Yayoi Kusama: beyond polka-dotted pumpkins

A 1995 ‘Pumpkin’ acrylic on canvas earned $183,144 at 33 Auction. Photo courtesy of 33 Auction and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored installations are world-renowned, especially those displaying her devotion to pumpkin forms and utilizing her signature polka dots. Immersing visitors in repeating motifs that break the illusion of space and time while sharing her inner thoughts, these installations along with her sculptures and painted works soundly resonate with viewers.

Pumpkins have long been a favorite subject for the artist (born 1929) for over 70 years, stemming from her childhood in Japan. Living in a psychiatric institution now while still making art in her studio, Kusama suffered from hallucinations as a child, which later led to some of her most dominant motifs in her art, including polka dots and flowers. She was however soothed by the “charming and winsome” shape of pumpkins, she said; so they became a common fixture in her artworks, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional.

Evincing the artist’s signature polka-dot style, this 1989 acrylic on canvas, ‘Bird,’ made $178,469 in November 2015 at Ravenel. Photo courtesy of Ravenel and LiveAuctioneers

The artist often has herself photographed among her sculptural pumpkin forms wearing ornate outfits. “For Kusama, pumpkins represent a source of radiant energy. They are one of the artist’s most beloved motifs,” a Hirshhorn Museum press release stated.

Dr. Michael Vetter, assistant curator of contemporary art at Newfields in Indianapolis, Ind., said the artist blurs the lines between painting and sculpture. “Kusama was one of many artists living in New York in the 1960s whose work explores the relationship between the purely visual, two-dimensional space of painted canvas and the physical, three-dimensional space of sculpture,” he said. “Her ‘Net’ paintings of the early 1960s are covered in repeating patterns that have no compositional center and seem to go on forever outside the boundaries of the frame. Kusama often executed these paintings on an enormous scale, so that they would physically tower over viewers and fill their entire field of vision.”

Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, b 1929), ‘All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins,’ 2016, wood, mirror, plastic, acrylic, LED, 115 ⅛ by 163 ⅜ by 163 ⅜ inches. Dallas Museum of Art, TWO x Two for Aids and Art Fund, 2018.12.A-I © Yayoi Kusama, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / Singapore / Shanghai; Victoria Miro, London / Venice. Photo courtesy of Newfields

The artist then translated the “infinity effect” of these paintings into sculpture. In her “Accumulation” series, she covered furniture and other objects in a proliferation of soft, phallic forms that looked as though they could grow and regenerate endlessly, Vetter said. “She also began to experiment with immersive installation environments and created the earliest Mirror Rooms, which place the viewer physically within an infinite expanse of objects. All of these works are interested in the relationship between the viewer and the art object, and they transform the visual immersiveness of her paintings into an experience that is literal and physical.”

The Infinity Rooms have been a major draw at museums around the world in recent years, including Newfields, which opened the exhibition, “Infinitely Kusama” in October 2019 and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., which organized a traveling six-venue exhibition in 2017-19 showing six of the artist’s Infinity Mirror rooms alongside rarely seen paintings. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston acquired in 2019 Kusama’s 2013 Infinity Mirror room, Love Is Calling, described as the largest in the collection of a North American museum. It then mounted the exhibition, “Love Is Calling,” on view 2019-2021. The New York Botanical Garden will host a multi-sensory exhibition of her work sited among nature in 2020. According to CNN, more than 5 million people have viewed her exhibitions since 2014. The artist turned 90 in May 2019.

Installation shot of Newfields’ exhibition, ‘Infinitely Kusama.’ Photo courtesy of Newfields

“She continues to churn out paintings and installations at inspiring speed, exhibiting internationally in nearly every corner of the globe, and maintains a commanding presence on the primary market and at auction,” according to a catalog essay at a Phillips auction, where her stickers on canvas work, Accumulation by Space (No.62.CO.), sold for over $2 million in May 2019.

Given their bold colors and striking proportions, nearly all her artworks are Instagram-worthy but perhaps none more so than her Infinity Mirrors. When museums mount exhibitions, tickets usually sell out (often within hours) and there are long admission lines. “I think at the most basic level they’re a visually dazzling experience – most of us have seen ourselves reflected repeatedly in two facing mirrors, but the totalizing scale and immersiveness of the Infinity Mirror Rooms are really unique and striking,” Vetter said. “Beyond their immediate visual appeal, the rooms are also a puzzle that blurs the distinction between the physical world and the world of images. Visitors are always keen to distinguish between the real pumpkins on the floor and their reflections in the mirrors, which isn’t an easy task.”

This acrylic on canvas, ‘Pumpkin,’ 1990, sold for $828,606 in November 2012 at Ravenel. Photo courtesy of Ravenel and LiveAuctioneers

Kusama has been an innovator in so many different forms of art-making: painting, sculpture, installation art, performance art, conceptual art, fashion, photography, he said. “Many artists of the ’60s were exploring new media and new ways of making art, but few of them were as wide-ranging in their interests and investigations as Kusama. Her work with interactive and immersive installations was particularly innovative because it predated the site-specific art movement by several years.”