As a child, the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama was fascinated by white stones that dotted the riverbed behind her family’s house. Later, as an artist, she envisioned a world obliterated by dots, channeling her hallucinations into drawings of flowers and abstract, swirling patterns. For the new roving exhibit “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” opening February 23 in Washington D.C., Kusama took her signature dot motif to the furthest extent possible — infinity.
At the Hirshhorn Museum, visitors will experience Kusama’s version of infinity in six mirrored installation rooms illuminated by LED lights — infinity rooms that expand a viewer’s sense of time and space and suggest a cosmic hyperreality. Kusama has said she’s interested in the concept of “self-obliteration,” seeing her kaleidoscopic installations as connecting her viewers so completely to their surrounding environment that their sense of self is lost. Other visitors may see their reflections repeated infinitely in the exhibit’s mirrors and consider themselves separate from the set — a sea of polka-dotted props and phallic floor pillows.
The accompanying book Infinity Mirrors, published February 1 by Prestel, traces the artist’s colorful, decades-long career from evocative pastel drawings to cheerful paintings and bespeckled sculptures. Referring to the Phalli’s Field installation shown in the slideshow ahead, she tells Hirshhorn Museum director Melissa Chiu: “I wanted to show that I am one of the elements — one of the dots among the millions of dots in the universe.”
In a previous interview that appears in the book, Kusama explains how World War II cast a shadow over her childhood in Japan and influenced how she came to value personal and creative freedom. At age 13, she was sent to work in a military factory to sew parachutes for the Japanese army. “American B29’s [flew] in broad daylight,” she recalls. “The air-raid alert went off every day, so that I could barely feel my life. My adolescence was spent in the closed darkness; especially because of the war, many dreams I had rarely, if at all, saw the light of day.”
In 1957, at the age of 28, Kusama emigrated to the U.S. — first to Seattle, then to New York City. “For art like mine — art that does battle at the boundary between life and death, questioning what we are and what it means to live and die — [Japan] was too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women,” she once explained. “My art needed a more unlimited freedom, and a wider world.” Action paintings charged with masculine aggression were popular in downtown New York’s art scene at the time. In contrast, Kusama’s work was intricately detailed and required a significant amount of studio time, prompting some critics to relate her practice to women’s domestic work. She described her artwork during this period as inwardly focused: “I think only of myself when I make my artwork.”
Kusama later moved back to Japan and checked into a mental hospital for psychosis; there, she continued to paint and write surrealist stories and poems. In 1993 she became the first solo artist to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale, solidifying her prominence on the international museum circuit. Kusama rarely makes public appearances but when she does she dresses boldly — in floor-length polka-dot dresses, neon-colored wigs, and mismatched socks that mirror her artwork.
Click ahead to preview photos from the book, including one recent photo of the artist in her studio wearing her signature red anime wig.
“Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” will be on view at the Hirshhorn Museum from February 23 to May 14.