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Yayoi Kusama is back at the Hirshhorn. Here’s what you need to know.

A showcase of five works, including two ‘Infinity Mirror’ rooms, invites us into the artist’s inner world.

18 month-old Isla McGill plays inside visionary artist Yayoi Kusama’s "Infinity Mirror" room, "My Heart Is Dancing Into the Universe, " at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
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The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s 2017 blockbuster “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors indulged the best and the worst of our smartphone-centric, hyperconnected selves, showing that art museums aren’t just for looking, but for participating, posing and posting. Luring crowds with photogenic installations, the show proliferated online, breaking museum attendance records. A generous critic might praise it for exposing a wider audience to art. A cynic might liken it to clickbait.

Now Kusama is back — albeit in a more petite size. “One With Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection” highlights five Kusama artworks owned by the museum, including two “Infinity Mirror” rooms. But it opens in a different era.

I went to Kusama and all I got was this lousy selfie

For a society obsessed with images and the endless ways to present yourself online, Kusama’s work was a perfect match. Her immersive rooms functioned as visual echo chambers, multiplying the viewer, like tweets that affirm your beliefs and customized ads that stalk you across the Internet. They showed us our favorite product — ourselves — and bolstered a primal belief: By replicating ourselves through images and reflections, we too can become infinite.

Five years later, the conditions that set up Kusama’s work for success have changed. From the Museum of Ice Cream to immersive Van Gogh experiences, Instagram-ready installations have become a cottage industry — attempting to mimic Kusama’s appeal for profit, but with a small fraction of her artistic flair. The social media that fueled the Kusama craze has taken a darker turn, with Instagram at the center of conversations about mental health and the wider realization that looking into dizzying reflections of ourselves and our desires through online algorithms can be more distorting than dazzling.

There’s an argument that Kusama’s rooms might be even more appealing today. The maximalist aesthetic of the artist’s classic works only grew in popularity during the pandemic. And after two years during which many of us found ourselves confined to our homes, looking at four walls that seem to unfurl into an ever-receding horizon can seem almost poetic, like a symbolic release.

So it’s tempting to wonder: Will the Hirshhorn be able to woo visitors with Kusama 2.0? From the first room in the show — which features just the single, quiet drawing “The Hill” — it’s clear that this exhibition isn’t out to wow but to pull us into Kusama’s inner world. From her massive, fiber-reinforced plastic pumpkin, which has been placed in a new polka dot room, to a sculpture of a coat that seems overgrown with playful flowers, each work is rich with the distinctive touch of the self-anointed high priestess of polka dots. With her show opening this weekend, here’s our guide to “Eternity,” and ways to think about Kusama’s art.

Kusama as performance art

When you enter the “Infinity Mirror” rooms “Phalli’s Field” or “My Heart Is Dancing Into the Universe” and take out your phone, you’re tapping into ideas long active in Kusama’s work. Success has sanitized her, but before Kusama became a household name, she was a performance artist. She burned American flags to protest the Vietnam War and hosted parties at which naked people covered each other in polka dots. For one of Kusama’s early performance pieces — a critique of commodification in art — she stood outside the Italian Pavilion at the 1966 Venice Biennale and sold 1,500 plastic mirror balls for $2, in front of a sign that read, “Your Narcissism for Sale.” Today, we’re still buying what she’s selling. In a clever sleight of hand, she has conscripted us in an ongoing, collaborative performance piece, tricked us into supporting a career-long commentary on narcissism. Much like social media, where we think we are receiving a service but really we’re being sold, we, the narcissists, might just be Kusama’s product — with every photo we post a brushstroke on her ever-expanding canvas.

Kusama as obliteration of the self

Beneath the surface of Kusama’s eye-popping art, you’ll find a methodical, meditative practice. In the Hirshhorn show, you can see it in the meticulous, hand-stitched plush sculptures of “Phalli’s Field” or in the dots that line “The Hill,” one of 5,000 works on paper Kusama made in the 1950s. Implicit in her work is a quiet tedium, a thankless process, an accumulation of "meaninglessness” that Kusama has said brings her closer to the profound. For the artist, who had a difficult childhood in Japan during World War II, repetition became a kind of escape. Some scholars believe her polka dot motif may have been born at a river she retreated to near her childhood home. There, she saw millions of white stones, prompting what she called “a mysterious vision” in which the stones “confirm[ed] their ‘being’ one by one under the glistening sun.” Throughout her life, she has experienced similar visions, where shapes multiply and blot out her surroundings. The sculpture “Flowers — Overcoat” recalls another vision: one in which the rich, red flowers of a patterned tablecloth appear to have filled the space around her. She described feeling restored, “returned to infinity,” her “soul obliterated.” In a world of information overload, her repeating visuals appear like a mantra, an immensity you can grasp.

Kusama as connection

When Kusama made “Phalli’s Field,” her first mirror room, she hoped the viewer would “experience their own figures and movements as part of the sculpture. Inside the work, the lighting is so unforgivingly bright, you feel every pore on your skin illuminated. Here, phallic forms grow like weeds, toppling over each other, handicapped by their abundance. Standing above them, your figure deteriorates into the mirrored distance, leaving you acutely aware that you too are no more than an assemblage of tangled, gooey organic shapes. In “My Heart Is Dancing Into the Universe” (2018), you follow a dark pathway around polka dot lanterns, lulled along by shifting colors. The boundary between the floor, the walls and the ceiling seems to melt. Interrupted by the floating lanterns, your figure becomes a hallucination, akin to a fickle mirage in water. For Kusama, the depersonalization experienced in these rooms has a moral significance. In a Vietnam-era letter to President Richard M. Nixon, Kusama suggested art as a way to nonviolence. “Lose yourself in the timeless stream of eternity,” she wrote. “Self-obliteration points out the way. Kusama will show you how by covering your body with polka dots.” The artist believed that through radical repetition, we could rid ourselves of ego and become connected to a greater whole. Modesty was essential in Kusama’s view: It was even the reason she loved pumpkins, which she called “humble and amusing.” So while we stand in her mirrored rooms, we might consider that we are just one of many. In Kusama’s excess, there is a reminder that, as she put it, “Our Earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos.”

Bonus Kusamas

If you’re craving a little more Kusama after the Hirshhorn, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has two of her early works included in the exhibition “Artist to Artist.” Made when Kusama was in her mid-20s, the works “Autumn” and “Forlorn Spot” were purchased by her friend, the sculptor Joseph Cornell, and discovered by archivist Anna Rimel in 2019. Kusama described her relationship with Cornell as deeply romantic but platonic. They exchanged notes, he wrote her poems and, when Kusama was a struggling artist in New York, Cornell, who was nearly three decades older, gave her artworks that she could sell to support herself. Given Kusama’s larger-than-life reputation, the delicate works on paper read like artifacts from some primordial era, fossilized traces of her artistic thinking, in which her hand — rather than her brand — is on view. Both works have a glow that seems to swell, as if lit from behind, with a taste of her “Infinity Mirror” rooms’ luminescence. The warm “Autumn” simulates the sensation of looking through a microscope. Geometric and organic patterns collide, as if building to a bigger form and recalling the automatic drawings of the surrealists. “Forlorn Spot” appears like a glimpse of a far-off constellation, coming into focus. Here she is trying out shapes: dots and net patterns that will appear in her later “Infinity Nets” series. The works are displayed alongside Cornell’s mixed-media work “Ideals Are Like Stars; You Will Not Succeed in Touching Them,” which echoes that yearning feeling of standing in one of Kusama’s rooms, on the edge of eternity and yet light-years away from it.

“Artist to Artist” is on view through Sept. 3, 2023. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and G streets NW. americanart.si.edu. Free.

If you go

One With Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. hirshhorn.si.edu.

Dates: Through Nov. 27.

Tickets: The Hirshhorn’s 2017 show brought teeming crowds and hours-long, winding lines that would unnerve almost anyone in a pandemic-cautious world. This time around, the museum is trying to eliminate such headaches. Visitors over age 12 will need free, timed-entry passes — distributed Thursday through Sunday, first-come, first-served, beginning at 9:30 a.m., at the north side of the museum’s plaza, near the Jefferson Drive entrance. (Entry slots begin at 10 a.m., with the last entry at 4:30 p.m.) Each visitor can request two passes and may bring two children under 12 into the exhibition with them. The number of available passes will vary based on maintenance schedules, school tour groups and other factors, and the museum’s website will announce when tickets for each day have sold out. After the museum opens at 10 a.m., any unclaimed passes will be made available at the lobby welcome desk.

Navigation: The show, on the museum’s lower level, consists of five galleries arranged in a loop. Staff will enforce a one-way traffic flow, so once you pass through a gallery, you cannot double back. Two people at a time (or an adult with two children) can enter each “Infinity Mirror” room, and each group will have 30 seconds in the space, per the artist’s recommendation. For more information, visit the museum website’s FAQ.

Pro tip: Arrive early. Passes will not be honored more than 10 minutes after each scheduled slot. Although entry is timed to minimize lines, there may be waits of 10 to 15 minutes to enter the show and an additional 10 to 15 minutes to enter the two “Infinity Mirror” rooms.

Special event: On opening weekend, the Hirshhorn will remain open until 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and distribute additional tickets accordingly.

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