Who is Yayoi Kusama?
If you’re eight and you’re looking for answers, you could hardly do better than a dip into the colorful new children’s book, Yayoi Kusama: From Here to infinity, published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and written by Sarah Suzuki, a curator in the department of drawings and prints at MoMA, with illustrations by Ellen Weinstein, a New York-based illustrator. The newly published book will be of special interest to kids and parents in Atlanta as the High Museum prepares to host Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, opening in November of 2018.
“Yayoi Kusama was born in the country of Japan, on the island of Honshu, in a town called Matsumoto City,” we learn on the opening page. From there we follow Kusama’s journey, first as an unusual girl obsessed with drawing the abstract patterns she perceives in the natural world, as a misfit in Japanese art school, as a young woman daringly moving alone to New York and finally as an artist making the leap from anonymity to worldwide success.
Weinstein’s illustrations are bright, sumptuous and panoramic, stretching across and filling the pages top to bottom. They suggest Kusama’s style and aesthetic without directly replicating it. Suzuki tells a lovely — if not heart-stopping — story about an artistic journey, a challenging struggle to convey to anyone, let alone a child.
The book covers Kusama’s devotion to polka dots, of course, but other salient and interesting aspects of her biography are glossed over or left out. The important fact that Kusama creates in many styles across media, and not just the famous polka dots, could easily elude a young reader. Initial fame arrived, not entirely due to her canvases, as the book vaguely suggests, but due to her dots being painted onto naked bodies at 1960s art happenings, a turn in the tale that might have made book-buying parents balk, but that would have certainly delighted children.
Kusama, who has a history of neurosis, moved back to Japan in the 1970s, where she currently lives, by choice, in a mental hospital in Shinjuku, Tokyo. To almost anyone, children included, this qualifies as one of the most salient and intriguing aspects of an unusual biography, though it’s disappointingly absent from MoMA’s story. There are worthy reasons to skip over it when addressing children, I suppose, but then again: you can’t really tell the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s life without mentioning that unpleasant incident about the ear. Sometimes madness and untidiness are simply part of the tale.
Still, the gentle story that From Here to Infinity does tell about an independent young woman defying convention to pursue her own artistic vision is nonetheless compelling. As a children’s tale, From Here to Infinity seems remarkable for its female heroine and the way in which it places an artist’s aesthetic development at the center of the story. The rhythm of a page turn effectively breaks the text like an end-of-stanza pause in poetry, and the sequential illustrations burst cinematically with new information and new vistas on every page. The story ends happily, with Kusama still painting, still creating, and the book’s creators wisely fill the final pages with beautiful photographs of Kusama’s work, and ultimately one of Kusama herself standing in one of her polka dot rooms.
“Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos,” the artist has said. “Polka dots are a way to infinity.” Perhaps no one could intuitively understand that extraordinary perspective better than children. In spite of its omissions, MoMA’s From Here to Infinity does a beautiful job of introducing Kusama’s world to young readers.