Yayoi Kusama: “Infinity Mirrors” at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

Elaine A. King
Print Friendly

Yayoi Kusama with recent works in Tokyo, 2016. Photo by Tomoaki Makino Courtesy of the artist © Yayoi Kusama. NOTE: detailed image captions can be found at end of review

Childlike simplicity and frankness along with infinite universes brim throughout the “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” exhibition currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  Kusama’s unique visual language of recurrent patterns of dots, vibrant colors, wondrous-mirrored rooms and pumpkins evoke an atmosphere of positive joyfulness that invite viewers to participate in her unique visual world. This display is a welcomed relief in Washington, DC’s current gloom and doom milieu!

Born in Japan in 1929, Kusama early rejected its prescribed cultural values toward women and rigid definitions of art.  Between 1948 and 1949, in order to avoid the confines of a strict middle-class Japanese family, she immersed herself in learning traditional Japanese Nihonga painting, a method that renounced the influence of Western art.  Kusama swiftly rebuffed this stringent discipline with its hierarchical master-pupil rapport.  Nevertheless her initial work mingled old-style Japanese painting styles with Western properties, swayed by art books and Euro/American magazines.

Right: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

Her particular interest in the work of Georgia O’Keeffe is what ultimately led Kusama to come to the United States. In 1957 she first moved to Seattle where she achieved recognition at the Zoë Dusanne Gallery she decided however that New York was where she needed to be in order to be in proximity with avant-garde artists of the postwar international art world.  Arriving in 1958 Kusama, at the age of 28, swiftly became recognized as a prime artist in New York’s male-dominated art world.  By 1961 she befriended such greats as Joseph Cornell, Claes Oldenburg, Donald Judd, Eva Hesse, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol with whom she exhibited.  Her emergent style embodied an amalgamation of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop Art.  Long before the concept of multi-disciplinary became a trend in the arts, Kusama assiduously crossed lines experimenting with painting, drawing, sculpture, installation art, performance art, film, fiction, fashion and poetry. Her visibility grew in the ’60s due to her controversial, extremist anti-Vietnam war happenings that placed nudity and polka dots in the streets of New York.

Left: Artist, Yoyoi Kusama

Because of the intense activity of her art career as well as grappling with an unending psychiatric nervous disorder she withdrew from the art world in the early 1970s to write and rest.  In 1973 she returned to Japan, aspiring to be a private blue-chip art dealer though that didn’t work out.  In 1975 she had a nervous breakdown and another in 1977 that sent Kusama to a Tokyo psychiatric hospital where she resides today and keeps a studio nearby. Although Mika Yoshitake the exhibition’s curator is hesitant to make reference to Kusama’s mental health, stating “It’s only important to experience the rooms without having to necessarily know who she is.”[1] This is a peculiar attitude since one cannot isolate this artist’s work from her neuroses that are commonly known.  Kusama overtly admits, “My visual language all still comes from my hallucinations, which I have seen since my childhood.”[2] Moreover her engagement of repetitive dots long precedes the birth of Damien Hirst.  Kusama explains that she had been using polka dots since she was a child: “I have made it into a symbol of love and peace.”[3]

Right: 1. Yayoi Kusama, Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (2009).

The exhibition Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, provides viewers with a uncanny visual feast highlighting prominent themes of nature and fantasy, obsession, life and death and unity and isolation. Steeped in real-life, emotional, and sexual content the spectator enters into an ingenious realm of lively colors and amazing perceptual spaces.  It is a complex display not only providing viewers with a diverse array of her multifaceted artwork, that is rooted in conceptual art and evinces Surrealism, Art Brut, Pop art, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Feminism but also commemorates a senior artist at 87, at the pinnacle of her powers of her 65-year career. Over the past several decades Kusama has made 20 captivating ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms.’ Despite the thoroughness of Kusama’s spectacular exhibition at the Tate Modern and Whitney in 2012, the Hirshhorn show is the first museum to focus on these spectacular constructions, including six that have been carefully positioned throughout the circular ring gallery [the most ever shown together]. They range from carnival type of peep-show chambers to mixed-media room environments that offer viewers an opportunity to experience an illusion of infinite space in a kaleidoscopic site.

Left: 2. Yayoi Kusama, All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016).

Furthermore this comprehensive display includes a selection of more than sixty paintings, sculptures and works on paper, including numerous lesser-known collages, produced upon her return to Japan in 1973.  Collectively the pieces illustrate this artist’s progression from her early surrealist works on paper, Infinity Net paintings and Accumulation assemblages to the recent paintings new series begun in 2009 titled “My Eternal Soul” and accompanying soft sculptures. Kusama had intended this series to include 200 canvases however they currently number some 500. The salon type of hanging of 14 these colorful biomorphic large compositions emphasize their significance and depict a new direction using commanding color and shapes.  Juxtaposed in front of these works is a selection of soft toy-like organic creatures that, too, emphasize Kusama current shifts and experimentation. Gone is the obsessive graphic arrangement of the polka dots.  In these new paintings, resembling tapestries, a joyful spontaneity abounds, perhaps signaling the artist’s return to painting as a noteworthy medium.

Several gems included are seldom-exhibited works made after her return in 1973 to Japan. Additionally her early employment of the Surrealist technique of blotting the paper’s surface when still wet, so the pigment would spread, is evident in “Blasted Corn Leaf, 1948. On the intimate gouache surface she drew with pastel to enrich the emanating form on the paper. Other compelling works such as “The Island in the Sea No. 1,” 1953, “Untitled”, 1952 and “A Man”, 1953 disclose the enduring evolution of her unique aesthetic.  The infinite depth of each image is compelling with its translucent luminosity and subtle nuance of delicate shapes and color. “Horizontal Love”, 1953 evinces a affinity to Mark Rothko’s expansive red and black paintings apparent in his “Four Darks in Red, 1958.

Right: 3. Yayoi Kusama, Flower Overcoat (1964).

Kusama’s critical acclaim arose from her “Infinity Net” paintings that she began in New York and successfully exhibited in 1960.  The delicate “Net” paintings read as monochromes however, beneath each painting surface lies a wash of black or grey, that is obscured by an intricate system of gestural edgings of paint that combine to form a type of net.  Four of the “Net” paintings are in the show and it is believed that Kusama seeing the Pacific Ocean as she flew to the USA was inspirational. The small watercolor “Pacific Ocean,” 1959 is a link to the “Net” series. The “Net” compositions embody an all-covering surface that evokes meticulous lacework or refined lattice. The implied nets look as if they extend outside the composition, suggesting the ability to magnify forever.  The paintings represent a purposeful dialogue with Jackson Pollack’s action, drip painting in which Kusama ascertains a way beyond Abstract Expressionism. I cannot but wonder were the “Net” paintings inspirational to such artists as Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman?

Left: 4. Yayoi Kusama, Left to right: Ennui, 1976; Accumulation, 1962-64; Red Stripes, 1965; Arm Chair, 1963.  

The erotic “Accumulation” sculptures and installations resemble furniture overflowing with white stuffed phalli.  The bizarre white armchairs call to mind the work of Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim.

By the early 1960s artists began using new industrials materials as plastic, light and mirrors.  Being invited to show her Net paintings in the Dutch exhibition Nul Exhibition, dedicated to the exploration of light at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Kusama became aware of Christian Megert’s installation “Mirror Wall,” 1962.  His work focused primarily on optics and spatial extension yet it resonated with Kusama and was pivotal to the commencement of her Infinity Room investigations.

Right: 5. The artist, Yayoi Kusama with installation view of Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field,1965.

The current exhibition begins with Kusama’s landmark installation “Infinity Mirror Room, Phalli’s Field” (1965/2016), a 15-squre foot chamber, in which she staged a dense field of hundreds of red-spotted phallic tubers in a space lined with multiple mirrors. Although this piece marks a turn from painting to three-dimensional perceptual exploration it is an extension of the ‘Net’ paintings.  In this work she altered the concentrated recurrence of her earlier paintings into a new optical experience.  This stimulating installation evinces Pop and Surreal art with the Minimal and Figurative, together with abstraction, psychotic and erotic.  Lined with mirrors and carpeted with hundreds of polka-dotted fabric protrusions that Kusama called ‘a sublime, miraculous field of phalluses’, the installation transports the viewer into phenomenal other world.

Left:6 Yayoi Kusama, Dots Obsession – Love Transformed Into Dots, 2007.

Intermittently placed throughout the circular gallery of the Hirshhorn are other Infinity Rooms including Love Forever (1966), a chamber of colorful flashing lights. Dots Obsession—Loved Transformed into Dots (2009) reconnoiters Kusama’s love of polka dots through a throng of inflatable balls covered with black dots. The two most memorable Infinity Rooms that stand out from the other light and space “wonder” compartments are “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity,” 2009 and “Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” (2013). On entering the former, a subtle hypnotic glowing area, reminiscent of a candle lit sacred ancient space, one senses a silent hush pervading throughout the tranquil environment.  An illusory sensibility unfolds around the viewer, enhanced by the innumerable gleaming lights suggestive of lanterns that repeat, reflect and encircle you into its infinite void.   A metaphysical creation is achieved that successfully invokes the immeasurable cosmos.

Right: 7. Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013.

 “Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” (2013) is the trophy of the “Infinity Rooms”. Instantaneously one is immersed in this enchanted room with an ambiguity of time and space pervading the space. The utilization of walls of mirrors, pools of water, and endless strands of multicolored LED lights that hang from the ceiling create a colorful kaleidoscope that expands the area into an eternal place. Within this space one is reduced to a small component within a larger mysterious universe.  This piece has become an art-world attraction perhaps rivaling the Museum of Modern Art’s immersive “Rain Room” installation. Unfortunately because of the time restriction of only permitting 20 seconds in each Infinity Room, a viewer essentially gets to experience only the “WOW, WOW” effect.  More time is required to experience the intended enchanted experience.

 Kusama’s “All the Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins” was closed when I was there because an exuberant selfie viewer fell into the pumpkin lanterns and “sustained minor damage and the room was closed temporarily”.  It reopened to the Public on Tuesday, February 28.   Yes, this show is definitely selfie heaven!

Left: 8. Yayoi Kusama, The Obliteration Room, 2002 to present.

The climax of the show is in the last Infinity Room, “Obliteration Room”, 2002-Present.  This interactive environment initially commences in an stark white domestic setting filled with familiar domestic objects such as a kitchen counter, couch, bookcases, piano and teapot, that are all painted the an identical white shade.  This piece is meant to morph into a random polka dot setting canceling out the existing furniture and objects by the colorful dots.  Viewers entering the space are handed a sheet of stickers, of different brightly colored dot of a varying size are encouraged to leave the dots wherever they decide.  Within less than a week of the exhibition’s opening the space already has become altered into an accumulation of colorful dots metamorphosing the original white interior into a peculiar blur of colors. The museum printed 750,000 polka dots for this piece.

Right: 9. Yayoi Kusama, (Left to right): Living on the Yellow Land, 2015; My Adolescence in Bloom, 2014; Welcoming the Joyful Season, 2014; Surrounded by Heartbeats, 2014; Unfolding Buds, 2015; Story After Death, 2014.

Filling the walls between the six Infinity environments are treasures that provide examples and insights into Kusama’s imaginative greatness. Regrettably many viewers do not stop and bother to take the time to examine the rarely seen exquisite drawings, paintings, collages or sculptures—it is the mirrored environments and the opportunity to take ‘selfies,’ that have been promoted.  The dramatic rooms give viewers the impression that they are the ultimate creations of this eccentric grandes dame, prodigious artist

According to the Smithsonian, “A great deal of our thinking was about the orchestration of the visitor through the building.”  The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden spent two years preparing to give visitors their 20 seconds of Wonder. They felt that the timed passes available for free online every Monday at noon would hopefully maintain a continual flow of visitors through the exhibition. Unfortunately the lines are blatantly long and one’s actual time inside the Infinity Rooms is incredibly short!  In our ‘ME,’ narcissistic culture of ‘SNAPCHAT, FACEBOOK and whatever, the crowd appeal at the Hirshhorn and Selfie fest isn’t surprising.  Beyond what viewers are taking home of the dazzling Infinity Room pictures inside their IPhone, I wonder how many viewers will have deeper comprehension of Yayoi Kusama and her astounding world of chance and invention?

By Elaine King, Contributing Writer

North American tour:

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” will be on view at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through May 14, 2017

o   Seattle Art Museum June 30–Sept 10, 2017

o   The Broad, Los Angeles, Oct 21, 2017–Jan 10, 2018

o   Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, March 3–May 27, 2018

o   Cleveland Museum of Art, July 9–Sept 30, 2018

Caption Detail:

1. Yayoi Kusama, Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2009. Wood, mirror, plastic, acrylic, LED, black glass, and aluminum. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama.

2. Yayoi Kusama, All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016. Wood, mirror, plastic, black glass, LED. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / Singapore and Victoria Miro, London. © Yayoi Kusama.

3. Yayoi Kusama, Flower Overcoat (1964). Cloth overcoat, plastic flowers, metallic paint, and wood hanger 50 3/4 x 28 7/8 x 5 3/4″. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest and Purchase Funds, 1998 (98.38). © Yayoi Kusama. Photo credit: Lee Stalsworth.

4. Yayoi Kusama, Left to right: Ennui, 1976; Accumulation, 1962-64; Red Stripes, 1965; Arm Chair, 1963. Installation view of Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Photo by Cathy Carver.

5. The artist, Yayoi Kusama with installation view of Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field, 1965, in Floor Show, Castellane Gallery, New York, 1965. Sewn stuffed cotton fabric, board, and mirrors. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama. Photo: Eikoh Hoso.

6. Yayoi Kusama, Dots Obsession – Love Transformed Into Dots, 2007, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Mixed media installation. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York., © Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Cathy Carver.

7. Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Wood, metal, glass mirrors, plastic, acrylic panel, rubber, LED lighting system, acrylic balls, and water, 113 1/4 x 163 1/2 x 163 1/2 in. Courtesy of David Zwirner, N.Y. © Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Cathy Carver.

8. Yayoi Kusama, The Obliteration Room, 2002 to present. Furniture, white paint, and dot stickers. Dimensions variable. Collaboration between Yayoi Kusama and Queensland Art Gallery. Commissioned Queensland Art Gallery, Australia. Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia. Photograph: QAGOMA Photography. © Yayoi Kusama.

9. Yayoi Kusama, (Left to right): Living on the Yellow Land, 2015; My Adolescence in Bloom, 2014; Welcoming the Joyful Season, 2014; Surrounded by Heartbeats, 2014; Unfolding Buds, 2015; Story After Death, 2014. Installation view of Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Photo by Cathy Carver.


1 Olivia Hampton, “From Tokyo to USA: Kusama’s eternal love of polka dots,” Washington, AFP, artdaily, February 27, 2017 (http://artdaily.com/news/94103/From-Tokyo-to-USA–Kusama-s-eternal-love-of-polka-dots)

[2] Helen Sumpter, Interview: Yayoi Kusama meets the artist in the Tokyo psychiatric hospital she calls home, Time Out, London, Summer 2012.

3 Mark Brown, “Yayoi Kusama arrives at Tate Modern with a polka at Damien Hurst”, the Guardian, 7 February 2012. (on line version: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/feb/07/yayoi-kusama-tate-modern-damien-hirst)


Leave a Reply

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.