphlet quotes her saying, “With the challenge of creating new art, I work as if dying; these works are my everything.”
Though Kusama has assistants working in her studio, she does the paintings herself—and completed all the canvases in the current Zwirner show in 2019. This manic devotion is what we most want and expect from a true artist: She does not produce art for fame and fortune; she is driven by pure passion, unable to stop creating. By definition, we expect an artist to be eccentric, and it has been known since antiquity that the line separating genius from insanity is tissue-thin. According to Aristotle, “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness." Kusama checks out on all accounts. Her life story closely mirrors the life of Vincent Van Gogh, who was diagnosed with acute mania and generalized delirium after he cut off part of his right ear. Van Gogh spent the following months in and out of a hospital before voluntarily entering an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
Popularity should not be confused with lovability. Jeff Koons, whose art is also highly whimsical and accessible—and wildly popular—can’t touch Kusama when it comes to providing a compelling life story. People love to hate Koons, mostly because they see him as a commercial whore who worships money and regards his artworks as commodities. Koons goes against everything we think an artist is supposed to be. We want to love the artist so we can love the art.
All this ought not to matter. Art should speak for itself and what’s behind the curtain should be irrelevant, but in reality that’s clearly not the case. Recent events prove that the artist’s life story matters at least as much as his or her art. The National Gallery of Art in Washington canceled a Chuck Close exhibition because of accusations of sexual misconduct—and not because the art itself had suddenly changed. Thankfully, nobody is taking down any works by that world-class misogynist Picasso just yet. And Caravaggio still gets away with murder.
Kusama’s lovability extends to people who rarely patronize museums or galleries. Her wide appeal can be attributed, in part, to the new age of digital narcissism. The Zwirner exhibit is included in the countless lists of the Most Instagrammable Shows in New York, and it inspired this headline: “The Ultimate Instagram Exhibit is Back in New York.” The Zwirner show is grouped with exhibits that are decidedly not art, for instance the Museum of Ice Cream and an installation by the beauty brand Winky Lux. The advertising for these venues tells us that if something didn’t happen on Instagram, it didn’t happen.
“The modern museum visit is often not meant to be an educational experience,” says JiaJia Fei, a digital strategist and adviser to several major museums. “People are going to the museum as a performance. The performance is going there and getting the photograph to document this life they have. And who doesn’t like polka dots and sparkles?”
In connection with the Kusama show, Zwirner has produced a podcast called “Kusama and Art in the Instagram Age.” Christian Luiten, founder of the digital art platform Avant Art, points out that museums need blockbuster shows, and Instagram offers the means to reach an unlimited audience. “Instagram pictures function as a gateway drug,” he says. “Ultimately it will lure people to the museum.” Both Luiten and Fei point out the possible danger that artists might compromise their work to get more Instagram exposure. But since Kusama started her polka dots long before there was social media—or the internet, for that matter—she is forgiven for being immensely instagrammable. She is, as Luiten puts it, “super authentic.”
Millions may love her, but hardly anybody knows the real Yayoi Kusama. The more one reads about her life, her writings, and the few interviews she has given to journalists, the murkier it gets. In one interview, Kusama claims that her fascination with polka-dots began when she was beaten as a child, and left spotted with bruises. In another interview, she claims she began seeing flashes of light, auras, and dense fields of dots at the age of 10. Yes, she does have a mental condition, but she also craves recognition and fame. Yet even that comes across as somehow pure, because it’s authentic, almost childlike. Or as Schouwink says, “She’s just honest. Isn’t that what we all want?”
If we could avoid peeking behind the curtain, Kusama wouldn’t need to constantly match the narrative of her life with her art. Why not just enjoy the polka dots and the sparkle? And a lot more of it is on the way.
There will be a huge Kusama balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and the New York Botanical Garden will have an extensive Kusama show opening in May 2020. Kusama never had a problem taking such steps outside the cloistered art world and embracing a wider audience. In conjunction with the 2012 Kusama Whitney exhibition, she created polka-dotted merchandise for the luxury brand Louis Vuitton, which she considers the world’s top fashion house. She didn’t become the most popular artist in the world by locking herself in the ivory tower of art institutions. Kusama reaches out to all of us, and she succeeds in making us love her creations, whether they’re in a museum, a gallery, or a garden, sliding across our phone screens, lining our handbags, or floating high in the sky.