Broad strokes: Yayoi Kusama

April 5, 20224 min read
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Key takeaways

  • Yayoi Kusama is a 93-year-old Japanese artist known for intricately patterned dot paintings and room-sized installations.

  • Between 2006 and 2021, the prices of her most iconic artworks increased by a CAGR of 39.0%.

  • In 2021, her painting Pumpkin (LPASG), sold for $8 million. 
Dancing Pumpkin, 2020, Installed at the New York Botanical Garden

Yieldstreet is delighted to announce the addition of a Yayoi Kusama Infinity Nets painting to Yieldstreet’s Art Equity Fund III. Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, sometimes referred to as the ‘princess of polka dots’ is celebrated for her intricately patterned dot paintings, botanical sculptures, and awe-inspiring room-sized mirror installations. Kusama’s name is an Instagram favorite and brings to mind the long lines of people who queue to visit her Infinity Rooms and photograph themselves reflected eternally in their mirrored surfaces. Kusama’s Cosmic Nature exhibit at the New York Botanical Gardens drew massive crowds last year. Her “One with Eternity” exhibition is open now at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C., where you can see many of her works, including two Infinity Mirror Rooms.

One of the most original and iconic artists of the twentieth century, many of her motifs, such as polka dots and pumpkins, are inspired by her childhood experiences and traumas. 

 Kusama’s market

Kusama began creating art in the 1950s, but was first really recognized by international collectors in 1997. Between 2006 and 2021, the average hammer price of her most iconic series (i.e, Infinity Nets and Pumpkins) has increased by a compound 39.0% annually, while during that same period these works hammered at an average 1.8x their pre-sale low estimates. 

Kusama’s current auction record was set in 2021 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong contemporary art sale, when her acrylic-on-canvas Pumpkin (LPASG), 2013, sold for $8 million. As museums and collectors continue to diversify their holdings to better represent the work of minority artists, we believe her artworks will remain among the most highly coveted.

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Kusama’s life in art

Kusama was born 93 years ago in rural Japan to a prominent, well-off family that managed extensive plant nurseries. Kusama began drawing as a young girl, much to the chagrin of her parents, who considered art an unsuitable career for their daughter. She has described the roots of her obsession with dots which continues to inform her artistic practice today: when she was a young girl, Kusama hallucinated that the flowers in a field began speaking with her and felt that she would disappear or self-obliterate in this field of dots.

Like Yieldstreet Art Equity Fund III artist Takashi Murakami, Kusama studied traditional Nihonga painting in college. 

She developed a correspondence with American artist, Georgia O’Keefe, after Kusama reached out for advice about how to make it as a woman in the New York art scene. At the age of 27, Kusama made the bold decision to move to NY with a few hundred dollars and 60 silk kimonos that she planned to sell. In the 1960s, she embraced the hippie scene and began creating outlandish pieces of performance art. Her elaborate Net paintings and sculptures, ornamented with bizarre stuffed protrusions, were seen and appreciated by artists like Donald Judd and Frank Stella, both of whom purchased works from her inaugural solo exhibition in 1962 for $75. One of those canvases sold in 2014 for $7.1 million, a then record for a living female artist.

In 1965, Kusama created her first Infinity Room; the next year she traveled to the Venice Biennale with the financial support of the Italian artist, Lucio Fontana. Kusama was not formally invited to participate, but received permission from the organizers to install her work Narcissus Garden, which consisted of 1,500 mirrored balls, outside of the Italian Pavilion. When she attempted to sell the balls for two dollars apiece, with the advertisement “your narcissism for sale,” the Biennale’s security force forbade her. 

The artist with Fireflies on the Water, 2002, Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art

Upon returning to New York, Kusama launched into a series of controversial anti-war, pro-feminist public performance pieces that garnered immense attention in the press. For Horse Play, she covered horses in her signature polka dots, while in the Body Festivals she hosted in Tompkins and Washington Square Parks, she painted the same forms on the naked bodies of herself and her willing participants. Around 1969 a nude “orgy” she hosted at the Museum of Modern Art made the cover of the New York Daily News. This period was followed by one of backlash against the sexual nature of her performances. 

Despite her critical success, Kusama struggled financially in this period and succumbed to mental illness. Her status as a minority female artist—one who spoke very little English—in a period dominated by white men, often led to mistreatment by the art authorities she so wished to impress, which only increased her frustration. In a cycle that would repeat itself throughout her life, the artist would suffer periods of deep depression during which she was unable to work and then emerge from them and create obsessively. In 1973 she returned to Japan after suffering a series of mental breakdowns and numerous suicide attempts. 

Kusama moved permanently into a mental institution in Tokyo in 1977. Over the following decades, she achieved a cult-like following in her home country as she continued to work in her obsessive fashion despite her institutionalization. Still alive and working today, Kusama is known around the world for her idiosyncratic art.

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