When asked about her creative trajectory, Kusama wasn’t so helpful. For example, to my inquiry of why she had progressed from the black and white “Love Forever” drawings of 2004 to the brilliant unmixed blue, orange, and red pigments of “My Eternal Soul,” the series she has been working on since 2009, she replied: “I wanted to switch from monochrome work to color because I am talented.” Only gradually did I realize that she was answering my question truthfully—her narcissism is as innocent and all-encompassing as a child’s.
Kusama has been telling versions of her life story for so long that no one, not even she, can vouch for particular facts. She grew up in Matsumoto, a provincial city in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, in the grim years before and during World War II. Her mother’s prosperous family owned a large plant nursery there. When her father married, he took his in-laws’ last name because they had no male heirs. It was an unhappy union: Kusama’s father was an irrepressible womanizer, and his wife was thwarted and angry. The youngest of four children, Yayoi sought refuge in books and painting, but like other Japanese adolescents at the time, she was drafted into the war effort and worked long hours in a parachute factory. “I would get rid of the dust on the fabric and was cleaning the floor,” she recalled. “The factory was humid and dusty. That is why I got tuberculosis.” Perhaps so, although at other times she has said that her father contracted tuberculosis and she caught it from him, and, in still another variation, her pulmonary problems weren’t caused by tuberculosis at all.
That is a minor discrepancy when compared with one of the central mysteries of Kusama’s life: the genesis of her mental illness. She blames it on an irate mother who beat and ridiculed her youngest child in fury meant for her husband, whom Kusama described to me as a “very gentle” man. Her mother would enlist her to spy on him. “My father had so many girlfriends,” she told me. “Once, my mother and I went to the house of prostitutes to find my father, but he was not there.” In her 2002 autobiography, Infinity Net, which was published in English last year, Kusama relates that her first hallucinations occurred during the war. Human-faced violets began speaking to her, her voice became a dog’s bark, and floral patterns enveloped the room. Reproducing these visions as drawings or paintings soothed her. Although she now says that her trademark patterns of dots are a representation of her visions, she used to tell a different story. “Her mother was jealous, and her energy went to Kusama-san in domestic violence,” said Hidenori Ota, whose Ota Fine Arts gallery in Tokyo represents Kusama. “She would pinch her hard, and that would leave dots on her skin. Kusama-san told me twice that was the origin of the dots.”