There are many reasons for the fame achieved by legendary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. As the first artist to use dots as her signature (“I have made the polka dot into a symbol of love and peace”), her work is instantly recognizable and is currently celebrated at a major travelling retrospective that is about to open at the Whitney Museum, New York, after shows at the Tate Modern in London and Centre Pompidou in Paris. She is also well known as a formidable personality, an 83-year-old who wears a bright red wig and still creates all her art with her own hands despite the fact she is wheelchair bound and lives in a psychiatric unit (“That’s the right approach – to suffer for your art”). And then there is Kusama’s longevity: her first taste of success came in the 1960s when alongside Andy Warhol she was at the epicentre of the art scene in New York where she organised “happenings” of naked models painted in dots (“Even the idea of sex was very traumatic for me. My work, including the naked happenings, is always about overcoming that bad experience”).

For her latest happening, Kusama is resolutely putting clothes on the models. Specifically, she’s dressing them in the new Yayoi Kusama for Louis Vuitton collection. Created in collaboration with Marc Jacobs, Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton, Kusama’s most high profile project to date sees her signature spots emblazoned on bags, coats, hats, scarves, shoes, sunglasses and jewelry as well as other pieces of fashion. In typical obsessive Kusama style, she has also designed Louis Vuitton’s window installations which feature her ‘nerve’ sculptures and yet more red polka dots. Even the models in the Louis Vuitton lookbook pay homage to Kusama with their sleek bop wigs. One can only imagine how thrilled she is with the varied extent of the collection given her self-professed desire for fame.

Born in 1929 in the city of Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama cites hallucinations during her childhood as the origin of her art. In her first hallucination, the red flower patterns on a tablecloth started to spread across the walls, floor and on herself. Her continued dotty visions are the reason she lives by choice in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital. “A dot lost among millions of other dots,” is how she describes her life.

Still working at a feverish pace, Kusama produced 130 new canvases in the two years before the opening of her retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. “You have to be concentrating on how you create that art, not concentrating on the commercial side while you create it,” she says, referring to the fact she creates all her art by hand at the studio she built opposite her hospital home. “I’m the one who does it all and this is why I’m in a wheelchair. I have been doing this hard labour all of my life and it has hurt my joints.”

During her 60 years working as an artist, Kusama has continued to evolve from the surrealist/expressionist-style paintings she made in Japan in the early 1950s. “I was painting nets at first on a flat table. The nets kept proliferating and overflowed, reaching down to the floor. Thus the table had gotten covered by nets; it became a sculpture. That's how I became a sculptor. Then I developed the idea into ‘happenings’. I painted dots on human bodies, which were moving sculptures.” Evolving once again in her collection for Louis Vuitton, Kusama’s spots are going viral as she spreads her unusual brand of “love and peace” to fashion lovers all over the world.

Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney Museum, New York
July 12 – September 30, 2012

“I love Damien Hirst, I respect his work a great deal and I am happy that the polka dots I started using have become a symbol of love and peace around the world with everybody joining hands to use them in this way.”

“Some of the naked happenings in New York were against the Vietnam War because the human body is too beautiful to be killed in that way. There were also naked anti-tax happenings because nudism doesn’t cost money.”

“The environment was so conservative that I fought to get out. Growing up, I was constantly told to behave appropriately as a girl. When I wanted to get a driver's license, my mother said that I could get a chauffeured car if I married well. When I said I wanted to be a painter, she told me to be an art collector instead. But I was not discouraged because I knew I was talented. Before leaving for New York, I burned large paintings I had done because I knew I would produce much better ones in New York. They could be worth $6 million now. I was that intense and determined.”

Louis Vuitton’s Artist Collections
The Yayoi Kusama collection is the latest in a line of artist collaborations undertaken by Louis Vuitton which has worked with Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince, as well as the estate of Stephen Sprouse, on similar projects. Marc Jacobs, Artist Director of Louis Vuitton and art collector says of Kusama: “The obsessive character and the innocence of her artwork touch me. She succeeds in sharing her vision of the world with us.”