by STIRworldJul 29, 2022
If there were people who did not hear about Yayoi Kusama before, those days are over. The 94-year-old Japanese conceptual artist whose pumpkins and polka dots, both reproduced in a variety of sizes and colours, instantly and unmistakably identify her signature style, took the world by storm this year. She has emerged arguably as the most talked about living artist, a true contemporary icon, a mass culture phenomenon, and a brand name in her own right.
Kusama’s presence is literally everywhere these days: from her bigger-than-life collaboration with Louis Vuitton at department stores and boutiques in major international cities to some of the world’s most prestigious museums and galleries, including M+ in Hong Kong, Guggenheim Bilbao, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, and Pérez Art Museum Miami. In February the artist’s monumental 120-foot-long mosaic A Message of Love, Directly from My Heart unto the Universe was permanently installed at the new Grand Central Madison terminal in New York, the city where her head-spinning career took off back in the 1960s. To stay current, David Zwirner, one of the top contemporary galleries in Manhattan, which hosted several monographic Kusama exhibitions over the last decade, now presents her latest works at its Chelsea location. Titled Yayoi Kusama: I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers, the exhibition features paintings and sculptures, mostly produced this year. This extensive collection elaborates on Kusama’s characteristic motifs of pumpkins and flowers; the show’s centerpiece is a new Infinity Mirror Room.
The three-room presentation delivers the artist’s sincere message: “I have sung the mind of Kusama day by day, a song from the heart. O youth of today, let us sing together a song from the heart of the universe!” The exhibition is named after three monumental flower sculptures, each titled I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers. The trio sits closely together in a large room under a high ceiling with nothing else in it. There is just enough space to walk in between the giant flowers, one person at a time. Each flower is roughly three metres in each direction and is made out of stainless steel painted in boldly coloured glossy urethane paint. They evoke some of Frank Stella’s most exuberant sculptures, except that they are not abstract. Kusama’s flowers look perfectly recognisable but their sizes and colour patterns transform and liberate them into something other. Their super bright vibrant colours dematerialise these massive pieces into light and airy balloon-like objects that turn even the minimalist white box gallery space into a fairytale land.
At the opposite end of the gallery, another large space holds a trio of entirely different objects. Together and separately, they are titled Aspiring to Pumpkin’s Love, the Love in My Heart. They look as if flattened and connected giant, almost bodily pumpkins, covered in dot patterns, took each other by hands to dance in a circle. The slightly curved sculptures evoke Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses. The Kusama pieces are almost as monumental—stretching from 5.6 metres to 8.5 metres and reaching up to 3.5 metres high. They are also built of real substance—bronze painted in bold yellow glossy urethane paint. Here, as in the case of the Serra creations, the visitors are invited to mingle among the pieces and come to the center to be fully surrounded by this cheerful gathering. But the effect, of course, is totally different—the undulating pumpkins are much more playful, humorous, fun, and cartoon-like, as if not real; they seem to send us straight into a child-like carefree world of unbound imagination.
The central zone of the show is subdivided into two connected spaces. One is clad in Kusama’s 36-acrylic-on-canvas paintings, profusely populated with pumpkins, figurative flowers, faces, amoeba and worm-like shapes, and, of course, infinity dots, all produced between 2021 and this year. The other space is entirely dedicated to a new Infinity Mirror Room. This five-meter-high room is assembled out of wood, stainless steel mirrors, aluminum, metal, and colour acrylic. It sits at an angle within a larger orthogonal space and is accessible through a small quadrant-shaped acrylic door tacked into a corner. Inside, where people are allowed one at a time for just one minute, the room is entirely lined with mirrored surfaces interrupted only by openings that are shaped as quadrants, semicircles, and circles made of acrylic in green and primary red, yellow, and blue colours. From within all colour shapes appear as floating circles, while the edge lines between the floor, walls, and ceiling seem to be all disappearing, immersing visitors into a state of total suspension and dreaming. It is a kind of Dan Graham pavilion on drugs—vibrantly ecstatic and mesmerising. Taking photos and selfies is encouraged.
The work of Yayoi Kusama is dense in meanings and references. It is both autobiographical and phycological; it is rooted in conceptualism, feminism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, and pop art. Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg admitted openly her influence on them. Kusama grew up in a wealthy family. She was drawn to art from an early age, although her parents did not encourage her to become an artist. She went through a traumatic experience caused by her father’s frequent love affairs, which provoked her hallucinations and fantastic visions. They were instrumental in the development of the artist’s highly personalised artistic style. It was through these hallucinations that she started to paint vast fields of polka dots, or "infinity nets," as she describes them.
The dots first appeared in the artist’s work when she was 10. In the 1950s Kusama’s first series of large-scale paintings, Infinity Nets, were entirely covered in a sequence of nets and dots. Speaking about these paintings she explained: “One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up, I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows, and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.” Kusama claims that her work has a therapeutic effect on her.
Kusama lived in New York City from 1958 to 1973 where she continued to produce experimental work and organise groundbreaking exhibitions and performances. She established close relationships with some of the leading avant-garde artists, including Donald Judd, Joseph Cornell, and Eva Hesse. Kusama organised war protests and happenings, including those during which she painted brightly coloured polka dots over the bodies of naked models. She also worked with soft sculpture, covering such objects as couches, chairs, ladders, and shoes in phallic-looking protrusions. She is innovative and pioneering in her use of repetitions, replications, accumulations, and obsessions. She particularly became known for her Mirror/Infinity Rooms, which have become a highly popular series of immersive installations, which she started building in the early 1960s.
However, being constantly overworked, stressed, and depressed led to several suicide attempts, and in the late 1970s, after getting back to Japan, she started using art therapy to treat her mental illness. She has been voluntarily living in a psychiatric clinic in Tokyo since 1977. She produces her work in her studio nearby. The artist’s exhibitions and installations are staged continuously all around the world and in 2017 Yayoi Kusama Museum was opened in Tokyo.
Kusama has been represented by David Zwirner since 2013. The gallery's inaugural exhibition of her work, titled I Who Have Arrived in Heaven, took over the entire space at West 19th Street. Her second gallery solo show, Give Me Love, was held in 2015. Her subsequent solo shows include Festival of Life in 2017, Every Day I Pray For Love in 2019, and I Want Your Tears To Flow With The Words I Wrote at the gallery’s locations in New York, London, and Tokyo.
Yayoi Kusama: I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers at David Zwirner is a free exhibition. It is on view through July 21. The wait for the Infinity Mirror Room is about one hour.