The name Yayoi Kusama often conjures images of polka-dots spreading out into the infinite, and the odd pumpkin. Both have long been staples of her work and are present in her exhibition Kusama: At the End of the Universe curated by Alison de Lima Greene at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, on view through September 18. “Kusama was born in pre-war Japan, part of a seed-farming family that grew kabocha, a sweet, pumpkin-like squash,” Greene explained. “These kabocha were very present in many of her early paintings. Since then, she has had a fascinating career arc.”
This arc is well defined for visitors as they enter the MFAH lobby and are greeted by Kusama’s Pumpkin, a 2006 sculpture of a large, dull-orange Japanese pumpkin covered in black dots. Kusama, who moved to New York City in the late 1950s, has a broad practice that spans drawing, painting, sculpture, performance, fashion design, and staged events, including the occasional polka-dot orgy or naked anti-tax protest.
“When I was drawing, the pattern would expand to outside of the canvas to fill the floor and the wall,” Kusama said in a video produced for her 2012 Tate Modern retrospective. “So when I looked far away, I would see a hallucination and I would get surrounded by that vision. That is how I became an environmental artist.”
Kusama’s infinity rooms remove the public’s ability to focus; she breaks through boundaries of space and time. A recent acquisition by the MFAH, Kusama’s 2009 installation Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, places visitors on a platform surrounded by water as lights slowly ignite, reflecting in mirrors to expand the small room out into the universe, only to return to the void. Kusama’s focus here is on the struggle of everyday life: We overcome our daily life to reach today, yet must continue to overcome to reach tomorrow. We flash on, we go dark, and we blossom again.
“These infinity rooms are deeply reflective of Kusama’s thoughts on life and death—the eternal cycles of return,” de Greene said. While Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity is more a direct meditation on the sparking and damping of light and life, the adjacent infinity room, Love Is Calling, embodies the artist’s soul at the peak, struggling through her childhood to the present day and reflecting on the unlimited hope that art provides. “I always question my mind on love in all of my art and creation,” Kusama explains. “Even now, I am still eager to challenge various things with as deep philosophy and aesthetics as possible.”
Love Is Calling presents a cavern of Kusama’s surrealist/pop aesthetic that envelops visitors as they pass through the room. Polka dot-covered tentacles jut down from the ceiling and up from the floor like so many stalactites and stalagmites. These soft sculptures glow and change colors as audio plays of Kusama reading her poem, “Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears,” in Japanese.
The steady lyricism of Kusama’s reading pulses through the room, creating a hypnotic environment that could put viewers in a psychedelic trance were they to stay long enough. “Over many long years, with art as a weapon,” she recites, “I have treaded the path in search of love…” At the MFAH, Kusama’s work expands outside of the infinite rooms. On the back and on the east walls of the exhibition, hangs a selection of works from My Eternal Soul, the latest series of Kusama’s paintings. These compositions, all from 2015, combine high-key colors with a range of new imagery that draws on the artist’s biography.
Allowing the work to flow through her and onto the canvas, the series floats between figurative and abstract works but tend to be dominated by familiar dots that form eyes and portraits of women—some laughing, some weeping. Outside of the figurative paintings, the series shows Kusama’s return to abstraction, where microscopic beings are drawn out into a larger cosmos that exists beyond the canvas, beyond the museum.
Through the series, Kusama continues to explore the themes of love, the self, life, and death that she has struggled to understand throughout her life. If not immediately apparent in the aesthetics, this is certainly revealed by titles like I Who Cry in the Flowering Season or God Has Lived Here.
Perhaps it is her love for art that propels Kusama forward because she has extended the goal of this series from 100 paintings to 1000, seemingly dedicating another decade to these paintings.
“Devoting all my heart to you, I have lived through to this day
Hoping to leave beautiful footprints at the end of my life
I spend each day praying that my wish will be fulfilled
This is my message of love to you.”
—Kusama, Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears