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Who is Yayoi Kusama?

Learn about the legendary Japanese artist and her upcoming exhibition
Reto Thüring, Curator of Contemporary Art
April 16, 2018

Installation view of Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever (1966/1994) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Yayoi Kusama. Wood, mirrors, metal, lightbulbs. Collection of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore. © Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Cathy Carver

For the past six decades, Yayoi Kusama has worked across media, developing a groundbreaking body of work that has greatly impacted younger generations of artists. In 1993 she was the first woman to have a solo presentation representing Japan at the Venice Biennale, and in 2017 Time magazine named her one of the world’s most influential people. 

Born in Matsumoto in 1929, Kusama moved to the United States in 1957, settling a year later in New York, where she lived for 15 years. Within the city’s avant-garde art circles, populated by figures such as Andy Warhol and Allan Kaprow, Kusama honed her unique artistic voice and began receiving widespread recognition. She created paintings and sculptures in her signature dot and net patterns, as well as installations and live performance works. In 1965 Kusama began integrating mirrors into her art when she lined the interior of Phalli’s Field, the first of many Infinity Mirror Rooms. At once, complex patterns emerged through the kaleidoscopic relationship between the mirrors and the materials inside the chamber, appearing to extend infinitely in all directions. The concept of infinity has been a central interest for Kusama; the idea continues to resurface throughout her work in diverse media. In 1973 Kusama returned to Tokyo, where she still lives and continues to work tirelessly at age 89.

What makes Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors different from past surveys of the artist’s work? 

Throughout her career, Kusama has produced more than 20 distinct Infinity Mirror Rooms. The exhibition, organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and curated by Mika Yoshitake, is the first to focus on this pioneering body of work by presenting seven of the rooms, the most ever shown together. The Infinity Mirror Rooms range from peep-show-like chambers such as Love Forever (see above) to sprawling multimedia installations; each one offers the chance to enter a kaleidoscopic universe and an illusion of infinite space. 

Is the show’s presentation in Cleveland the same as at other venues? 

The most recent room in the series, Where the Lights in My Heart Go (2016), will be shown exclusively in Cleveland. Using natural light to create endless reflections, this work will be installed in the Ames Family Atrium with Narcissus Garden, a site-specific installation of hundreds of tightly arranged reflective steel balls that repeat and distort the space around them through their convex mirror surfaces. In addition, visitors will be greeted by the Ascension of Polka Dots—trees wrapped in polka-dot fabric—extending Kusama’s compelling artistic message and signature visual language onto Wade Oval. 

All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016. Yayoi Kusama. Wood, mirror, plastic, black glass, LED. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, and Victoria Miro, London. © Yayoi Kusama

How does this exhibition relate to the current moment? 

Stepping into an Infinity Mirror Room is like being transported into a dazzling unknown space. While this experience has been compared to virtual reality, the rooms show, most fundamentally, art’s capacity to present alternatives to everyday life through relatively simple means. Providing a space for imagination and projection is one of art’s most valuable roles in contemporary life. Kusama’s paintings, sculptures, and drawings are equally expansive, opening themselves to myriad interpretations. The artist’s oeuvre integrates the influences of her early training and current surroundings in Japan as well as her formative encounters in New York. In this sense, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors represents the global perspectives that mark our era and that the Cleveland Museum of Art is committed to representing in its contemporary art program.