This Great Pumpkin Heralds the D.C. Arrival of Yayoi Kusama

The Hirshhorn’s 65-year retrospective boasts six mirror rooms by this hugely popular artist

Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin
Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama, 2016 Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore. © Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Cathy Carver

Prize pumpkin season may have ended months ago, but a whopper has landed on the lawn at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. 

At eight feet tall and some 1,800 pounds, it would qualify for a blue-ribbon at a summer fair, but this one is festooned with hundreds of black dots—vinyl, perfectly round, regimented lines of black spots on fiber-reinforced plastic.

This sculpture, entitled Pumpkinof course, is a harbinger of what’s expected to be a hugely popular retrospective opening at the museum in February by the Japanese-born artist Yayoi Kusama.

As such, it’s a pretty good calling card. Pumpkins and polka dots have been passions for the artist for more than six decades, says curator Mika Yoshitake, who helped to organize the upcoming exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” that will run February 23 through May 14, 2017 before traveling to five other North American museums.

“Yayoi Kusama grew up in a plant seed nursery,” Yoshitake says. “Her grandfather was the first to introduce her to these plants. She immediately took to the pumpkin because of its shape and its grotesqueness.”

Kusama was drawing pumpkins beginning in the late 1940s, growing up in Matsumoto, Nagano. 

Yayoi Kusama - Obsessed with Polka Dots

“It seems pumpkins do not inspire much respect,” Kusama once said. “But I was enchanted by their charming and winsome form. What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness.”

And just as important to Kusama throughout her career were the dots, which Yoshitake calls “a very personal thing for her.”

“They began with hallucinations she had when she was a child,” the curator says. “She suffers from acute neurosis so she has these visions of polka dots.”

“The polka dot,” the artist wrote in 1978, “has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing, polka-dots become movement. . .polka dots are a way to infinity.”

So polka dots marked her work as far back as the 1960s when, as an avant garde artist in New York, she held happenings where she and her friends, naked, would cavort covered only in dots.

In the early 1970s, though, Kusama moved back to Japan and dropped from sight for a few decades until retrospectives in New York and London drew her out of obscurity. She is now called Japan's most successful living artist and the world's top selling contemporary female artist. 

She also has a huge following because of her mirrored “infinity room” installations that seemed to viewers to expand forever. 

One such piece at the Broad Gallery in Los Angeles has attracted hours-long lines since that museum opened in 2015, in part because only one visitor is allowed inside at a time, for less than a minute. 

Her Fireflies on the Water at the Whitney Museum of American Art during a 2012 retrospective drew crowd control issues, requiring timed tickets. 

The Hirshhorn is expecting a crush of visitors for its “Infinity Mirrors,” Yoshitake says, because “we’ll have six, which is an unprecedented number of mirror rooms in the exhibiton that will be contextualized with painting, sculptures, works on paper, very rarely seen collages as well as an archival display of a lot of her photographs and diagrams.”

The installations will include a recreation of Infinity Mirror Room — Phalli's Field (1965/2016), the 2007 Dots Obsession — Love Transformed Into Dots, the 2009 Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, and The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away from 2013 and the participatory The Obliteration Room.

But with a half dozen such rooms, “we need to be very prepared,” Yoshitake says. “We have a major logistics team working on this. We’ve been working on this for a year.” 

With inquiries coming in to the museum about the show since spring, she adds, “we expect to be at capacity every day.”

Indeed, the prize for the best Instagram of the new Pumpkin were timed admission tickets to the free exhibition on its opening weekend.

Kusama, now 87, created her first infinity room in the early 1960s with mirrors and lights, a time when she was at the center of the pop art explosion in New York, when she was connected to artists from Donald Judd to Joseph Cornell to Andy Warhol.

Eventually the seeming vastness of her infinity rooms also reflected both of her other passions. 

“The first mirror room that was related to pumpkins was in 1991,” Yoshitake says. “She was selected as the first Japanese artist to represent the Venice Biennale in 1993 so she created a mirror room which is a mirrored box inside a room that has all these polka dots. It reflects everything within its sight and then inside are these painted foam pumpkins.”

Yoshitake says she originally sought the soft foam pumpkins for the Hirshhorn, “but when I found out she was making this new piece, we thought we’d better have this new one.”

The 2016 Pumpkin sits in place of Tony Smith’s black, angular Throwback, which has been temporarily placed in storage. In addition to a new shape, it brings a splash of color to the museum plaza.

It also hints at the many more pumpkins to come in the show, including her latest one, first exhibited in London earlier this year, with bright yellow pumpkins with dots, LED lights and endlessly multiplied by black mirrors. Its title does not hide her ardor: All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins

Pumpkin is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.  “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” will be on view February 23 through May 14, 2017 before traveling to museums in Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, Cleveland and Atlanta. Passes for opening weekend will be released online Monday, February 13, at noon EST. Passes will continue to be released every Monday at noon for the following week.

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