Japan’s most famous avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama is 88 years old this year. In Japan, this is an extremely auspicious age because 8 is a lucky number and the Japanese/Chinese characters for 88 (八十八) can be reassembled into the character for rice (米) – the nation’s staple, life-sustaining food for centuries. For Kusama, who has apparently painted every day since she was ten years old and shows no sign of slowing down as she approaches her 10th decade, the year has been a particularly noteworthy one. She opened a new museum of her work in Tokyo on October 1st, and the exhibition “Infinity Mirrors” opened in February at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC to rave reviews before launching a two-year tour of the United States and Canada.
The Broad Museum in Los Angeles is hosting the exhibition on view now through January 1, 2018, the first time the museum will host a visiting special exhibition. The Broad owns one work by Kusama, “Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” a 2013 immersive kaleidoscopic environment that has captivated thousands of museum visitors since the Broad opened in 2015. According to Joanne Heyler, the museum’s Founding Director, “The timing is right for an exhibition that contextualizes the infinity rooms and brings Kusama’s contributions to 20th and 21st-century art into deeper focus.”
Heyler’s instincts were spot-on; advance tickets sold out weeks before the exhibition opening. Kusama, who earned a mixed reputation when she worked in New York from 1958 to 1973 and has moved in and out of the global art spotlight with her paintings, sculptures and installations, is currently at the peak of her global success. Some 50 years after her time in New York, this painter of polka dots, master of mirrors and explorer of infinity is tapping into the current worldwide culture of social media and constant connectivity. The massive appeal of her work in Southern California and beyond seems to reflect, both literally and metaphorically, a much deeper human need.
Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929 in Matsumoto City in Japan’s northern Nagano prefecture. Her family was affluent merchants who owned a plant nursery and seed farm. Although she grew up surrounded by natural beauty and escaped many of the horrors of World War II, her family life was deeply traumatic. Her mother, who was physically abusive and destroyed some of her artwork, also sent her to spy on her father’s extra-marital affairs. Watching her father having sex with various women left her with an obsessive and lingering fear of sex. When she was around ten years old, she began to have hallucinations, often seeing flashes of light or intense fields of dots, flowers and pumpkins speaking to her, and patterns on fabric coming to life and engulfing her. Around this time, she began to paint in response to her fears and hallucinations. Around age ten, she painted a Japanese woman in a kimono — perhaps her own mother — completely covered in a sequence of nets and dots, a precursor to the polka dot patterning that has characterized much of her work for decades.
"Infinity Net" Painting
In the West, and in the United States in particular, polka dots have long been associated with both sweet and sexy femininity, appearing most famously in Southern California on the dresses of icons as diverse as Minnie Mouse and Marylin Monroe. For Kusama, fields of polka dots, which she refers to as “infinity nets,” have a much more profound meaning connected to her philosophy of “self-obliteration.” The dots originated in her hallucinations, in which everything around her appeared to be covered in patterns or dots, including her own body, which then appeared to disappear into nothingness. To overcome her fear of these visions and understand what they might mean, she recreated them in her paintings. In her series of large “Infinity Net” paintings, which she first exhibited in New York in 1959, she repeated hundreds of tiny white circles over a black canvas, completely obliterating the darkness and creating nothingness. To viewers, used to the dynamism of the popular action paintings of the time, the effect was both puzzling and hypnotically calming. To Kusama, the process was liberating and empowering. “I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life. One polka dot: a single particle among billions,” she wrote in her 2013 autobiography “Infinity Net.” With the simple dot, endlessly and rhythmically repeated to form a monochrome surface, she at once discovered and obliterated her self, setting her creative spirit free and taking her stand in the world of art. “The spell of the dots and mesh enfolded me in a magical curtain of mysterious, invisible power.”
"Phalli’s Field" installation
Over the decades, Kusama has employed these fields of dots in diverse sizes and colors in her paintings and sculptures, but it is in her immersive installations, known as infinity rooms, where they are most potent. The first of her infinity rooms was a room-sized, kaleidoscopic mirror installation entitled “Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field,” created for her first solo show in New York in 1965 (it was recreated for the current “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition). Upon entering the small square room, visitors are surrounded by multiple reflections of themselves among a field of hundreds of long, white stuffed forms covered in red polka dots – the phalli. Just as Kusama painted polka dots to deal with her fear of hallucinations, she confronted her fear of sex, caused by the scenes she had been forced to view as a child, by creating hundreds of stuffed phalli and including them in her art. As she revealed in her autobiography, “I began making penises to heal my feelings of disgust towards sex.” By creating them out of soft material, covering them in cheerful red polka dots, and repeating them infinitely to obliterate their individual form, she was able to transform something frightening into something almost comforting. There are several images of the artist lying among them during the original installation, like flowers in a meadow.
As well as confronting her own fears, her goal with this early installation was for her visitors “become one with the work and experience their own figures and movements as part of the sculpture.” With this and later rooms, she invites visitors to partake of the experience of self-obliteration, which has helped her to heal and strengthen herself over the years. With this experience, she believes, also comes an experience of “radical connectivity,” a perception of the self as part of something greater that was embraced by artists and activists in the 1960s. Inside her mirror rooms, visitors see themselves reflected and repeated infinitely along with the lights, sculptures and polka dots, at once powerfully present but also disappearing into the vastness of the infinite. This is connection can arguably be felt most deeply in her “Infinity Mirrored Room – Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (2009),” in which hundreds of small lanterns are reflected infinitely in surrounding mirrors. The installation evokes toro nagashi, the Japanese tradition during the summer Obon festival of floating paper lanterns down the river to guide the souls of the dead to their resting places. In this mirror room, Kusama makes particular reference to this practice for the souls of Japan’s atomic bomb victims. Standing amidst the glowing lanterns, the sense of being connected to other souls in the universe is almost overwhelming.
To Kusama, self-obliteration and radical connectivity lead to love. In New York in the 1960s, she joined other artists and activists to protest war and preach love, and even today, she continues to promote the importance of love in much of her work. Several of her mirrored rooms bear the titles “Endless Love Room or Mirrored Room – Love Forever” and contain red and white sewn fabric forms reflected infinitely in all directions. The work “Infinity Mirror Room – Love Forever (1966/1994)” is typical of these rooms in that viewers cannot actually enter the space. Instead, they view hundreds of lights reflected in mirror walls and ceilings through peep holes. Their face and that of the person looking through a second peep hole along another wall of the room also become part of the infinite reflection of love. For the original 1964 installation, she gave out “Love Forever” pins to visitors.
Of all the rooms in the “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition, the most iconic and perhaps the most love-filled is “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016).” Though also focused on love, the work acknowledges another of Kusama’s life-long obsessions and recurring motifs – the pumpkin. Known in Japan as kabocha, the fruit is one of the most positive images that Kusama has retained from her childhood in Matsumoto. During World War II, when much of the country’s food supplies were disrupted, the Kusama family storehouse was apparently always full of produce, in particular pumpkins. Despite consuming them to the point of nausea as a child, Kusama has retained a life-long fascination with pumpkins, spending hours drawing them as a young artist. To Kusama, the pumpkin represents comfort, humility and stability, and she has described them as “such tender things to touch, so appealing in color and form.” In a kaleidoscopic shrine to this fruit and to the spiritual nourishment they have long provided her, pumpkins of various sizes formed from acrylic and painted yellow with black dots are reflected thousands of times in the mirrored walls, floor and ceiling. Standing among them, one senses an infinite warmth, comfort and energy, enough to connect a world of souls.
Before visiting the exhibition, I read a fascinating article that credited much of Yayoi Kusama’s current appeal to selfie culture and the age of Instagram. Visitors to her exhibitions are permitted to photograph themselves in front of her work, and they eagerly take full advantage of the pumpkins and polka dots to create fun, upbeat backdrops for a self-promoting moment. I am guilty of this very act. This spring, when I visited the Japanese art island of Naoshima, I joyfully posted pictures of myself (not actual selfies, and on Facebook, not Instagram!) in front of and inside Kusama pumpkin sculptures. And I have even inserted myself into this article – something I rarely do when I write about art. Is this because I’ve been living in Los Angeles so long that the narcissism associated with this town has at last rubbed off on me? I hope not. The reason lies more in the generous, loving nature of her work. For more than six decades, Kusama has made art as a means to heal her pain and connect her existence with something larger than herself, and she has invited others to join her healing process, to feel love rather than fear. When I asked friends in Southern California to describe to me what attracts them to her work, they spoke of “her discipline,” “her vibrancy,” “her unabashed playfulness,” and a number responded that her work “gives me joy.” The Broad’s director is right about the timing of the exhibition. It is not so much a colorful backdrop for our self-portraits that we are seeking when we visit the work of Kusama. It is a desire to connect with the positive, healing energy that her work emanates. The warm, comforting glow of her pumpkins, the cheery patterning of her polka dots and the dazzling cosmic visions of her infinity mirrors, allow us to feel part of something much larger and more enduring than our individual selves and to heal, if only briefly, from the widespread anxiety and fear of our cultural, political and environmental moment.