88-year-old Yayoi Kusama is one of Japan's greatest living artists
Two concurrent semi-retrospective exhibitions revisit her seven decades of work
As a child in pre-war Japan, Yayoi Kusama would often complain of vivid, occasionally crippling hallucinations involving complex patterns and bright polka dots of varying size.
The types of themes and motifs, in other words, that have come to define her work as an artist. Now 88-years-old, Kusama is revisiting these youthful episodes in two concurrent semi-retrospective exhibitions on either side of the Pacific.
At Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where lines for tickets have stretched around the block, her seven decade career is examined in full. Yet, despite careful curation, the exhibition, entitled “Infinity Mirrors” remains suitably enigmatic and difficult to accurately describe.
The central component, after which the show is named, sees visitors wander between six large mirrored rooms filled with tiny multi-colored twinkling LED lights. Each space is intended to reflect visitors’ presence in a seemingly unlimited constellation of stars. The effect is both deeply introspective and strangely detached.
Also on display is Kusama’s celebrated “Polka Dot Happenings,” a collection of work from her time in New York during the 1960s, various early paintings, newer pieces from the “My Eternal Soul” series, and the work for which she is arguably best known, at least among younger audiences: the iconic giant pumpkin.
Tokyo’s National Art Center, meanwhile, is presenting “Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul.” A retrospective of another type, the show, which includes over 270 works, narrows its focus and addresses the proliferating array of ideas in the later, more recent stages of her career.
The arrangement of works is instructive. Spectators enter to see 132 new panel paintings and are then ushered through further galleries, buoying the recent work with the earlier oeuvre, before returning to the beginning. The new work is positioned to be seen freshly, then seen again as an outgrowth of her 70-year career.
The calculation also rehabilitates her artistic origins. Kusama was drawing and painting from age seven, from a time when her pre-pubescent life was beset by emotional and mental turbulence. Her hallucinations began around age 10 and the dozens of works she would produce each day served as a kind of palliative that externalized an internal surplus.
While she has been living in a mental hospital voluntarily since the late 70s, she continues to work in her nearby studio.
The current work reinterprets and recreates the youthful artistic visions and effusion. The octogenarian is revisiting the little girl from the perspective of decades later, in dots and spots and amoebic scenery as though seen through a microscope, organic protuberances, myriad eyes, faces seen in profile, a juvenile version of herself and plant forms.
These are all motifs she has used in the past, now all congregated into vast compartmentalized murals of sprawling linked imagery.
To date, Kusama has completed more than 500 2 x 2 meter works for the “My Eternal Soul” series, engaging in an ongoing marathon of serialized imagery. A typical day of painting for the artist begins at 9:00 a.m. and finishes in the evening, resulting in a completed work every two to three days, said Yusuke Minami, the chief curator of the National Art Center, Tokyo.
What distinguishes the most recent works are the finer brush touches and Kusama’s greater attention to detail. The way the square panels are grouped and ordered also seems to be imbued with more meaning than in earlier installations.
These changes may seem incremental, and her recent themes are also not unfamiliar: war, peace, love, society, suggestions of her infinity nets, spring (both seasonal rebirth and her youth), her ongoing thoughts of suicide and death as an obsession.
Kusama is aware that there is not a lot of time left to her. The new series serves as a kind of parting gift to the generations of girls she will leave behind, offering, it seems, a direction through emotional distress and life’s vicissitudes.
If there is any doubt who this parting gift is intended for, another recent Kusama project might shed some light. In a style that echoes her “My Eternal Soul” series, Kusama illustrated a recently published Japanese version of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” – the story of a little girl who both went down a rabbit hole, and managed to get back out.
Watch the video above for an exclusive look at the National Art Center, Tokyo’s exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul,” currently on show until May 22.
CNN’s Junko Ogura, Momo Moussa, Stephy Chung and Futa Nagao contributed to this report and video.