Beginning in the 1950s, the largely self-taught Japanese artist created a startling visual universe. Her early drawings suggest microscopic cell structures or clusters of stars in exuberant colors, whereas her Infinity Net paintings of the 1960s adopted an all-over matrix that covers a canvas like a tight web. Kusama had her very first solo exhibition in December 1957, at Zoe Dusanne's Gallery in Seattle. Only a few years later an ARTnews review called her work "stunning and quietly overwhelming," a description that remains appropriate to this day. Kusama's work has an obsessive intensity that sets her apart. She gained early recognition in New York where she moved in the late 1950s but also came to the attention of the European avant-gardes.
In the early 1960s, Kusama developed a radically new approach to sculpture. She began to cover household objects—pots, pans, shoes, chairs, sofas, and increasingly larger objects—with phallic protrusions as though some foreign organism had taken over. These works opened the door for a new and more psychologically charged conversation about the body and the self. Kusama grew up in hard times in Japan during World War II. Her outrageous nude performances in New York in the 1960s, which sometimes included examples of her sculptures as props, must have been an enormous leap for the artist who grew up in a society where adherence to the norm—especially as a woman—was paramount.
Plagued with hallucinations since childhood, she has repeatedly stated that painting pictures has been an inspiration and a form of therapy for her. Over the last six decades Kusama has turned these psychological challenges, the push and pull between self and outside world, or what she might term the threat of self-obliteration, into a dizzying, limitless vision that is as exhilarating as it is unsettling.
In true feminist fashion, Elles is not an argument, it’s an invitation: A survey of women artists of the 20th century that suggests there’s nothing so definitive, so limiting, as women’s art. Instead there is conversation, there is sharing, there is everything. –City Arts
The work is shocking, funny, disturbing, sexual, pissed off, poignant and exuberant (as all good art tends to be). –Seattle Magazine
(But) this is not a tidy, feminized re-telling of the flow of art historical movements. It is, instead, a revelation, in fits and starts, of the varied positions—hidden, forthright, peripheral and integral—occupied by women artists. –Seattle Times