Most people think of pumpkins as Halloween jack-o-lanterns and polka dots as something worn by Minnie Mouse, but not celebrated Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, whose exhibition KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature opens April 10th at the New York Botanical Garden (by timed limited-capacity entry). Postponed in 2020 due to Covid, the new exhibition is installed in various landscapes at the Garden and features the artist’s pumpkins, polka dots and acrylic flowers.
Entering the Garden at the Mosholu Entrance and walking along Garden Way is an installation, Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees in which soaring trees are draped in bright red and adorned with white polka dots. Says Kusama. “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment, I become part of the eternal and we obliterate ourselves with love.”
The 92-year old artist’s whimsical pumpkins are also covered in polka dots. Why polka dots? Kusama was born in Nagano, Japan to a dysfunctional family who owned a plant nursery and seed farm. When she was ten years old, Kusama started experiencing hallucinations which she described as “flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots.” She was also fascinated by the smooth white stones in the river near her home which were another influence on her fixation on dots. She called the polka dots “infinity nets and they were a direct result of her hallucinations.
In 1939 at age 10, Kusama drew an image of a Japanese woman in a kimono (presumed to be her mother), covered and obliterated by spots. Later, she created a series of large-scale (sometimes more than 30 feet long) canvas paintings, Infinity Nets, entirely covered in nets and dots, alluding to her hallucinatory visions. Kusama began covering entire surfaces—walls, floors, canvasses, household objects, and even naked assistants — with the polka dots which would become a trademark of her work.
It was not just dots that fascinated the future artist. In elementary school, she began drawing pictures of pumpkins and created artwork she saw from hallucinations. Since that first drawing, pumpkins have been frequent subjects in Kusama’s painting and sculpture. She remembers the outsized impression of the first pumpkin she ever saw. As a child in a field with her grandfather, she imagined the round fruit as the pumpkin’s large head and was endeared to its “fat belly and unadorned features” and its “burly psychological power.” As a teenager, Kusama trained in nihonga, a Japanese painting style utilizing formal techniques, materials and subjects from nature. While studying in Kyoto, she spent one entire month drawing pumpkins.
“What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness. That and its solid spiritual balance,” says Kusama. One of the installations at the Garden is Dancing Pumpkin, a monumental sculpture on the lawn outside the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. This 16-foot-high playful and powerful bronze sculpture is set among a landscape of river birches, flowering plants, grasses, and ferns, a setting inspired by the plants that were native to Kusama’s childhood home. Says Kusama, “It seems that pumpkins do not inspire much respect. But I was enchanted by their charming and winsome form.”
Another pumpkin display is Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity, set inside a small building which is completely black when you enter. An attendant waits for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, then points out with her flashlight how you can walk around a mirrored cube reflecting glowing polka-dotted pumpkins from every angle stretching out to infinity. The work, one of the artist’s signature mirrored environments, includes her statement, “My pumpkins, beloved of all the plants in the world. When I see pumpkins, I cannot efface the joy of them being my everything, nor the awe I hold them in.”
Nearby is I Want to Fly to the Universe, a 13-foot-high biomorphic form in the Visitor Center Reflecting Pool. (The Visitor Center offers gifts, plants for sale, and food and beverages), This whimsical bright, purple and red and white polka-dotted nine-tentacled floral form has a yellow primordial face with its mouth open in happy surprise, joyfully greeting visitors.
Narcissus Garden is 1,400 stainless steel spheres each nearly 12 inches in diameter, installed in the 230-foot-long water feature of the Native Plant Garden. The reflective spheres float on the water’s surface, moved by wind and currents, each mirroring the environment around them.
Kids are never disappointed at the NY Botanical Garden. In Flower Obsession, both kids and adults can apply floral stickers and cloth flowers to the glass-paned walls and interior objects. Kusama uses the patterns and forms of flowers to represent eternity, obliteration and infinity. Three galleries in the Conservatory are a horticultural celebration of Kusama’s love of life. On entering, visitors are greeted with My Soul Blooms Forever, colossal polka-dotted flowers made of stainless steel and painted in dramatic colors and set in a pool of water beneath the newly restored dome of the Palms of the World Gallery.
Starry Pumpkin is an artwork adorned with pink and gold mosaic and reminds me of Cinderella’s coach before it turned back into a pumpkin. In the Conservatory Courtyard Hardy Pool, is a beautiful installation called
Hymn of Life, outsized, fiberglass flowers bordered by water lilies and other seasonal plantings. And there’s more Kusama: the Mertz Library Building displays the artist’s 1945 sketchbook in 50 drawings capturing the bloom cycle of tree peonies. This early work is the product of a lifelong connection with the natural world that has inspired her practice across mediums. There are also examples of her botanical sketches, works on paper, biomorphic collages, assemblage boxes, and recent soft sculpture and paintings on canvas depicting flora in a limitless variety of patterns.
Now is the time to go – the buds, blossoms and blooms throughout the 250-acre New York Botanical Garden (including a 50-acre, old-growth forest and waterfalls) are all in partial and full bloom. KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature will remain on display until October 31, 2021.