Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most famous and successful contemporary artist, has returned to New York City for her highly-anticipated solo show at David Zwirner that opens today (May 11). In I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers, Kusama interrogates the blossoming colors and shapes of life in brand new artworks comprising sculptures, paintings and an immersive room.
Occupying several spaces in the Chelsea art gallery, the exhibition greets viewers with the three monumental flower sculptures that lend their names to the title of Kusama’s show. These emerge out of the concrete floor in twisted shapes, saturated in hue and covered with variously sized polychromatic polka dots and net line work. Together, they showcase the artist’s signature motifs and evoke the aesthetics of psychedelics.
One flower opposes petals of yellow and black, another red and white, and a third, pink and white. Kusama’s colors often clash in their unusual and provocative combinations, and here the colors incarnate the sky, leaves, petals, bees, and their bent forms remind one of the aftermath of a cool breeze. They visually overtake the senses as Kusama packs the expanse of a flower field into the physicality of these three totemic monuments—three flowers for all flowers. Their monstrous scale suggests an affinity towards romanticism as much as a warning. It’s as if the artist is searching for lost beauty, some desperate way to immortalize the vanishing notion of seasons and decay—the feeling 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire described as an “alchemy of sorrow” in one of his poems from The Flowers of Evil (“I carve vast tombs against the sky”).
Poetry frequently inspires Kusama, who invites us to “Sing Together a Song from the Heart of the Universe!” in a message she issued to coincide with her solo show. The three flowers communicate thusly with three tall sculptures of sinuous, black-on-dandelion polka-dotted pumpkins. Their bulbous curves imitate a tipsy walk… a zig-zagging wall… a maze in which we can stroll and abandon ourselves, but they also mimic a dismembered vessel turned safe-haven when standing in the middle of the installation. In fact, they might be Kusama’s twist on Stonehenge—pumpkin monoliths as a re-enchanted theory of mysteries.
Kusama loves polka-dotted pumpkins; they are her most recognizable motifs since she started experiencing hallucinations during her abuse-marred childhood. In those visions, pumpkins became animated and spoke to her. Her obsession eventually culminated in her building a pumpkin mirror room, which was presented in the Japanese pavilion of the Venice Biennial in 1993.
A new infinity mirror room at David Zwirner, Dreaming of Earth Sphericity, I Would Offer My Love (2023), is, like the rest of the show, a celebration of spring. Red, blue, yellow and green spheres and half-moons create a visual illusion of depth that most people who have come across Kusama’s art expect. Unlike her other infinity rooms, such as Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (2009), Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011) and Chandelier of Grief (2016), this one radiates. We’re not guided through an endless cosmic night as a projection of Kusama’s altered inner states but instead lit by the flares of vivid, primaveral ebullience.
These installations are joined by 36 colorful paintings from her ongoing series Everyday I Pray for Love, started in 2021. These works alternate between 2D dots and lines, which at times evoke African and Aboriginal prints or molecular outlines of primordial creation. Color becomes once more a lexicon for visibility and erasure, an expression of existence and transformation. Dots are a measure of a part and a whole; they contain the dual essence of fragment and multitude. Her compulsive use of repetition gives a hypnotic tinge to her artwork (especially paintings). It’s a graphic redundancy that promotes ritual.
The show signals the continuation of Kusama’s accomplishments—same motifs, different colors. Yet it’s hard not to experience an overwhelming sense of deja-vu, given the sheer number of projects and shows dedicated to her work and designs in recent years. The partnerships with Louis Vuitton. Her Tokyo museum. Shows at the Pérez Art Museum (2023), Hirshhorn Museum (2022), Qatar Museum (2022) and the new M+ Museum in Hong Kong (2022), to name but a few. It’s like she never really left New York City either, with her exhibitions at the New York Botanical Garden (2021) and Zwirner shows in 2021, 2019, 2017, and 2015. In between all this prolificness, Insta-worthy selfies inside her infinity mirror rooms are a social media staple.
For all the commercial Kusama-core constantly streaming through the art and fashion worlds, I’ll sadly admit to being Kusama-bored. The artist’s brand—avant-garde in the 1950s, now an obscenely profitable enterprise—has become iconic, reliable and overwhelmingly visible. Fame is a good thing in the art market. Kusama, an auction darling, recently sold a group of five works for $22.9 million. But what exemplifies this sameness most is her main “art product”: the infinity mirror room which doesn’t quite dazzle anymore.
With the advent of augmented reality and other forms of immersive art, one can now access more mesmerizing otherworldly explorations. Because of this, the Kusama rooms are relics of navel-gazing exhibitionism, places where we no longer want to get lost, but in which we want to be found or recognized. Like Narcissus, I nearly drowned in my own reflection trying to snap the perfect pose for the perfect no one; it was incredibly vain—an irony since Kusama’s installation Narcissus Gardens at the 1966 Venice Biennial disrupted the notions of ego and commercialization. The colors streaming through the brightness of Zwirner’s “white cube” room made me feel like I was in some sort of polychromatic tanning room or infrared sauna, getting a fix of vitamin pigments in the company of other people before a night out.
Once endlessly cosmic, Dreaming of Earth Sphericity, I Would Offer My Love is shallow, tight and nearly suffocating. Despite a liberating ambition, the room centers and exaggerates the human body there, unmovable in all its angles and distracting physically. Whereas the mirror—as an object and concept—is the first experience of alterity and self-recognition for a child, here it’s reduced to a prop for photos. Maybe this is the logical epilogue of Pop art—a playful joke on ephemeral mundanities that becomes a self-important gimmick.
Kusama still dreams and hopes as her titles suggest. Their whimsicality can feel at odds with our current craving for less hyperbolic extravagance and deeper, more sober forms of human connection. I wanted to consider her glowing installations as an incarnation of protest art, charting a revolutionary path of imaginary futures against gloom and hardships. After all, she’s a visionary artist who has risen several times from the ashes and institutional smirks. But why, then, does it appear like macro-dosing on glorified commodification?
I gazed at the familiar patterns and forms probing whether it’s possible to turn decade-long ruminations of the mind into new windows of appreciation for an evolving, fast, and scary world. Kusama’s realm is a fascinating adventure, albeit one with a limited range. In that, her work remains stubborn, authentic, impossibly kitsch and resolutely cult-like.
Yayoi Kusama: I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers is on view at David Zwirner through July 21.