Yayoi Kusama at NYBG

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday September 2, 2021

One day, after gazing at a pattern of red flowers on the table­ cloth, I looked up to see that the ceiling, the windows, and the columns seemed to be plastered with the same red floral pattern. I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space. — Yayoi Kusama 

The New York art world is often unfriendly towards artists who show too much flash or make too much money on what are viewed as peripheral activities. Currently in the trash bin for this is Damien Hirst—who is likely immune to this kind of treatment—regarding his album art for the rapper Drake. Following her 2012 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Yayoi Kusama got the treatment. The show was sponsored by Louis Vuitton, who also engaged Kusama in a monster-scale worldwide product colab, which must have netted the company and the artist substantial income. Personally, I found it pretty tacky; the LV 57th Street showroom was like a diorama at a Museum of Fashion History, with a life-size figure of the artist, in her signature red wig, wearing one of the dresses she designed for LV. Cookie cutter installations popped up wherever there were LV shops  offering clothing, luggage, handbags and shoes. Above: Narcissus Garden, 1966-2021. © Yayoi Kusama; courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner


So it has taken nearly a decade and a lot of good work by smart people doing damage control to alter perceptions. Currently on view at the New York Botanical Garden [NYBG] is a major installation of Kusama’s work, including sculpture, paintings, a new mirror room, art on paper, and archival materials from her formative years in New York City [1957-1973]. This exhibition, Kusama: Cosmic Nature, guest curated by Mika Yoshitake, who curated the traveling show that originated in Seattle in 2017, was postponed due to COVID 19. The accompanying publication is now available (Rizzoli 2021) and includes essays that cover, in depth, the artist’s early development; her time in New York; her “infinity nets,” and her mature work. With intelligence and sensitivity it deals with Kusama’s mental health issues, giving a solid and unflinching view of what it must be like to be obsessional to a dangerous degree. A careful reader will recognize the fine line between productive and destructive degrees of obsession and why many artists are prone to such extremes. Above: Dancing Pumpkin, 2020. © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner. Photo by Robert Benson Photography


Kusama has been surrounded by plants her entire life, having been born into a family that grew seed plants for large-scale agricultural operations in Japan. The NYBG show includes selections from her botanical sketchbooks of the 1940s, in which she characterized the life cycle of peonies in fifty drawings. Nature is the pivotal idea in Kusama’s practice, whether she uses seeds as a springboard to her artistic language, leading to their morphing into the polka dots that began to obsess her during her time in New York. Repetition and multiplication—key elements in the life cycle of plants, became be foundation of her work and process, which further developed into the “infinity nets” that she refers to as opportunities for self-obliteration in service to patterns and forms originating from her observations from nature. Above: The Kusama Family, ca 1929. Courtesy of the artist. ©Yayoi Kusama 2021

In her essay, curator Mika Yoshitake demonstrates how the core elements of Kusama’s work combine to form a cosmos of their own. She quotes the artist, who writes, “My momentary life that is supported by some invisible force exists in illusions in a brief moment of quietude of hundreds of millions of endless light years. The self-revolution which I had been pursuing as a means to live was actually a means to find death. What death signifies, its colors and special beauty, the quietude of its footprints and the “nothingness” after death. I am now at a stage to create art for the repose of my soul embraces all of these.” This statement is another iteration of her involvement with self-obliteration, which first became evident in her Infinity Mirror Room of 1965. Right: I want to Fly to the Universe, 2020. © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

The book presents art from all periods of Kusama’s development. A chapter devoted to her “Flower Power” reveals connections the artist made between the counter culture of the 1960s, America’s free speech and civil rights movements, and the ways in which she embodied the flower as a form, a self-representation, and a key element powering nature and survival. How she translated social protest into her art is evident in her outlaw presentation, Narcissus Garden, at the 1966 Venice Biennale. Not invited, instead she installed 1,500 mirrored globes in an adjacent pond, selling the orbs “like hot dogs” for two dollars apiece. Her most recent iteration of Narcissus Garden is installed at the NYBG, image at top of page. 


Kusama: Cosmic Nature by Joanna L. Groarke and Mika Yoshitake, with essays by Barbara Ambrose, Karen Daubmann, Alex A. Jones, Alexandra Munroe, and Jenni Sorkin (New York Botanical Garden and Rizzoli /Electa) is available at the NYBG shop and online

The exhibition Kusama: Cosmic Nature, guest curated by Mika Yoshitake, continues through October 31 at The New York Botanical Garden. Info Right: catalog cover photo: Marlon Co, The New York Botanical Garden