Introduction and G1: Pumpkins
Yayoi Kusama was born on March 22, 1929, in Matsumoto, Japan. Her passion for art was innate, and despite her mother’s disapproval, she would spend hours drawing in her sketchbook amongst the gardens and seed-harvesting grounds of the family home and business. Throughout her oeuvre, Kusama has drawn on these experiences as well as her fascination with nature and the cosmos. To this day, flowers, pumpkins, biomorphic shapes, cellular patterns, nets, and dots have been powerful, recurrent motifs in her work, which engages with the vastness of the cosmic realm and her – as well as our – place within it.
Here in G1 are Kusama’s mirrored bronze pumpkin sculptures in various sizes. The artist first saw pumpkins as a child when she visited a large seed-harvesting ground with her grandfather. The mirrored surface of the sculptures allows our multiple reflections to engage with what she has referred to as the pumpkin’s ‘charming and winsome form’. As she writes in her autobiography, what appealed to her most was the pumpkin’s ‘generous unpretentiousness. That, and its solid, spiritual balance’. While studying at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts, starting in 1948, Kusama diligently painted pumpkins with monk-like concentration. These humble gourds have remained a steadfast and important theme in her work.
G2: Peep-in Rooms
In the 1960s, Kusama’s work received critical acclaim for her inventive sculptures and installations across the United States and Europe. She broke new ground in her own practice, making ‘soft sculptures’ called Accumulations and installations such as Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, shown in 1963–64, which took over the gallery’s walls, floor, and ceiling and created a dizzying sensation of immersion for the visitor that edged closer to her desire to depict the infinite. In 1965, she discovered how the use of mirrors would achieve this sense of total immersion and presented her first mirrored room, Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field, at Castellane Gallery in New York. The following year, and at the same gallery, she showed Kusama’s Peep Show, or Endless Love Show, another version of the mirrored room installations which she called ‘environments’. This work would pave the way for future Infinity Mirrored Rooms.
Kusama also creates smaller mirrored rooms that take on more of a discrete sculptural form. These works invite the visitor to peer into similarly composed environments. Here in the G2 gallery are two new 'peep-in' mirrored rooms, The Universe as Seen from the Stairway to Heaven and My Evanescent Dream Within a Dream, both created in 2022.
This room presents a photographic timeline of key moments in Kusama’s career as well as a selection of publications about her extensive body of work.
As a young woman, Kusama was determined to leave Japan for New York City to pursue her art. She first arrive in Seattle in 1957, where she was invited to have a solo exhibition at the Dusanne Gallery and then made her way to New York in 1958. Her early years in New York were difficult as she struggled with poverty and solitude. Her emotional challenges were intensified by the power structures that governed a predominantly white, male-dominated Anglophone art world, but Kusama persevered. By the late 1960s, she became an established and famous artist of the avant-garde in both America and Europe.
She continued to push and broaden her practice. Stirred by the protests against the war in Vietnam and fuelled by her experimentation with performance, Kusama organised ‘happenings’ that wove together concepts of love, humanity, and the infinite universe. The ‘happenings’ found a huge audience with the hippie movement. Designed to push and critique the boundaries of conservative society, these events also invited intense international media attention. In 1968, she produced and directed, with Jud Yalkut, her experimental short film, Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, in which she paints dots on a horse, a meadow, a pond, trees, and bodies. Kusama also pursued ventures in fashion and design with her own line, called Kusama Fashion Company. Through clothing and textile design, she found other avenues of expression that also incorporated her infinity net and dot patterns.
When she arrived in New York in 1958, Kusama began[ota2] [K3] work on her ground-breaking Infinity Net paintings, which are monochromatic works featuring tiny, repetitive arcs that expand across the canvas like a net. These expanses of dots, which exemplify Kusama’s deep fascination with the endlessness of the universe, would become a cornerstone of her visual language. The dimensions of her canvasses grew to 33 feet long, and sometimes she would continue the painting beyond the canvas – onto the floor, furniture, and eventually her own body.
Devoted to painting and its expansive capacities, Kusama started a series of paintings called My Eternal Soul in 2009 – eight of which are shown here in this room. These large, square acrylic paintings feature both bold and detailed brushstrokes and a use of brilliant colour. Initially the series was to conclude at one hundred paintings, but the artist has continued to work on these vibrant canvasses in addition to numerous other projects and exhibitions. Biomorphic forms such as cells, amoebae, eyeballs, and flowers, as well as dots and profiles of human faces completely fill these compositions. While these works seem to contrast with her monochromatic Infinity Net paintings, the desire to fill the entire space of a surface that immerses the viewer, remains consistent. As art historian Jenny Sorkin has observed, there is no closure in these paintings, only circularity and repetition analogous to the ongoing cycle of life.
G5: Infinity Mirrored Rooms
Kusama returned to Japan in 1973 where she continued to pursue her artistic practice. In 1978, she published her first novel, Manhattan Suicide Addict, and she continued to exhibit widely throughout the 1980s. In 1989, Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective opened at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York, and in 1993, Kusama represented Japan at the 45th Venice Biennale. By the mid-1990s, Kusama resumed the production of her ambitious installation works, including more Infinity Mirrored Rooms. She has since created over twenty, and one of her most recent ones, INFINITY MIRRORED ROOM - DANCING LIGHTS THAT FLEW UP TO THE UNIVERSE, is presented here. Created in 2019, this room features large hanging light globes that change from white to red before abruptly going dark. We are plunged into oblivion for a moment until the glowing spheres slowly flicker back on, reminding us of cycles of death and rebirth.
Created in 2014, INFINITY MIRRORED ROOM - BRILLIANCE OF THE SOULS features a walkway surrounding by a shallow pool of water and multi-coloured lights that hang from the ceiling at different intervals and heights, evoking the starry expanse of faraway galaxies.
Throughout her life, Kusama has experienced mental health problems which include anxiety and acute hallucinations. In 1977, she admitted herself to a Tokyo hospital where she lives today, with her studio close by.
Kusama is an artist who confronts and channels her inner world through her work in order to find freedom. She embraces her visions, drawing them close and enveloping herself within them, to push away fear and find comfort, implicating the viewers through our participation as well. Through them we may find solace, as she does – constantly making art as a way to heal.