Popularizing The Polka Dot: Artist Spotlight On Yayoi Kusama

The polka dot is and has been a recognizable motif for decades. We tend to associate the pattern with feelings of simplicity, joyfulness, and fun ­– the creation of Minnie Mouse in 1928, for instance, wearing her cheery red and white dotted ensemble, introduced the quintessential polka dot icon. The pattern itself exudes a wholesome, clean, friendly, and upbeat vibe that is commonly pleasing. In the 1930’s, polka dots entered the high fashion markets and designers like Christian Dior created dresses that were ladylike, romantic, and extravagant. Style icons like Elizabeth Taylor and Lucille Ball sported these spots with elegance; sexpot Marilyn Monroe adopted a playful take on the pattern, furthering its relevance in the bikini and lingerie markets. Brian Hyland actually sang about these spots in “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, the story of a shy girl wearing a rather revealing bikini.

However, this playful motif has not always had these reputations. In the Middle Ages, this pattern was almost impossible to create with the lack of machines; it was tricky to produce concentric circles and evenly-spaced dots, which resulted in a pattern that reminded people of diseased rashes caused by leprosy, bubonic plague, and small pox. In some cultures, the dot symbolized magic, male potency, and the victory of the hunt. In the mid-20th century, the polka dot took a rebellious turn as the spots became smaller – closer together and clustered – resulting in a dizzying effect. This psychedelic perplexity is oh-so obvious in the work of pop artist Yayoi Kusama, also known as the Polka Dot Princess.

Born in 1929 in Nagano, Japan, Yayoi Kusama is today one of Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artists. She works in a variety of mediums, including painting, sculpture, installations, and performance art. She moved to New York City in 1958, leaving behind her abusive mother and philandering father, and quickly established herself as part of the avant-garde art culture, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenbur. She was an instant success in the industry; her large-scale paintings were unlike anything that existed at the time. Her signature style consists of psychedelic polka dots that swarm over her artwork like wild fire, creeping into infinity and spreading their energy into the universe; as she once said aptly, “Our earth is only one polka dot among millions of others.”

Although a playful energy may appear to exist in her work, Kusama’s artwork is the direct representation of a mental illness stemming from her childhood. “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see,” she said once. “I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and painting…this mysterious dots obsession.”

Aside from her notoriety as a painter, Kusama experimented with performance art which she staged around New York City; her most infamous piece was the painting of polka dots on nude bodies in a work she called Self-Obliteration. Some were staged to protest the Vietnam War, depicting how the human body is too beautiful to be slaughtered; others portrayed her anti-capitalist ways and some were staged just to explore her ideas of unity, love, and the infinite universe.


Kusama’s series of installations, which she refers to as ‘Infinite Rooms’ (such as Fireflies on the Water [2002] or You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies [2005]) are composed of mirrors, lights, and water. These rooms produce a mesmerizing effect and for a moment we live in Kusama’s ethereal world of infinity – we suddenly become part of her psyche, her hallucinations.


While in America for nearly two decades (1958-1977), Kusama was consumed by the art world. She was a publicity genius and had the fervor to attract a lot of attention with her endeavors. She not only was a painter and sculptor but also a filmmaker, a fashion designer, a writer, and a poet. It comes as no surprise that by 1973, she had become exhausted by the scene and returned to her native Japan. Shortly after her return to Tokyo, Kusama voluntarily committed herself to a mental institution and temporarily fell into obscurity. It wasn’t until 1993, when she represented Japan at the prestigious contemporary art exhibition Venice Biennale, that her recognition was re-established and her work was once again in great demand. By 2008 she had broken the record as the highest-priced living female artist. Her iconic dots swarmed their way through numerous industries, appearing in everything from cell phones cases to clothing to accessories. Following Louis Vuitton’s sponsorship of the Kusama retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2012, she partnered with the brand to release a collection of bags and accessories inspired by her bold and playful polka dots. The concept store was wrapped in her iconic dizzying dots; the light fixtures, white walls, flooring, and display tables were all swathed in an infinity of spots.


Quirky as the polka dot may seem, Yayoi Kusama’s fixation with the motif reflects her necessity for art therapy and the solace she seeks in the shape. Having survived a childhood of abuse and a lifelong battle with mental illness, her whimsical approach suggests that the polka dot is not a bad omen as suggested in the middle ages, but rather a hero – a sexpot and a therapist all rolled into one little circle.  With her faith in the universe, her contribution to the world of art, and her creative eye, Kusama is able to immerse us in her love affair with infinite spots: as she put it once, “Dots scatter proliferating love in the universe and raise my mind to the height of the sky.”

Yayoi Kusama has spent the past thirty-eight years living in a mental institution in Tokyo. Defying stigma, however, she is a woman of endless energy ­– a working artist to this day – who remains a renowned visionary for contemporary female artists worldwide. As Minnie Mouse is to cartoons, so Kusama is to the art world: an icon.