In the late ’60s, Kusama’s celebrity rivaled that of Andy Warhol. A central figure on the New York avant-garde scene, Kusama was famous for her delicately patterned abstract canvases, soft furniture with phalluses, and happenings in which she painted naked participants with her now signature polka dots. She also had her own clothing shop, where she sold her racy designs. But when the emotional issues that had plagued her since childhood proved overwhelming, she quit New York and entered a Tokyo psychiatric hospital, where she has resided ever since. And yet she has never stopped producing bold, propulsive work that spans painting, sculpture, fashion, and installation, such as her mirrored infinity rooms, which surely reflect the cosmos of Kusama’s own imaginings. The sources for her celebrated polka-dot works, for example, are the hallucinations she first experienced as a child growing up in Japan during the war years. “Polka dots would cover my fingertips to the top of my head, expanding to the window and finally covering up the whole room,” says the artist, 84, whose latest solo show of new paintings and installations, “I Who Have Arrived in Heaven,” is on view at David Zwirner in New York through December 21. She adds: “I was terrified by these hallucinations, so much so I had to tremble in the closet. However, by painting these psychological complexes and fears repetitively, I was able to suppress and overcome all of them.” Early in her career, Kusama commissioned photographs of herself with her work, in which she often dressed to blend in with the elaborately polka-dotted settings. “I call it Kusama’s Self-Obliteration,” she says of an artistic philosophy that, perhaps ironically, has put that self front and center. Though she knew little about George Clooney, she decided to suit him up in polka dots as well. “My idea is to send the message of ‘love forever’ to all the people in the world through the polka dots, which are all about the universe and human beings and living things. Your sex, being famous, being a star has nothing to do with it.”
Giorgio Armani suit, shirt, bow tie, and shoes, customized by the artist Yayoi Kusama; Thomas Pink socks. Styled by Michael Kucmeroski. Set design by Thomas Thurnauer. Photography assistants: Dean Dodos, Charles Grauke, Alexandre Jaras; Fashion assistant: Anastasya Kolomytseva. Purchase this image on Artsy.