Born in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, as the fourth child in a prosperous and conservative family, whose wealth was derived from the management of wholesale seed nurseries, Kusama has experienced hallucinations and severe obsessive thoughts since childhood, often of a suicidal nature. She claims that as a small child she suffered severe physical abuse by her mother. In 1948, she left home to enter senior class at Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts, where she studied Nihonga painting, a rigorous formal style developed during the Meiji period; she graduated the following year. She hated the rigidities of the master-disciple system where students were supposed to imbibe tradition through the sensei. "When I think of my life in Kyoto," she is quoted as saying, "I feel like vomiting."
In 1959, Kusama had her first solo exhibition in New York at the Brata Gallery, an artist's co-op. She showed a series of white net paintings which were enthusiastically reviewed by Donald Judd (both Judd and Frank Stella then acquired paintings from the show). Kusama has since exhibited work with, among others, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns. Exhibiting alongside European artists including Lucio Fontana, Pol Bury, Otto Piene, and Gunther Uecker, in 1962 she was the only female artist to take part in the widely acclaimed Nul (Zero) international group exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
An exhibition of Kusama'a work opened at the Tate Modern in London on February 9, 2012. Described as 'akin to being suspended in a beautiful cosmos gazing at infinite worlds, or like a tiny dot of fluoresecent plankton in an ocean of glowing microscopic life', the exhibition features work from Kusama's entire career.
From July 15, 2013 to November 3, 2013, hundreds of her works including dozens of her latest pieces will be exhibited at the Daegu Art Museum, Daegu, Korea. From June 30, 2013 to September 16, 2013, several pieces are being exhibited at the MALBA, the Latinamerican Art Museum of Buenos Aires, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.