Yayoi Kusama with recent works in Tokyo, 2016  Photo by Tomoaki Makino  Courtesy of the artist © Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama with recent works in Tokyo, 2016.  Photo by Tomoaki Makino.  Courtesy of the artist © Yayoi Kusama

Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity.

–Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama

Guided by her unique vision and unparalleled creativity, critically acclaimed artist Yayoi Kusama has been breaking new ground for more than six decades. In 1993, she became the first woman to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale, and last year, Time magazine named her one of the world’s most influential people.

Born in 1929, Kusama grew up near her family’s plant nursery in Matsumoto, Japan. At nineteen, following World War II, she went to Kyoto to study the traditional Japanese style of painting known as Nihonga. During this time, she began experimenting with abstraction, but it was not until she arrived in the United States, in 1957, that her career took off. Living in New York from 1958 to 1973, Kusama moved in avant-garde circles with such figures as Andy Warhol and Allan Kaprow while honing her signature dot and net motifs, developing soft sculpture, creating installation-based works, and staging Happenings (performance-based events). She first used mirrors as a multireflective device in Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field, 1965, transforming the intense repetition that marked some of her earlier works into an immersive experience. Kusama returned to Japan in 1973 but has continued to develop her mirrored installations, and over the years, she has attained cult status, not only as an artist, but as a novelist.

Works on Paper

Kusama’s works on paper first garnered attention in the United States in 1957, when she was the subject of a solo exhibition at Zoë Dusanne Gallery in Seattle. Produced on a small scale in rapid succession while the artist was still living in her hometown of Matsumoto, these drawings consist of abstract forms that evoke orbs, eggs, amoebae, and columns. In Infinity, black watery dots hover in a dense mass reminiscent of cells in a petri dish. In other works, such as Flower QQ2, the dots may suggest a red light emerging from a distant haze. Hidden Flames, The Island in the Sea No. 1, Inward Vision No. 4, and Long Island employ decalcomania, a Surrealist technique of blotting the surface of a sheet of paper with wet gouache paint and pressing another sheet against it to spread the pigment around. These early drawings are intimate, organic microcosms that the artist later expanded on in her Infinity Mirror Rooms.

Infinity Nets

Kusama created her Infinity Net paintings during her first years in New York, a time when she faced tremendous financial and emotional hardship. The repetitious motion of inscribing tiny arcs on a solid black background served as a meditation through which she made works “without composition—without beginning, end, or center.” Though stemming from a very personal experience, Kusama’s “interminable nets,” later called Infinity Nets, were remarkably prescient to the formal questions of art in the 1960s. Embodying the painterly qualities and the emphasis on process that are characteristic of Abstract Expressionism, these works also echo the restraint and monochromatic palettes of Minimalism.

Yayoi Kusama Infinity Nets Yellow, 1960 Oil paint on canvas 94 1/2 x 116 in. (240 x 294.6 cm) National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of the Collectors Committee (2002.37.1). © Yayoi Kusama

Accumulations

Kusama began making the Accumulations or “soft sculptures” in the early 1960s. Through creating countless soft phallic tubers and attaching them to furniture, the artist hoped to conquer her fear of sex and the phallus through a kind of self-therapy. Artworks made from sofas, chairs, step ladders, dressers, and a large table were presented together in Kusama: Driving Image Show, a 1964 installation that functioned as a “total environment.” Blue Spots and Red Stripes, both Accumulations, serve as important precursors to Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field. In Phalli’s Field, however, the tubers emerge from the floor rather than from panels on the wall and are multiplied ad infinitum by surrounding mirrors.

After focusing on performances for a few years, Kusama returned to making sculptures in the mid-1970s, continuing to use phallic forms. She often coated these works with silver paint, evoking the reflective surfaces of her Infinity Mirror Rooms. The results are less organic than the early Accumulations, their sheen frozen and ethereal. A Snake, is an example of one of these sculptures, and it was included in the monumental exhibition Women’s Work: American Art ’74, held at the Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center.

Arm Chair, 1963 Acrylic on chair, shoes ,and sewn and stuffed cloth pouches 38 x 38 x 50 in. (96.52 x 96.52 x 127 cm) Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Gift of Mr. Gordon Locksley and Mr. George Shea

My Eternal Soul

Begun in 2009, My Eternal Soul currently comprises over five hundred works. Kusama has said that through this series, she hopes to trace the “beauty of colors and space in the silence of death’s footsteps and the ‘nothingness’ it promises.” Within these paintings, which embody both the radiance of life and the sublimity of death, motifs from Kusama’s earliest works are often echoed, giving evidence to the singular vision that has driven her over the course of her long career. The effects of color vibration and exuberant patterning, for instance, are reminiscent of Kusama’s works on paper from the 1950s and 1960s. And, like her Infinity Mirror Rooms, which are simultaneously enclosed and expansive, colors and patterns pulsate within the bordered spaces of these canvases. The pattern of peering eyes is consistent with her tendency toward obsessive, endlesslly proliferating images, and the voyeuristic pattern transforms flat color fields into shadowy depths. Other biomorphic forms, some resembling microorganisms, populate Kusama’s strange landscapes, and titles such as Aggregation of Spirits suggest that these paintings may be surrogates for human souls.

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Exhibition Catalogue

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors

The first publication to focus on Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, this richly illustrated volume includes insightful essays by Mika Yoshitake, Alexander Dumbadze, and Gloria Sutton, as well as an interview with the artist by Melissa Chiu, the Hirshhorn’s director.