Bullish Outlook for Works by Yayoi Kusama "The Queen of Polka Dots"
Text / Odile Chen
Retrospective Exhibition at the Tate Modern, London
In a few months' time, London will host the Olympic Games 2012. This four-yearly sporting extravaganza will attract visitors and viewers from around the globe, and the hosts are eager and ready to use this opportunity to also assert their status as one of the world's leading culture capitals. England has long had the image of a country that combines conservatism and tradition with rebellious avantgardism, a place capable of harboring contradictory movements and contrasting styles, be it in politics, literature, music, or popular culture. Throughout history, the ability to tolerate and utilize seesawing developments and approaches, and make them mutually fertile, has been a driving force behind the country's position on the cultural stage. Among the many fine art events and exhibitions on in London in the first half of this year, I especially recommend the Yayoi Kusama Retrospective held at the Tate Modern Gallery. Born in Japan, a country whose culture highly values conventional values and self-control, Kusama had to go all the way to the United States to find an audience for her unorthodox, highly controversial and always avant-garde creative work. Between 1960 and 1970, her work was almost completely ignored by Japanese art circles, yet today she is widely acknowledged as Japan's greatest living artist. In many ways, her unusual career resonates with the same mixture of extreme conservatism and groundbreaking modernity that is the hallmark of England's art and history.
The English media praise Yayoi Kusama as “one of the worlds most interesting, arresting and intriguing artists” over the past 60 years. She was once one of only two Asian artists to be shortlisted among “the world's 100 most important artists,” and today she is considered a national treasure of her native country. In addition to the grand retrospective at Tate Modern, collectors may also want to check out the exhibition of New Works by Kusama currently showing at the Victoria Miro Gallery, well-known for representing winners of the Turner Prize. Also worth mentioning is the upcoming collaboration between Kusama and fashion house Louis Vuitton, which is being broadcasted extensively in the media and will see the artist's designs on handbags, shoes, and accessories beginning in summer; at the same time, an LV-sponsored exhibition of her paintings has begun at an earlier date and will last for half a year. It is no exaggeration to say that the English capital is buzzing with the name of Yayoi Kusama.
A Struggle between Imagination and Reality - Kusama's Career as an Artist
Wherever she goes, Yayoi Kusama sports her trademark red wig, bright and shiny as a tomato, wearing standout eye shadow and one of her self-designed polka dot dresses—in terms of impressive appearance and unforgettably eccentric outfits, she's easily in the same league as the grand old dame of fashion design, Vivienne Westwood, or pop superstar Lady Gaga. Many years ago, Karl Lagerfeld, head designer and creative director for Chanel, paid homage to Kusama with a polka dot-inspired fashion line. Polka dots were also one of the important emblems of the hippie era, the 1960s with its wild mélange of sexual liberation and anti-war protests. This was the period when Kusama first rose to prominence. Riding the crest of the counterculture wave, she became one of the stars of the international art scene, and her success earned her monikers such as “the Queen of Polka Dots,” “Queen of Hippies,” or “Priestess of Avantgarde.” Her fame and influence were right on par with those of the grandmaster of pop art, Any Warhol, and her repeated use of polka dot patterns and designs was an inspiration to big names of the following generation, including contemporary artists Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami.
Kusama works in a wide variety of mediums. Besides being a painter and sculptor, she is also a performance artist, fashion designer, poet, and novelist. But this list by no means exhausts the range of her different identities: for many years, she has also been a sufferer from mental illness and hallucinations, adding yet another layer to her multi-faceted personality. Looking back over the years, one finds that she had a hard life in which she had to fight to overcome all kinds of difficulties. Born on March 22, 1929, as the youngest child of a well-off upper middle-class family in Matsumoto, Nagano, she did not have an easy childhood. Her mother's family ran a business of wholesale seed nurseries; her father had married into the money as an adopted son-in-law, and was a notorious womanizer to boot. A tough person of formidable character and strong principles, her mother was yet unable to solve the many problems festering in the family, and as an outlet much of her energy was devoted to providing her youngest daughter with an extremely strict upbringing. The mistreatment she suffered in her early childhood and youth continued to affect Kusama throughout her life, as did the philandering behavior of her father. To this day, she admits to being afraid of men and professes extreme distaste for sex. Despite this aversion, and being practically a “sexless” person herself, she yet is very supportive of the gay movement and sexual liberation.
From childhood, Kusama displayed outstanding artistic talent, and during her youth she learned to paint traditional Japanese-style paintings in a variety of mediums, including gouache and pastel. Encouraged by eminent American female artist Georgia O'Keeffe, she moved to New York in 1957, where her creative abilities soon blossomed in a much more open and tolerant environment. She greatly expanded her vision, and her oeuvre soon comprised not just paintings, but also soft sculptures, performance art, installations, and films. Her themes and formats ranged from pop art, feminism and surrealism to Art Brut (outsider art), abstract expressionism, and happenings.
Pumpkins and flowers are Kusama's all-time favorite subjects, partly due to her family background on her mother's side. Still back in Japan, when she was about 17 or 18 years old, Kusama won a prize and much acclaim for a painting showing several pumpkins arranged in a horizontal line, executed in the traditional Japanese style. She says that pumpkins have a cute and lovable shape, and give her a strong sense of security with their “big bellies.” Between 1967 and 1970, Kusama turned to sculpture and produced many environmental installations, something she often combined with public happenings, in which she painted polka dots and similar patterns on human bodies. Her way of dealing with her innermost fears and apprehensions is to repeatedly paint the things she is afraid of, or sublimate them into recurring designs, until, gradually, she is completely surrounded by them, allowing her “self” to disappear in, and merge with, the originally fearsome environment. This kind of “self-dissolution” marks a return to the natural state, which is one of oneness with the universe. Eventually, after 17 years in New York, she returned to live in Japan in 1973. Two years later, in 1975, she began to do collages, and in 1979 expanded her repertoire to include prints. She also started to work as a writer, and her 1983 novel The Hustler's Grotto of Christopher Street won the Tenth Literary Award for New Writers from the monthly magazine Yasei Jidai. Generally speaking, Kusama enjoyed much success and created numerous new works after returning to her native country. Finally, her life had entered a phase of relative stability, and the hardships and efforts of her earlier life were now paying off.
Kusama's paintings are brimming with intense, even obsessive, personal thought and powerful autobiographical themes. When she picks up a paintbrush, she lets intuition guide the creative process, and the hand follows were the mind leads. She then connects with fantastic worlds that are filled with mystery, and as strange motivations and sheer physical force bubble to the surface from the depths of her subconscious, they inevitably explode into a whole cosmos of eerily configurated space. Kusama's passion for painting borders on religious zeal, and it is this exceptional fervor and devotion that has sustained her through the long years of fighting agonizing psychiatric problems.
Collaboration with Fashion Houses: The Grand Artist and the Name Brands
Kusama has been a household name on the global art scene since the 1960s, and remains active today at the age of 83. Unsurprisingly, her off-the-wall rig-outs and unique personality have also attracted a fair share of criticism, but nothing can obscure the fact that she has already achieved legendary status. After returning to Japan, she checked herself into an open mental health facility, where she has lived ever since. But that has not prevented her from going to her studio—located just opposite the hospital—every day and working on some new project, a routine she maintains to this day. She is still frequently invited to show her work at international galleries and exhibitions, and the past year has been a particularly busy one, seeing Kusama prepare for a slew of current and upcoming events, including a retrospective of her work at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in October last year, which has now moved to the Tate Modern in London (February 9 through June 5), and will head to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in July. These events are sponsored by Louis Vuitton.
During the time of the retrospective at Tate Modern, Louis Vuitton's London flagship store on New Bond Street is also putting on an exhibition titled “Yayoi Kusama,” showing films, paintings and installations by the artist. This parallel event also serves as a “warm-up” for the upcoming collaboration between Kusama and the fashion house. As reported, Louis Vuitton will officially present a new line in July that comprises leather goods, dresses, jewelry and accessories featuring the famous polka dots and other similar round and elliptical designs by the female artist.
A driving force behind the fashion house's cooperation with Kusama is Marc Jacobs, genius out-of-the-box designer and longstanding creative director of LV, who declares himself to be a great admirer of Yayoi Kusama's art. In 2006, Jacobs visited the artist at her studio in Tokyo, and was given by her an LV handbag that she had personally adorned with white polka dots. It was this gift that got things going, and ever since then Jacobs has been promoting Kusama's art in fashion circles. His hope is that the new line of products to be launched in summer will introduce many more people to Kusama's art, and lead to a wider appreciation of her exceptional talent.
Internationally, collaboration between big fashion houses and contemporary artists has been a big trend for many years now, with name brands further increasing their visibility and mass appeal through art sponsorships. LV in particular continue to draw much attention with their regular collaborations with living contemporary artists. Marc Jacobs has injected new life and creative vibes into the venerable old brand with more than 150 years of history, creating a win-win situation both for LV and the commissioned artists: sales improve through aesthetical designs and added artistic value, and at the same time support and publicity is provided for contemporary art and artists. Previous LV collaborations include those with American designer and artist Stephen Sprouse (2001, “letters and roses graffiti”), Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (2002, “cherry blossom” and other handbag collections), and American painter and photographer Richard Prince (2008, “Big City After Dark” classic collection).
Yayoi Kusama is no stranger to collaborations with big corporations, either. Her involvement in fashion design reaches back as far as the 1990s. In 2009, she designed mobile phones, boxes and packages for iida, a sub brand of KDDI, Japan's second largest cell phone carrier. The limited edition polka dot dog cell box issued by KDDI came with a price tag of one million yen (roughly NT$ 340,000), while the cell bags went for about 100,000 yen each (roughly NT$ 34,000). In recent years, she also designed polka dot cosmetic bags and boxes for international beauty companies such as Guerlain and Lancôme. Meanwhile, a number of products featuring pumpkinthemed sculptures or graphic designs have been released over the years and have become sought-after collector's items, including accessories, decorative items, prints, haute couture, and memorabilia. The commercialization of art and corporate sponsorship for art and culture are two sides of the same coin, and, if done properly, is beneficial to all parties involved. In fact, quite a few artists have profited considerably from these trends, having seen their market value rise as a result of sponsor support and collaboration with major brands.
Record Sales of Yayoi Kusama Artwork in 2011
Collectors Are Hoarding Her Work
Even though Yayoi Kusama is an internationally renowned artist whose work is found in the collections of more than 90 museums around the world, her eminent status and critical acclaim are not quite reflected in the sales of her artwork, or the degree of visibility her oeuvre enjoys with global collectors. Around 1995, Kusama's works were shown at Art Taipei, together with other exhibits from the Fukuoka MOMA Contemporary Arts Gallery. This helped to increase her name recognition somewhat, and also attracted the interest of some collectors, but overall her pieces did not achieve very high prices. In fact, in terms of commercial success, there remained a huge gap between Kusama's works and those of other, long-established grand-masters. In recent years, however, we have seen a “China wave” sweep across the contemporary arts market, and in its wake artists from other Asian countries have also begun to register on the radar of international collectors. The previous long-term neglect suffered by most contemporary Japanese artists, especially in their own country and East Asia in general, also means that prices in this specific segment are still comparatively affordable, explaining why Kusama is actually quite popular in the overseas market.
In addition to the MOMA Contemporary Art Gallery in Fukuoka, the Ota Fine Arts Gallery in Tokyo has been representing Kusama's work since 1997, as did the Robert Miller Gallery in New York, before the artist switched to the Gagosian Gallery, one of the most influential agents in the world. Also representing her work is Victoria Miro, London. Her affiliation with these principal art galleries and agents on the global scene will certainly give Kusama's market value a significant boost. A number of agents in Taiwan and Japan have also become aware of Kusama's potential, and have started to organize occasional exhibitions and special events to promote her work. Meanwhile, Art Taipei frequently features her works as one of the main attractions and selling points.
Considering the great number of paintings Kusama has produced over her long career, the fact that in 2011 only 97 of her oil paintings changed hands (generating a total roughly US$ 8.27 million in sales) only serves to confirm the fact that there is much room for improving the artist's commercial profile. Personally I believe that Yayoi Kusama's art is still undervalued, and that the future is very likely to bring a rise in prices. Currently, many collectors are reluctant to part with their items, and this hoarding mentality means that demand is outstripping supply. This is also confirmed by the extremely small number of Kusama lots that go begging at auctions.
The majority of Kusama paintings appearing in auctions are items that were done after her return to Japan, and they enjoy a fair amount of popularity both in Asia and Europe. However, the pieces that go for really high prices—commensurate with a grand master's reputation—are invariably those from her New York period, in particular items from the “Infinity Nets” series. The most expensive piece to date is one of her rare larger paintings, “No. 2” from 1959 (black dots on white canvas; 183× 274cm), which sold on Nov 12, 2008, in New York for US$ 5,794,500 (roughly NT$ 200 million). The buyer was Philippe Ségalot, an art consultant and private dealer based in Manhattan who specializes in high-end items. It was the second highest prize ever paid for a painting by a living female artist. According to one of Kusama's agents, there are a total of only five such large oil paintings by the artist, and the other four have all been secured by Japanese museums for their collections.
The single most expensive three-dimensional work ever to change hands at auction is “Self Obliteration” (1966-1974), a large installation featuring a model of a human body, table and chairs, all painted with colored polka dots. It was sold on May 12, 2011, in New York for US$ 1,022,500 (about NT$ 30 million). It is also worth mentioning that more than half of the 20 most expensive sales of Kusama's works happened during the last three years.
Looking at the data provided by Artprice.com, one finds that Yayoi Kusama's price index since 1998 shows an almost uninterrupted upwards trend, and that prices for works in all mediums combined are peaking in 2012. If we look only at the index for oil paintings, we find that prices in this specific category peaked in 2008, but that shortly afterwards prices experienced a downward correction in the wake of the international financial crisis. However, over the past four years, prices for Kusama art have almost reached the 2008 pre-crisis level again. In other words, the bigger picture clearly shows that collectors have seen a marked appreciation of Kusama items, especially in comparison with the early years. For example, if a collector had bought a Kusama oil painting for US$ 100 back in 1998, the same painting would now be worth US$ 824, marking a more than eightfold increase in value.
With the great retrospective shown at the Tate Modern and, later in the year, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and with the major exposure afforded by the LV collaboration, it is not difficult to predict that Yayoi Kusama's market value is set to soar in 2012. We are particularly looking forward to the kick-off in July of the Louis Vuitton collection featuring a range of products with the artist's designs—this will bring the boundless magic of Kusama's art to a bigger and broader audience than ever before!