Each month I give my verdict on who has shown the world an interesting and distinctive brand. My latest personal brand of the month goes to…
The 89-year-old Japanese artist makes for a perfect Brand of the Month this October. After all, it’s Halloween time (and pumpkins are a bit of a thing of hers) and her sold-out exhibit has recently opened at the Victoria Miro Gallery here in London. The exhibition also coincides with the UK release of a film about her extraordinary life, entitled Kusama: Infinity.
Not to mention that her brand has been launching like a steady rocket over the past few years. Large-scale solo exhibitions have popped up around the globe, as well as major touring exhibitions in the US and Europe. Last year, we saw her open her own five-story gallery in Tokyo. Yayoi Kusama has become the biggest-selling female artist in the world, and certainly the most recognizable.
At first glance, it’s easy to see that her brand holds a certain magic. Her outer-branding is spot-on (pun intended!). Her co-branding of course is incredible (her 2012 collaboration with Louis Vuitton produced some of their most coveted bags). But there is a certain depth to her personal brand that makes it extraordinary.
Authenticity is a prominent part of her personal brand.
Kusama has created much of her unique brand and fascinating works while living voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital over the past 41 years.
She knows herself, and indeed what she needs to take care of herself. She also doesn’t try to hide her mental illness or demons of the past, but instead works with them. She found a way to channel her manic episodes and allowed them to drive her creativity.
The hospital offered art therapy courses. She explained, “It made it possible for me to continue to make art every day, and this has saved my life.” Kusama sleeps at the hospital and then works in her studio across the road six days a week. She has a small team of studio assistants and gallerists who look after her affairs in New York, Tokyo and London.
“I have been painting, drawing and writing from morning until night every day since I was a child.”
explained Kusama. “When I arrive at my studio in the morning, I put on my work clothes and start to paint straight away, and I work right up until dinner time. I don’t rest. I am an insomniac. Even now, if an idea comes to me in the middle of the night, I pick up my sketchbook and draw.”
Kusama shares that when she was a young girl in a field of flowers, she experienced a hallucination in which the flowers started talking to her. She likened the heads of these talking flowers to dots that went on as far as she could see, and she felt as if she was disappearing (she calls it ‘self-obliterating’) into a field of endless dots. This episode influenced most of her later work.
Kusama’s art is very much part of her survival story. In fact, many of her trademark forms today were an effort to manage and make sense of her hallucinations over the years. The first pumpkin Kusama saw was at age 11; when she picked it up, it began speaking to her. She painted the pumpkin and won a prize for it. Almost eighty years later, one of her pumpkin sculptures (2007) sold for $1.5 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Her “art medicine” as she calls it includes a compulsion to spread those forms in a repetitive fashion on every surface, walls, floors, furniture and even the clothing she makes herself, and continues today.
Resilience is also a strong feature of her brand.
Kusama is a survivor. She not only endured an oppressive childhood in Japan and a lifetime of mental illness, but also survived (and thrived) as a struggling artist in the male-dominated art world of 1960’s New York .
Kusama knew she had to escape her stifling home environment. She made the bold decision to reach out to one of her greatest inspirations, artist Georgia O’Keefe, writing to her for advice. O’Keefe answered her letters, advising Kusama to go to the US and show her work to anyone who might be interested. O’Keefe became a remote mentor of sorts.
Speaking very little English, Kusama arrived in New York City in 1958 with a few hundred dollars sewn into her dress and a stack of her artwork and silk kimonos to sell. According to her autobiography, she sustained herself by scavenging food like discarded fish heads. But through determination and passion, she managed to infiltrate the avant-guard art scene and had the first of many exhibitions there in 1959. She met and inspired important artists including Donald Judd, Andy Warhol and Joseph Cornell, and, alongside of them, made contributions towards pop art and minimalist movements.
She was also one of the first artists to experiment with performance art; she would create what she called “happenings” around New York, by getting people to strip naked in places like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, and paint their bodies with polka dots.
Although she did gain a degree of recognition, Kusama never reached the level of fame as her pop art contemporaries and seems to be largely excluded from pop art history. Kusama herself believes that her original ideas were appropriated by male artists in her New York circles (the film Kusama: Infinity seeks to expose that appropriation).But by the end of ‘60’s, she had managed to lay the foundations of the work we see today.
In the early ‘70s, Kusama returned broke to Japan and checked herself into the psychiatric hospital where she still lives today. Her work was rediscovered in 1989 when the Centre for International Contemporary Arts in New York put on a retrospective of her work. A slow, steady revival started to emerge. And now her resilient brand has become a global phenomenon.
And of course, be sure to catch the film Kusama:Infinity!