Yayoi Kusama’s Remarkable Journey to World’s Best Selling Female Artist After 40 Years in a Psychiatric Hospital

Yayoi Kusama is now the world’s top-selling female artist, with her vibrant, polka-dotted artworks fetching millions at auction. But her path to art world superstardom has been far from ordinary. Kusama spent over 40 years living voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo while continuing to produce innovative and acclaimed artwork. Her fascinating life story and unrelenting dedication to her creative vision, despite significant mental health struggles, has inspired collectors and art lovers around the globe.

Kusama’s career began in the 1950s, when she moved from Japan to New York City to pursue her artistic ambitions. She rubbed shoulders with artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, staging provocative happenings and exhibitions showcasing her bold new style of Pop Art. Kusama quickly gained notoriety as the “Polka Dot Princess” for her infinity net paintings covered in psychedelic dot patterns.

However, by the 1970s Kusama was suffering from intense anxiety, obsessive thoughts, and hallucinations. Unable to cope with her deteriorating mental health, she voluntarily checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo in 1977 and has lived there ever since.

Remarkably, Kusama has remained a highly productive artist despite her hospitalization. She established a studio just across the street from the hospital, allowing her to continue painting and sculpting while undergoing treatment for severe depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Over the past 40 years at the hospital, she has created thousands of artworks, including her iconic pumpkin sculptures, surreal collages, and her famous Infinity Mirror Rooms.

The art world was mostly unaware of Kusama’s hospitalization until the late 1990s, when a retrospective of her work toured museums in the Americas and Europe, finally bringing her longtime avant-garde art experiments to wide public attention. Interest in Kusama grew exponentially in the 2000s and 2010s, and her art auction prices skyrocketed.

Yayoi Kusama 草間彌生 | Pumpkin (L) 南瓜(L) Sotheby’s
KUSAMA YAYOI | Interminable Net #4 Sotheby’s
Sale PriceArtwork TitleYearSource
$10.8 millionKusama Pumpkin2021Phillips Auction House
$8.3 millionInterminable Net #42019Sotheby’s Auction House
$7.1 millionWhite No. 282014Christie’s Auction House
$6.8 millionThe Passing Winter2019Sotheby’s Auction House
$6.5 millionPumpkin2008Sotheby’s Auction House
$5.1 millionAccumulation of Stamps2014Christie’s Auction House
$4.8 millionFlower Obsession2019Phillips Auction House
$4.6 millionNets2013Christie’s Auction House
$4.1 millionInfinity Mirrored Room – Brilliance of the Souls2017Phillips Auction House
$4 millionWood Boat2017Christie’s Auction House
Yayoi Kusama’s 10 highest selling artworks

In 2008, one of her bronze pumpkin sculptures sold for $264,000 at Sotheby’s New York, compared to just $15,000 in 2000. By 2016, the record price for her pumpkin sculptures reached $852,000. Her vibrant abstract canvases now routinely fetch over $5 million apiece. In 2021, Kusama’s stainless steel pumpkin sculpture sold for a record $10.8 million at Phillips Auction. She surpassed Georgia O’Keefe as the top-selling female artist at auction.

At age 94, Yayoi Kusama remains committed to creating art and sharing her unique vision with the world. She chooses to remain hospitalized in Japan, where she follows a structured routine and continues her lifelong fight against mental illness. Though she seldom appears in public, Kusama keeps in touch with her studio assistants and her international art dealers to oversee new exhibitions and projects.

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