Reading and Such

Yayoi Kusama: The trauma, the turbulence behind those dots

Book salutes the artist who has had hallucinations since childhood, hearing flowers and her pet dog speaking to her—but who just kept drawing and painting

Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama, an artist like no other


‘Book Haul’ by Cecil Robin Singalaoa, watercolor on cotton rag paper, 2020, 4×6 inches

Before the Mental Health Awareness Month of October ends, this book reporter salutes the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, the subject of Elisa Macellari’s Kusama: The Graphic Novel (Laurence King Publishing).

In her introduction, Macellari writes her “enormous compassion for (Kusama’s) suffering and find the transformation of her psychic disorders into a form of self-medication extraordinary, given it reaches such beautiful heights.”

My first encounter with Yayoi Kusama was at her Ayala Museum exhibition in 2013, courtesy of Lito and Kim Camacho, who lent their Kusama collection of drawings, paintings, collages, sculptures, prints, even fashion merchandise like scarves and underwear.

Yayoi Kusama

The author in a roomful of soft phallus sculptures by Kusama at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C.

Extraordinary indeed was how this living artist has dealt with hallucinations since childhood. She could hear flowers and her pet dog speaking to her, and her outlet was to keep on drawing and painting. She kept at it, even when her tradition-bound mother warned her, “I’ve told you a thousand times. A woman who paints has no future! Only men do it and practically all of them are lowlifes. They squeeze people for money and spend it on drink.”

Yayoi Kusama

A page from ‘Kusama: The Graphic Novel’

The sight of what her father was engaged in may have traumatized her, to the point that her entire field of vision was filled with dots

As a child, her mother pushed her to spy on her father, who was out almost every night. She did espy him engaged in whoring. However, the book presents the sexual positions artistically like woodblock prints. The sight of what her father was engaged in may have traumatized her to the point that her entire field of vision was filled with dots.

Meanwhile, the mother tore up Kusama’s canvases and kicked her palette. But Kusama persisted, leaving “old-fashioned and patriarchal” Japan even if it meant almost starving in New York in the late ’50s. She salvaged fish heads from the fishmonger’s and the outer leaves of cabbage to make soup. All she wanted was “to feel free, to continue to paint.”

Before that, she enrolled at the Kyoto City School of Arts, but she couldn’t stand the formal lessons. The psychiatrist treating her viewed her works, pronouncing her a genius, while telling her she would continue to have nervous breakdowns if she stayed home. He advised her to leave the country.

She found a book on the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, was mesmerized by the older woman’s works, and wrote letters to her, asking to be led in the right direction.  O’Keeffe expressed interest in Kusama’s watercolors.

It took eight years for the trip to the US to turn into reality, given the parental opposition. But Kusama was determined, getting the endorsement of a relative who was Minister of the Interior. For her US journey, she packed 60 kimonos and brought about 2,000 drawings and paintings to sell. The paintings she couldn’t bring with her, she burned by the river, because she didn’t want to leave them with an unappreciative mother.

She painted abstract figures repeatedly until she collapsed. The author wrote, “But that obsessive anxiety, that sense of anguish would never leave her.” She experienced arrhythmia, panic attacks, hallucination, until she ended up in the emergency room, “even if it wasn’t the right department for her disorders.”

The psychiatrists diagnosed her with depersonalization, “a condition that makes her feel detached…an outside observer of her own physical and mental processes.” She said she felt like she was having an out-of-body experience, unable to feel objects when she touched them.

Despite this, the author wrote, “Kusama had attained the essence of her artistic language.”

She had her first solo show at Brata Gallery in New York in 1959. It was a success. The critic Donald Judd said her monochromes’ effect was “both simple and complex,” and bought her infinity nets for $200. Kusama vowed to herself, “First, I’m going to conquer New York, then the whole of the States.”

Kusama explained how she overpowered her disgust with sex and the phallus. She created “soft sculptures, phallus-shaped protrusions” that helped overcome her phobias. She called it “psychosomatic art,” stuffing phalluses in shoes and boxes, putting them on ladders, etc.

Long before John Lennon and Yoko Ono had their bed-in for peace in ’69, Kusama gathered and orchestrated friends to stage their love-in naked, while she painted them with big red dots until the policemen arrived to break them up.  Her stand on this matter was, “This is art. I plan happenings. I want to break down social conventions. Performance art gives us that freedom.”

Before long she had actors, models, dancers prepared to perform her art. She became “the high priestess of love and pacificism.” It reached the point that fellow artist Andy Warhol would poach models from her, despite her warning to him not to steal them.

In a meeting with surrealist Salvador Dali, he asked what were the activities she was keeping up in the air. These included Kusama Enterprises, The Kusama Polka Dot Church, and Kusama Musical Productions.

The book delves also into a little-known deep but platonic relationship Kusama had with Joseph Cornell of Nyack, New York. There was a 26-year gap between them. They would spend afternoons drawing each other naked, “and yet their relationship never became physical, because of their respective complexes and phobias.” He was her closest friend who taught her that death is “like walking into another room.”

Kusama grew more political with the body painting, the setting on fire of the US flag, the nude dancing around the statue of George Washington. She was arrested for posing only in a bra and veil as the Statue of Liberty in Central Park. News of all these actions reached home and upset her parents, who bought all the copies of the newspaper that they could find so no one would learn about their daughter.

In one performance, she asked aloud, “What would you rather? War or free love?” A member of the audience answered, “Let’s make love.”

Onwards to Tokyo, where Kusama returned for psychiatric help. She described her visions as spirals before her eyes in red, white, and blue. She felt alienated in the city which had changed drastically 20 years after she left it. Her parents were dead, “everything had aged, everything was in decline…only art never let her go.”

She decided to have herself confined in a psychiatric hospital where she continued to make art. But her depression made her attempt suicide. While recovering, she produced dark figures and collages.

In 1989, the US rediscovered her and mounted a Kusama retrospective in New York, followed by an invitation to participate in the Venice Biennale where she presented 1,500 mirrored spheres laid on a piece of lawn. To pay for the expense of the installation art, Kusama, who was penniless then, gave her patron a suitcase filled with cloth phalluses.

During the Venice event, her doctor stayed by her side to prevent any possible relapse because she now had an “extremely fragile nervous system.” Kusama continues to work and exhibit.

Copies of Kusama: The Graphic Novel are available at these websites: and

About author


She is a freelance journalist. The pandemic has turned her into a homebody.

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