(Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)
Art and architecture critic

Little reference is made to the mental illness of artist Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s exhibition of her mesmerizing mirrored “Infinity Rooms.” There are allusions here and there, and mentions of things like “self-therapy” and “hallucinatory” visions, along with the revealing titles she has given to her works, such as “I Who Have Taken an Anti-Depressant.” Visitors new to the work of one of most famous and beloved contemporary artists will have little sense of her compelling personal story: A brilliant avant-garde pioneer who has also lived into her late 80s with deep obsessions and neuroses, who has been hospitalized and still lives in a hospital, who is unashamed of the fact and isn’t hesitant or embarrassed to connect her art to her mental illness.

One can understand but not sympathize with the curatorial choice here. When Kusama was “rediscovered” by a new and hyper-commercialized art world in the late 1990s, her narrative was an ideal ready-made for generating buzz and box office. What good fortune to find an artist who, without ever intending to be, was straight from central casting, with a powerful, individual vision, an illustrious past (she was one of the most compelling figures in the New York art world in the 1960s and ’70s), and a signature style (polka dots and spotted yellow pumpkins are favorite motifs) that could be easily reproduced and marketed. Her mirrored Infinity Rooms — which this exhibition explores with six different installations — produce exactly the sensation that contemporary museums want, a feeling of wonder, with no troubling residue that needs to be explained by thinking or interpretation.

Now, however, one also senses a deep discomfort with the marketing and media narratives that went hand in hand with the Kusama rediscovery. Today, the art world reclaims Kusama not just from the semi-obscurity into which she sank when she returned (for health reasons) to Japan in 1973, but from its own exploitation of her narrative. Now that she is widely known and greatly beloved, she needs to be rigorously theorized, inscribed into contemporary art discourse, intellectually transubstantiated from the things that make her work compelling: Its powerful, insistent simplicity and its relentless focus on questions of death and annihilation.

But Kusama will have none of it, and good for her. An exchange in the exhibition catalogue, between Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu and the artist, is telling: “How much was feminism a part of your thinking at the time?” Kusama is asked, and she replies, “I was thinking of art as a whole and not from a feminist viewpoint.” What’s powerful here is not her disavowal of feminism. In the 1960s, Kusama staged orgies and performance interventions with naked artists on the streets of New York, and so thoroughly embodied the sexual revolution, including gay rights, that the term “feminist” is too delimiting. Rather, it is her insistence on a wholeness and singularity to her art and her refusal to adopt the interpretive language of others that is refreshing.

The strength of this exhibition is its focus. It begins with gouache paintings made while she was still living in Japan in the 1950s, compact, vivid works that suggest a fascination with cells, with the thickness of skin and the underlying dermis. One pastel, “Nets and Red No. 2,” is covered with a thin sheath of synthetic netting — which would become a recurring visual element in some of her most prized works made in New York after she emigrated in 1957. Loops and netted figures, made with a flick of the wrist, repeated almost ad infinitum over large canvases, yielded what looked like lovely, large abstractions with a personal touch. But it was the repetitions inherent in the making that mattered, the way in which an obsessively repeated gesture offered some kind of escape or self-obliteration.

Polka dots were another fixation, and they eventually became part of her personal mysticism, each dot unique unto itself, yet through reiteration suggestive of something larger, perhaps even eternal or infinite, with the power (somehow) to atomize the individual or object on which they were painted. She would daub polka dots on naked bodies, a gesture both sexual and chaste at the same time, that became symbolic of the self-transcendence and communal connection she craved.

A 1963 installation used a rowboat covered with hand-sewn cloth phalluses, with photographs of the boat repeated on the walls, prefiguring through photographic representation the infinite reflections of her mirrored rooms. The first of those, “Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field,” used red-and-white cloth phallus sculptures, plus mirrors, to create a room in which visitors saw themselves amid an infinite, gardenlike landscape of infantilized fetish objects. Later mirror rooms used lights, small hanging lanterns and eventually luminous pumpkins to create a spectrum of different infinities, some about a dazzling urban endlessness, others a quiet, somber sea of sadness, and one simply an abundance of pumpkins, as if a synthetic October twilight has been frozen, concentrated, extended and perfected at all once.

An essay in the catalogue, riddled with artsy junk prose, suggests that this is all about contemporary systems theories, cybernetics, and the breaking down of binary oppositions “between internal and external, tangible and ephemeral.” It’s not that it’s wrong to intellectualize Kusama’s work; but it is very wrong indeed to intellectualize it in a way that annihilates Kusama herself.

Here’s what she’s said about her work: “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings.” And why does that matter? Because Kusama has long been grappling with the fundamental fear that animates religion, spirituality and much of the best art, the sense of bewilderment about how we are thrown into life without having ever been asked to participate, and the only way out of this mess is death. Or as she puts it: “I am trapped in my life, yet I cannot escape from death.”

When you enter one of the infinity rooms, it’s not so much the visual repetition that stuns you, rather, it’s the solitude, the kind of solitude that inspires thoughts like “I am trapped in my life, yet I cannot escape from death.” Unfortunately, given the expected crowds, visitors will have only 30 seconds alone in each room, so you’ll have to work fast to have a meaningful existential crisis.

In her New York days, Kusama created a performance piece called “Narcissus Garden” that playfully intimated that there was a deep narcissism in the art world, a need for self-affirmation that afflicted perhaps the entire social milieu from artists to curators to gallerists to collectors. An exhibition that presents Kusama with virtually no reference to her personal condition and mental illness, and replaces what she has long said matters with a rather bloodless rhetoric of “the significance of Kusama’s work amid today’s renewed interest in experiential practices and virtual spaces,” feels like the essence of narcissism. Or at the least, an unnecessary effort to make more complex something that is very simple.

And that is, Kusama matters because she has confronted and internalized a fact that will destabilize almost anyone, whether or not they suffer from mental illness. I am trapped in life, yet I cannot escape from death.

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors opens at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on Feb. 23. Timed passes required. For more information visit hirshhorn.si.edu