In 1973, years before Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors began to draw serpentine lines, leading many to christen her the “Most Popular Artist in the World,” the artist left New York to return to Japan. She had spent fifteen years in the city, trying to build an art career that was constantly undercut by mediocre white artists, in addition to being scorned for her nude protests against the Vietnam War. This spring, some of her artworks are returning to the city for a presentation at the New York Botanical Gardens, amid the lush greenery of the Bronx institution. Opening this Saturday (April 10) and continuing through Halloween, Kusama: Cosmic Nature celebrates the artist’s work and the joy of witnessing her creative energy after a year of loss and grieving.
Viewers entering the garden are greeted by the aluminum sculpture “I Want to Fly to the Universe” (2020), in all its red and blue polka-dotted glory. “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos […] when we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment,” Kusama once famously remarked when asked of her obsession with the dots, as a placard in the garden notes. This visual language of dots translates into the metal spheres that float and hover on water in “Narcissus Garden,” also on view at the NYBG. Kusama first set up the installation in 1996 when she crashed the 1966 Venice Biennale. She sold each of the spheres to passersby for $2 and when the organizers stopped her, she countered, “Why can’t I sell my art like ice creams or hot dogs?”
The daughter of a seed farmer, Kusama’s childhood was marked by blooming flowers and greenhouses. “Flower Obsession,” (2017) set in a greenhouse mirroring the artist’s own, invites us to enter her world, with flowers in our hands, and leave it a little brighter than we found it. Through the exhibition, fluorescent pumpkins shine and dim and the bright pentacles of the Kusama’s imagination reach out, seeking communion with nature and the viewer.
In 1976, Kusama checked herself into a mental health care facility, where she still lives today, just blocks away from her studio where she creates art. There is a reductive manner in which we often speak of women artists and mental health, and it can be easy to lose sight of the inherent misogyny of those assumptions amid the social media fervor around art, especially when it comes to Kusama. Every piece of art in Cosmic Nature, be it the large sculptures or her smaller works on paper, is a defiance of these limitations society places upon women who continue creating art and joy while living with mental illness.
Like the green fields and blooming cherry blossoms of the NYBG, Kusama’s art fills the mind with wonder, joy, and hope — a hope that assures us that grief and joy can co-exist in an infinitely delightful cosmic dance, through both pain and a pandemic.
Kusama: Cosmic Nature opens April 10 and continues through October 31 at the New York Botanical Garden (2900 Southern Boulevard, the Bronx). The exhibition is curated by Mika Yoshitake.