Art History 101: Polka Dots and Infinities

By Austin Bowes

via the Ayala Museum
via the Ayala Museum

As an art enthusiast and soon-to-be art historian (or am I already one of those?), I mostly read news concerning art, including the art auctions that occurred most recently. This year, something caught my eye: at Christie’s auction, there was a piece that sold for $7,100,000, which was more than three times its estimate of at least $1.5 million. This is not only fantastic, but also sets the stage for our artist on discussion, Yayoi Kusama, who became the most expensive living female artist when her “White No. 28” (1960) sold at auction.

I was happy for Kusama, as was a fellow friend and art enthusiast who got to experience her Infinity Mirrored Room when it was in New York last year (lucky him). Yet, other than the two of us, not many had seemingly heard of Kusama.

And so, here we are.

Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Japan in 1929. She experienced severe physical abuse by her mother before she left for Kyoto to study Nihonga painting, a rigorous style of painting specific to Japan. Kusama hated the fact that it was so centered on Japan the master-disciple system from which she learned, so she turned to European and American styles of painting.

Despite being away from her mother, Kusama suffered from hallucinations that served as the inspiration for her signature polka dots. She began to paint them on surfaces and objects. She called these fields of polka dots “infinity nets,” and created many pieces that comprised a series of the same name. Though intricate in detail, Kusama was able to produce many works in a short span of time that kept her busy.

She had some success in Japan before moving to Seattle in 1957, then New York City a year afterward, following advice from Georgia O’Keefe. She quickly rose to be a leader of the avant-garde movement there. She pushed the limits of her work in New York, experimenting with installations that took up entire rooms and sometimes used music within the installation. However, Kusama overworked herself and was hospitalized regularly.

A woman of controversy, one piece in particular speaks to her criticism of the art world, “Narcissus Garden,” which was, essentially, hundreds of mirrored spheres on a large lawn at the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966. Kusama began to sell the spheres for about $2 USD until the Biennale organizers stopped her. “Narcissus Garden” was a critique of the mechanization and the commodification of the art market, as well as the promotion of the artist through media.

After working hard in the United States, Kusama moved to Tokyo in 1973 and checked herself into a mental hospital, where she still lives. Most days, she works in her nearby studio, producing art.

She is not only an artist, however. She organized large happenings that often involved nudity, designed to protest the Vietnam War; wrote a book of poems; produced and starred in an award-winning film, “Kusama’s Self-Obliteration”; and even had her own clothing line.

Yayoi Kusama helped change the art world for Japan, female artists, and the avant-garde. Her polka dots have affected the millions that have experienced her work – and they have also made her one of the most profitable female artists of the past century. One must always remember that she did this by taking the pain of her abusive childhood and transforming it into something beautiful.

In one of her publications, Kusama further explains the use of the polka dot in her works, writing, “[A] polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka dots become movement…Polka dots are a way to infinity.”

Austin Bowes is a contributing writer. Email him at


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