Yayoi Kusama is famed all around the world for her dotty works and Instagram-friendly immersive installations but this was not always the case. The life and career of the Japanese artist are the subject of a new comic Kusama: The Graphic Novel by the Thai-Italian illustrator Elisa Macellari, which is published next month by Laurence King. The unofficial biography charts Kusama’s life from her first psychotic episodes as a child, through her move to New York where she organised infamous performances and met many of the city’s most famous artists, to a period of decline and mental health issues before gaining worldwide recognition later in life. “Her experience is an example of a woman, strong and fragile at the same time, who is transforming herself into art,” Macellari says.
The new graphic novel is primarily based on Kusama’s Infinity Net: My Autobiography (Tate Publishing, 2013) and the 2018 documentary Kusama: Infinity directed by Heather Lenz. “Kusama’s world is eccentric, captivating and inclusive,” Macellari says. “I just took a small step inside it and her dense life mesmerised me.” The artist’s signature bright red is a constant throughout, highlighting the presence of spots and colours in both Kusama’s work but also in hallucinations the artist has experienced since childhood. “I tried to find my own language, using graphic signs as the polka dots or small circles to create a visual rhythm,” Macellari says. “I also loved choosing the colour palette, which tells a story full of contrasts.”
Six episodes from the life of Yayoi Kusama:
Kusama is born in 1929 into a wealthy family in the Japanese city of Matsumoto. She begins painting and drawing obsessively from a young age but is often discouraged from doing so by her mother. Her mother also sends the young Kusama to spy on her father, whom she rightly suspected of having affairs.
As a child Kusama begins having hallucinations, which she would suffer from for much of her life, often seeing spots and hearing voices. In her late teens Kusama enrols at an arts and crafts school in Kyoto where she continues her prolific output. Her psychiatrist sees her work and encourages Kusama to leave home, where her mother often torments her and destroys her pictures, as he says she will continue to experience nervous breakdowns if she remains. Kusama discovers the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and writes to the American artist who responds encouragingly and suggests she travel to the US.
Kusama eventually moves to New York in 1957, packing around 2,000 works with her and destroying much of the rest. She begins paintings repetitively and obsessively again, often as a way of trying to rid herself of her anxiety.
She has her first solo show in 1959 at the Brata Gallery, which is reviewed by Donald Judd who also buys one of her works. Kusama goes on to meet several art world stars in New York, including Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí. In the 1960s Kusama starts her own fashion line, film company and organises a same-sex wedding. She begins organising several public performances too, painting her signature red dots onto the performers’ naked bodies.
In 1964 Kusama meets Joseph Cornell and soon strikes up an unlikely but close platonic relationship with the artist who is nearly three decades older. They remain close until his death in 1972.
Kusama returns permanently to Japan in the early 1970s as her mental health deteriorates and in 1977 she voluntarily checks herself into a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo. For a decade she remains largely on the periphery of the art world, continuing to make work but with little public attention. But in the late 1980s two retrospectives, first in Japan and then in the US, lead to her being invited to represent Japan at the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993 and her career begins to take off once again. However, it was not the first time she had shown work at the Venice Biennale. In 1966 Kusama showed her installation Narcissus Garden (1966) on a patch of grass in front of the Italian pavilion thanks to the help of the Italian artist Lucio Fontana.
Kusama would go onto become a global art world superstar; she still voluntarily lives at the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo.
• Kusama: The Graphic Novel, Elisa Macellari, Laurence King, 128pp, £14.99 (hb)