Yayoi Kusama at the New York Botanical Garden


Yayoi Kusama’s life story cannot be separated from her work. Early on in her life, she found herself the victim of psychiatric complaints–in particular, visual hallucinations and, later, high anxiety about erotic life. These problems were intensified by a troubled family existence, prompting the young artist to move to America in 1957 (she returned to Japan in 1973, where she lives in a psychiatric hospital). In the States, she became known for dot installations–environments embellished by polka dots; her objects, such as sofas and handbags, covered with soft, fabric phallic forms; and her infinity net paintings, compositions entirely taken up with tightly curled brushmarks that covered the entire field of the work. It can be argued that Kusama’s art is not so much a series of innovations as it is a collection of gimmicks stemming from personal problems, but that hardly mattered in the 1960s, when the spirit of the time allowed almost anything to take place. Kusama is an artist whose notoriety stems from her difficult story, as well as her often outrageously erotic sculptures, dense with the trademark phalli, regularly decorated with polka dots, that made her so well known. Working at a time when free love was a mantra–one of the artist’s better-known performances was bringing a number of nude persons, covered with painted dots, into the Museum of Modern Art’s garden in 1969–Kusama had a knack for capturing the imagination of her audience.

One of the most striking of Kusama’s sculptures, or environments, were her Infinity Room enclosures, large enough for a single person to comfortably meditate within; the entire space, walls, ceiling, and floor, is covered in mirrors. Thus a sense of infinite space is created, despite the limited dimensions of the cube. As a fellow traveler of the pop art and minimalist movements–Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and Donald Judd were friends–Kusama was able to recognize the advanced work of the time and turn it to her own ends, which tended to move in the direction of outsider or naive art. The reputation of her instability, her beauty and orientation toward a sexualized imagery, and her idiosyncratic, memorable art made it clear that Kusama was not only an entity of considerable imaginative force, someone who broke the rules freely, she was also seen as a public figure, representative of the American zeitgeist, even though she was a foreign-born artist. Now she is elderly, in her early nineties, and so the show at the New York Botanical Garden is indicative of a long public career, in which the artist has carefully managed the presentation of her art in ways that deliberately merge her personal life with her work, whose cosmic energies are both a foil for a hard personal life and an embrace of mythic perception.

Maybe the biggest question regarding Kusama’s work has to do with establishing her within a context. Are we looking at a sophisticated pop artist, or the efforts of an outsider? It is hard to say. Most unstable artists do not manage their careers as well as Kusama has; indeed, she has been criticized for her excessive self-promotion. And then there is also a rawness in her work that undermines, to some extent, the belief that she is entirely a professional and not someone with a lot of personal difficulties and personal assertion who understood how to project a compelling image of herself as a troubled but very creative person. Kusama might remind her audience of the French contemporary artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who never studied art but who enjoyed a major career, established mainly by her Nanas, the name she gave to her colorful, large-breasted female sculptures. De Saint Phalle produced a body of work that matches Kusama’s in its colorful directness and accessibility to people from all walks of life. Kusama, though, has always suffered from mental illness, not something that was a part of de Saint Phalle’s experience. But even if we cannot separate Kusama’s private struggles from the visionary bent of her work, we must look at the art alone to judge whether it is genuinely contemporary, in a professional sense, or if it is weakened a bit by simplicity and self-involvement.

The decision to show Kusama’s art in the wonderful grounds of the New York Botanical Garden enabled visitors to see her large sculptures amid  flowers, ferns, and trees, and in the Victorian glass greenhouse that holds unusual flora. These days, viewing art is controlled; one is told even which way to walk through and, sometimes, underneath Kusama’s larger than life exhibits. But despite the slightly authoritarian atmosphere–intensified by the problems caused by the Covid virus–viewers could still openly enjoy the large, colorful pumpkins and flowers that were placed in pools outside or in the Garden’s buildings, or the open structure where visitors could apply flower decals with sticky backs to surfaces covered with them. The New York Botanical Garden, located in the Bronx, is only twenty minutes away from midtown Manhattan by train, making a visit an easy outing for people who do not live close by. The emphasis is on accessibility. We need to remember that we are living in a time when populism has taken over culture; the works by Kusama address the many rather than the few. Kusama’s work fits in perfectly with this point of view. Her monumental flowers do not demand much cerebral investigation; instead, they are meant to be simply experienced as they are–as the products and gifts of nature, with an emphasis on Kusama’s love of cultivated nature (we remember that her family business was a plant nursery, a major influence on the artist as she was growing up). Her popularity, then, is a sign of the times; Kusama’s commitment to the accessible and her audience’s physical interaction, where possible, with her art has made it clear that she agrees with a democratically based understanding of the art experience. It is hard to think of anyone opposing a flower, and so her popularity has grown by leaps and bounds.

In light of the joyous nature of Kusama’s art, her work appeals to feeling rather than the intellect. Her large aluminum sculpture, titled I Want to Fly to the Universe (2021), sums up the cosmic ambition of this charming, idiosyncratic artist. Facing the work, the viewer sees a large yellow face in the center, while around this central image are a series of wild, effusive arms–flames in red with white polka dots extending outward to embrace the sky! The back of the large sculpture, which rises just above the shallow pool in which it is located, is purple, again with white dots, but lacking the sun face. Is this the case of a naive work of art? Or is it a very sophisticated, if also deliberately simplified and stylized, indication of Kusama’s wish to identify with the universe on the largest level possible? Small children as well as aging adults can find delight in the work. The backdrop of the botanical garden only intensifies one’s sense that the sculptures, among flowers, grass, shrubs, and trees, are meant to be seen in a natural setting. I Want to Fly to the Universe, in its joyous exuberance, is intended to remind us of our need to embrace the endless boundaries of nature, which support and support us in our wish to signal affection for the cosmos.

The red fabric with white dots that cover some half dozen trees near one of the entrances to the garden begin a foot above the trees’ base and extend upward some fifteen feet–surrounding some of the thick limbs that extend from their trunk. As with most of Kusama’s work, there is a decorative element to its construction. The absurd difference between the tree as it is, and the form given it by the covering of the fabric, results in a slightly comic visual event, an attribute we should remember in regarding overall the import of Kusama’s oeuvre. Polka dots were one of the artist’s early hallucinations, but like many of the images the artist imagined she saw, there is a benign element that frees them from malicious intent. Kusama’s determination to embrace the sky is perhaps naive, but it also represents a wish many of us have considered, bringing people together in a warm and friendly fashion. In Narcissus Garden (1966/2021), 1400 stainless steel spheres have been placed in one of the Botanical Gardens’ numerous pools. The narcissus is of course a flower, as indicated by the title of the work, but it might be linked to our reflection, as seen in caricature on the bright silver, metallic surface of the spheres: a rough approximation of the narcissism illustrated by the Greek myth. Still, there is no sense of judgment or severity, only the slightly odd sight of the steel balls floating in a manmade pool.

Life (2015) consists of a group of curving, swirling spirals, made up of reinforced fiberglass and colored silver and gold, with large red, green, blue, and yellow dots embellishing the polyp-like forms at regular intervals. Looking vaguely like the upright forms of a seal, the shapes rise into the air as if they embodied the very essence of life. It is hard to ascribe an intellectual orientation to Kusama’s works of art, which are meant to be enjoyed rather than studied. But their simple aura of pleasure is in fact enhanced by the artist’s emphasis on emotion. The work is to be enjoyed as most of us enjoy nature, no matter whether it is in a humanly fashioned garden or a wilderness extending beyond our expectations; there is a love of organic rather than geometrical form in Kusama’s work. Her emphasis on the organic is well taken, being something that we might well argue is central to our understanding of life’s process. The joy we are intended to experience on seeing these sculptures reminds us that fine art is meant to entertain as much as edify. And Kusama’s art does this extremely well, even if we might wish at times for a more complex rendering of the reality she wants to address.

The large, humorous sculpture, Dancing Pumpkin (2020), set in front of the glass greenhouse, consists of eleven long, narrow hanging pendulums, yellow with black polka dots; three support the piece by reaching the ground. Inside, the components, which have enough space between them for a person to enter the work, are painted entirely black. Inside, one feels as if he has entered a grotto of some sort, but the viewer remembers too that pumpkins were a very early visual experience, being part of the nursery of the artist’s family. Control of visitor traffic was tight; one was even directed by signs on the cement floor on how to navigate the interior of the pumpkin. This seems overly controlled, but perhaps, given the large number of the visitors to the exhibition, it was necessary to insist on all the directives. My Soul Blooms Forever (2019) consists of five stainless steel flowers, set in a shallow basin of water within the greenhouse. Roughly five or six feet high, brightly colored in a childlike fashion, and surrounded by palms and their fronds, the flowers are nearly animistic in their presentation of a life that moves beyond art to make contact with nature itself. Certainly, the works are meant to stand out from the actual nature encompassing them, but I think we are intended to recall that Japanese culture maintains a reverence for nature that stays true even today, in a time of expansive urbanism and overcrowded populations. Kusama’s art enables her audience to rest their eyes on a vernacular beauty, an existence experienced outside manmade culture, which we are asked to view without philosophical questioning. In this sense, Kusama’s body of work is for everyone.

Not all the work was sited outdoors; there was a gallery inside the main administration building, incorporating early work, including an example of nihonga, or traditional Japanese painting. Nature flourishes from the start in Kusama’s art, early and late. One wall of the gallery is covered by a painting called Cosmic Nature (2021), a number of abstract panels filled with variously hued patterns and designs that feel very much like they are derived from what we see in the external world. Interestingly, and very beautifully, in the greenhouse gardeners set up a patchwork garden, whose colors were based on those used in a painting by Kusama. One can’t imagine a subtler, more successful display of nature in response to art–rather than the other way around! Kusama’s organic vision of life is intended to be larger than life, and it mostly works. Alone, Buried in a Flower Garden (2014) is a mosaic of luminous colors in an acrylic on canvas painting, separated very much like stained glass by black outlines. Each of the individual components is decorated with a number of patterns, made up of lines, dots, seedlike shapes, and so on. Kusama’s audience is inevitably attracted to these composite works, seeing in them the mosaic of a universe infinitely filled with small and large designs. One would think the painting might be an excellent template for fabric, being as outwardly exuberant and colorfully friendly as it is.

It is likely best to end this review with comments on Infinity Mirrored Room–Illusion Inside the Heart (2020), in which a mirrored cube, one of many created by the artist and her best-known work of art, is placed outside. Mirrored glass and steel compose the outside of the structure, which is itself located outdoors and reflects the immediate green scenery. Inside, natural light changes the colored glass, responding to the time of the day and the seasons. One stands inside, a bit overwhelmed by how simply–by the use of glass and mirrors alone–Kusama has been able to construct an environment that is quite literally infinite in its reflections. Kusama is an artist of sophisticated infinities matched by a naive outlook that expands upon the unlimited. She is utterly right for the spirit of our time, being an international sculptor whose considerations can be understood by anyone from any culture. For those of us looking to see an art that would be demonstrably Japanese, it will not be found here. Kusama’s popularity is based on the immediacy of her creative impulse, her willingness to reach out to as large an audience as possible. But this is done at the expense of cultural specificity. Indeed, it can be noted that one of the sadder things about contemporary fine art is its unrelenting internationalism, to the point where national differences are erased in favor of a esthetic capable of engaging all kinds of people from all kinds of cultures. Kusma’s art fits these circumstances perfectly. Her sculptures, primarily about flowers, immediately communicate their theme without creating conceptual obstacles facing her audience.

This is a very good thing–in an age of populism, we want as many viewers, from as many backgrounds, as possible. But we can also mourn the loss of cultural particularity that used to be, without discussion, one of the great hallmarks of artistic achievement. If cultural production is now meant to communicate across all lines–class, racial, ethnic, religious–then we are moving into a place of relentless sameness, close to monotony. Granted, the world is big enough and various enough for artistic difference to maintain itself to a degree, even when the Internet and social media are creating a self-similar culture all over the world. But if we take a broad view of art history, loss seems to be part of the picture. There is nothing in the show, with the exception of a couple of nihonga-inspired, very early paintings, that would direct us toward a reading of Kusama’s output as Japanese in spirit. This may create disappointment, yet we must objectively respond to the contemporary Zeitgeist, which is fiercely democratic and often anti-intellectual. But part of art’s interest lies in its ability to achieve a new creativity–a place whose innovation is often the result of an original idea. If we lose our contact with ideas, we can lose our feeling for an advance in form. In America, identity art is highly popular, but it celebrates the person, and his or her personal characteristics, as being more important than the art itself. Thus, the creator becomes the primary focus of interest–at the expense of the artwork. While it is needed to acknowledge the background of the artist, doing so can result in visual loss. Kusama offers us an art we are meant to enjoy, without contemplating her intention. Her work is based mostly on feeling–which may well be understandable given her emotional difficulties. At the same time, though, those of us who are historically inclined may be worried by art that does not reflect the art history of the artist’s background. It can be argued that this approach looks back and not ahead. Additionally, ideas may unnecessarily complicate our response to art, although intellectual insight has often been responsible for visual change. Today we are asked to smile at Kusama’s open enjoyment of art and nature, without worrying whether this is too simple a point of view. Kusama’s achievement is double-sided in the sense that she seduces us with a primal beauty, refusing to move into a conceptual awareness of its meaning. That way, her art is available for everyone, without complications. It is a choice in keeping with the time.