Amid the polka dots, mirrors and pumpkins of her artwork, Yayoi Kusama has lately been incorporating poetic messages, like the one featured in the exhibition that opens Saturday at David Zwirner, which includes the line, “With the challenge of creating new art, I work as if dying; these works are my everything.”
And there is undeniable poetry — or perhaps poetic justice — in what is happening to Kusama’s career, given that she recently turned 90. As a young artist who moved from her native Matsumoto, Japan, to New York in the late 1950s, Kusama often struggled to be taken seriously by the art world. (In 1966 she sold her mirror balls for $2 each outside the Venice Biennale like a street peddler — both a critique of art’s commodification and a cry for attention.)
But this year alone, in addition to the Zwirner exhibition — which is expecting 100,000 visitors — there have been no fewer than 18 versions of Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Room” worldwide, including currently at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (where timed tickets are sold out through November); the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas; and the Broad in Los Angeles (where two are on view). Another one will open at the Aspen Art Museum Dec 20.
And while Kusama may refer to these immersive rooms as “Infinity,” viewing can be limited to a mere 45 seconds.
The New York Botanical Garden recently announced a show in May 2020 that it is calling “the first-ever large-scale exploration of the artist’s profound engagement with nature.”
And Macy’s will feature its first Kusama balloon in the Thanksgiving Day Parade: a tentacled, polka-dot face of a sun.
The phenomenon is global: Next year, three European institutions will jointly present a Kusama retrospective, starting in Germany at the Gropius Bau in Berlin and then the Museum Ludwig in Cologne before traveling to the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland.
“It’s a great vindication, a great validation,” said Alexandra Munroe, the senior curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum, who is a longtime expert on Kusama. “It’s been a steady rise.”
Some attribute the Kusama craze to the Instagram generation, with young people lining up to take selfies in the artist’s “Infinity” rooms of mirrors, colors and lights. Others say her compelling personal story as an Asian woman who first traveled alone to the United States and has openly battled her demons (she lives in a Tokyo psychiatric institution) is resonating amid today’s heightened sensitivity to issues around identity politics, immigration and mental health.
“It’s easy to build affection around her narrative,” said Jill Medvedow, director of the ICA Boston (who added that the artist’s orange hair also helps). Whatever the reason for Kusama’s popularity, she is reaching a whole new pool of wide-eyed art fans, as well as art aficionados. And museums are hoping that her “Infinity” rooms will whet the public’s appetite for more art in general.
“Since we started showing Kusama, our audience has grown much more diverse and much younger,” said Zwirner, who added that his exhibition will be open to school groups on Mondays, when the gallery is typically closed. “It’s no longer an elite art world gathering, it’s people interested in all kinds of culture.”
Macy’s wants to introduce Kusama to a broader population by hoisting the first balloon by a female artist in its series of art balloons. “We’re trying to bring something that might live in one community out to 50 million viewers,” said Susan Tercero, the executive producer of the parade. “You’re talking about millions of people from 2 to 92 who may not get to have access to this type of art.”
Kusama herself said she was pleased that her work was having an impact. “I make works with all my thoughts and the deep messages I’ve sent out on life and death, peace and love, hoping that my art will reach out to many people,” she said in an email.
She added, however, “I hope people will see my art with their own eyes, and not the images.”
Skeptics suggest that the art world is looking to cash in on Kusama, or at least to crassly draw hordes of visitors. The “Infinity” rooms often require paid tickets with timed entries. (Scalpers are hocking them for the ICA Boston). People wait hours to get their glimpse (paying $15 for a minute’s view in Kusama’s glowing pumpkin room at the ICA Miami).
The art market has reinforced the frenzy. The Saudi prince who paid $450 million for a Leonardo da Vinci painting two years ago recently purchased that pumpkin room, according to Bloomberg. And Kusama’s 1959 canvas, Interminable Net #4, set a new high for the artist at Sotheby’s Hong Kong last spring when it sold for $8 million.
Some dismiss Kusama’s renown as a creative construct. “It’s largely her doing,” said the outspoken critic and curator Robert Storr. “She has a huge, albeit profoundly damaged, ego. From the start, she mounted a campaign to conquer the art world and she has triumphed. It’s a lifelong devotion to her own self-mythologizing.”
But Zwirner, who began representing Kusama in 2013 (her other galleries are Victoria Miro in London and Ota Fine Arts in Tokyo), said that the artist’s mass appeal does not negate her art historical heft. “With her early work, she planted a flag in Minimalism before we knew that term — she made those fields of white,” he said, referring to her early “Infinity Net” monochromatic paintings. “There is not a single major museum that doesn’t own a Kusama or wouldn’t want to own one.”
Her work is in the collections of the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the Tate Gallery, among others. More than 4,700 people contributed to a crowdfunding campaign by the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, to purchase Canada’s first permanent “Infinity Mirror Room,” which opened in May. And two years ago, Kusama opened her own museum in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo.
Many trace the explosion in all things Kusama to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s 2017 “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” which traveled to five other institutions.
Munroe, who helped cement Kusama’s stature with her 1989 retrospective at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York, said the artist had previously been “scrubbed from the history books” but has slowly but surely made her way into the canon — partly by dint of doggedness.
“She was completely confident that she deserved the fame that she would eventually get,” Munroe said. “Even in her 30s and early 40s, she had a sense of destiny and a sense that her work was great.”
Indeed, Kusama was in many ways the precursor of several important art historical movements. She was making soft sculpture before Claes Oldenburg; pop art alongside Andy Warhol; mirrored rooms before Lucas Samaras; and performance art in 1969, when she stepped naked into MoMA’s Sculpture Garden fountain to stage an unauthorized happening, “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead.”
Dressing in outfits that match her artwork, Kusama has a lovable, relatable quirkiness that speaks to a younger generation, and her work is undeniably eye candy — vibrant, playful and accessible.
She has also become a powerful symbol of perseverance; despite the personal darkness she has staved off over the years (including at least one suicide attempt), and her advanced age, Kusama continues to make art almost every day: All 45 paintings in the Zwirner exhibition are new and, while her rooms are fabricated by craftspeople, she conceives every single detail.
“Kusama’s work makes people happy,” Zwirner said. “People stand in line to have that experience.”