Legendary Artist’s Giant Polka Dots Invade NYC

Yayoi Kusama, the 83-year-old Japanese artist who has spent much of her life in a mental institution, is the subject of a new retrospective at the Whitney–and a bizarre branding deal with Louis Vuitton.


This weekend, any New Yorker who hasn’t lit out for cooler climes will find the city temporarily transformed by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. In celebration of her sweeping retrospective at the Whitney, which opened July 12, the 83-year-old artist’s distinctive polka dots have sprung up all over Gotham.


A happy virus is infecting the streets.

In SoHo, Louis Vuitton has opened a pop-up shop of Kusama-branded products. Meanwhile, the luxury megabrand’s Midtown flagship is clad in three stories of swirling black dots. In the window of the store, an uncanny wax replica of the artist presides, expressionless under a neon red wig. As the retrospective travels to other cities later this year, the dotty pop-up shop and installations will follow, like a happy virus infecting the streets of Hong Kong and Paris.

Kusama was only in New York for a smattering of years, but her presence in the city’s rapidly evolving art scene was dynamic. The Whitney’s retrospective tells the story of her years in New York, where she was close with Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, spearheading happenings and making films well into the ’70s. Her Infinity Nets series shows Kusama developing an early fascination with dots, which she describes as “round, soft, colorful, senseless, and unknowing … Polka dots are a way to infinity.” Sculptural works, like One Thousand Boats (1963), plumbed the sexual unconscious with thousands of white phalluses blanketing a row-boat, salvaged by Kusama herself.

Without art, she has said, she would have committed suicide.

Psychological trauma sent her back to Japan in the mid-’70s. Back home in Tokyo, where she still lives in a mental hospital near her studio, she matured as an artist and poet. At the Whitney, this period is represented with works like The Clouds (1984) which had Kusama reviving the phallic language of One Thousand Boats. In the early ’90s, interest in her work surged, and in 1993, she became the first artist to have a solo show at the Venice Biennale. Several years later, she began applying her distinctive polka dots en masse to architectural space–younger fans may remember Infinity Dots Mirrored Room (1996), or the her remarkable 2002 light show, Fireflies on the Water, which has been set up in the Whitney’s lobby.

The Whitney’s curators have examined a life of fragile, emphatic work with care–without a doubt, this is a woman for whom art is life-giving (she’s often said that without art, she would have committed suicide). Only one aspect of the show is left unexamined–the presence of Louis Vuitton. It’s typical for megabrands to underwrite major exhibitions these days, but rarely with such a vocal presence. The New York Times notes that when the artist was a no-show at the opening on July 12, Louis Vuitton apologetically joked that “you are all invited, thanks to Louis Vuitton, to have breakfast at the Peninsula Hotel tomorrow morning at 8:30.”

The Retrospective will be on view until September 30th.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.