When Yayoi Kusama moved to New York in 1958 with a suitcase of watercolor paintings, the 29-year-old Japanese artist went directly to the top of the Empire State Building. “Seeing this big city, I promised myself that one day I would conquer New York and make my name in the world,” she said in a 2012 interview.
Amazingly, she succeeded. For more than a decade, Kusama’s groundbreaking paintings, sculptures and installations won rave reviews and were shown alongside the works of big-name artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. And yet she never quite won the respect accorded to her male counterparts, who were inspired by her work and sometimes even copied her ideas. Stressed out and suffering from hallucinations, Kusama returned to Japan in 1973 and voluntarily checked herself into a mental institution, where she still resides. After she left, the New York art scene quickly forgot about her, and art historians later followed suit, says Gloria Sutton, an art history professor at Northeastern University.
“I think there is just a blind spot when it comes to female artists and Asian artists in the art history narrative,” Sutton says. “That’s especially true for artists like Kusama, who worked in so many different mediums.”
A flurry of interest in Kusama’s work is beginning to correct that oversight, and that includes a massive new exhibit, “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” opening at the Hirshhorn on Thursday for a 14-week run before traveling to five other museums in the U.S. and Canada over the next two years.
“This exhibit, and all the wonderful scholarship around it, will introduce an entire generation to Kusama, and I think it’s so important it’s happening within her lifetime,” says Sutton, who contributed an essay to the “Infinity Mirrors” catalog.
“Infinity Mirrors” covers 50 years of Kusama’s work, from early drawings to her recent colorful paintings and sculptures, but the heart of the show is six “mirror rooms” — little spaces with walls covered in mirrors that reflect the viewer and other objects inside endlessly. At past exhibits, people have waited in line for hours to experience Kusama’s rooms. This is, in part, because they have become trendy selfie spots, but also because the mirror rooms provoke a feeling of wonder and transcendence, Sutton says.
“The minute that door closes, you feel the atmosphere of the room,” she says. “It’s quite stunning — your sensory perception just shoots up.”
Kusama, 87, began creating the rooms to capture her own hallucinatory visions, says exhibit curator Mika Yoshitake.
“She was working endlessly, almost four or five days straight without even sleeping, and she was having these visions of these endless profusions of things, flowers and polka dots and phallic tubers,” Yoshitake says. “The infinity mirror rooms were a way in which to create endless fascinating environments of these accumulations in an instantaneous way.”
Kusama made her first mirror room, “Phalli’s Field,” in 1965, creating an endless expanse of phallic tubers covered, comically, in polka dots. Later rooms provide viewers with a more transcendent experience. 2013’s “The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” for instance, is filled with twinkling lights that make visitors feel like they are floating among galaxies.
The room that may prove most popular, however, isn’t a mirror room at all. Created anew at every museum it visits, “The Obliteration Room” consists of an all-white space filled with white furniture and objects. Everyone who enters the room will be given a sheet of colorful polka-dot stickers and invited to put them wherever they want. (You can watch Yoshitake apply the first dot via Express’ Facebook page Tuesday at 10 a.m.)
“You are kind of all working together in this communal, utopian way, to transform the space,” Yoshitake says. “It’s a cheerful, wonderful experience I think a lot of people will enjoy.”
But like much of Kusama’s art, “The Obliteration Room” has a sinister edge. Reading into the name of the room, it’s easy to see the polka dots as hollow, as if someone has punched holes into the very fabric of space, Yoshitake says.
“She’s suffered a lot, and the artwork is really a kind of therapy, a healing process for her,” Yoshitake says. Perhaps that’s why Kusama’s installations have attracted such a devoted following. In her relentless quest to heal herself through art, Kusama has opened up a way for others to heal as well.
Contest: Win free tickets to the show
Tickets for the exhibit’s first two weeks have been snapped up, but don’t despair. You can win two tickets from Express — that you can use anytime — by finding polka dots anywhere, taking a photo and posting it on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #expressdots by 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday. We’ll announce a winner on March 2. (Here are the complete rules). And even if you don’t win, the Hirshhorn will be releasing more free timed tickets every Monday at noon during the exhibit’s run.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW; Thu. through May 14, free.
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