Painter, sculptor, installation artist, and performance artist. A Japanese native who achieved prominence among the New York avant-garde during the 1960s, she is known particularly for large all-over paintings, sculptures of common objects upholstered with phallic forms, installations in mirrored rooms, and nude performances. After returning to Japan in 1973, she built a following there while her name faded from the history of contemporary art in the United States. In the 1990s a new generation of American artists and critics reassessed her work, finding it once more relevant in relation to postmodern interests, including autobiography, feminism, performance, and exploration of the body as both subject and material for art. Born in Matsumoto, as a child Kusama began to experience the hallucinations and obsessions of a form of mental illness. Her drawings from these years already reveal an affinity for the dots and skeins that later characterized much of her art. After World War II she went to Kyoto for a year and a half to study at the Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. Subsequently she worked at home and showed small paintings (of which the most compelling were biomorphic abstractions) in Matsumoto and Tokyo. Late in 1957 she left for six months in Seattle before moving on to New York. In the fall of 1959, her first solo show in New York brought instant acclaim for what she called Infinity Net paintings. Demonstrating her sophisticated understanding of advanced painting in New York at that time, the white-on-white paintings feature lacelike surfaces so dense they nearly obscure the backgrounds. Their flatness, ambitious size, and all-over compositions related these works to other forms of field painting growing out of abstract expressionism, whereas their lack of incident attracted the younger artists associated with minimalism. The next year, Kusama introduced color into the series.
The Infinity Net paintings demonstrate as well the uncomfortably obsessive nature of her creativity. Repetition also marks the large 1962 collage Airmail Stickers (Whitney Museum), which elegantly combines these mundane items into a gridded abstract arrangement suggesting aspects of both pop art and minimalism. In the early 1960s, she also began to make stuffed sculptures of everyday objects (armchairs and rowboats were favorites) entirely covered with cloth penile forms. Despite their surrealistic flavor, these Accumulations, as she called them, were shown in the company of work by the emerging pop artists and understood at the time in that critical context, at least partly because they share pop's irreverent and frolicsome spirit. She worked at a frantic pace throughout the decade, often inventively anticipating the better known work of other artists, such as Andy Warhol in the use of repeated images and Lucas Samaras in mirrored rooms. Kusama often had professional photographs taken of herself with (sometimes in or on) her sculptures, thus producing secondary art objects that included her presence. In the mid-1960s she enlarged this performative tendency by staging events akin to happenings. In one of the most famous of these, in 1969 she directed a small group of nude performers in an unsanctioned event in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. As the sixties drew to a close, Kusama's desire for public acclaim interfered with her reputation as a serious artist. Moreover, she was often physically unwell, and money was always a problem, partly because no gallery would take her on. After her close friend Joseph Cornell died in 1972, she soon returned to Japan. She voluntarily entered a private psychiatric facility in Tokyo in 1977 and has lived there ever since, while elaborating in her nearby studio on the achievements of the New York years and expanding her creative range into writing. She has published poetry in addition to twelve books of fiction. Manhattan Suicide Addict (1978) is an autobiographical novel about her life in New York.