Even if you have a passing knowledge of contemporary art, you have likely seen the work of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Perhaps you caught a glimpse of her polka-dotted balloon at last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to catch her enrapturing retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2012. You may have even been lucky enough—after waiting in line for hours—to have snapped a selfie in one of her iconic mirrored Infinity Rooms.
The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) is further feeding our 21st-century obsession with this nonagenarian artist with their new show, “Kusama: Cosmic Nature.” Originally slated for 2020 but postponed due to COVID-19, the exhibition opened Saturday and will run through October 31, 2021 (an appropriate date, given Kusama’s famous pumpkin-based works).
And in many ways, “Kusama: Cosmic Nature,” which features new site-specific works across NYBG’s gardens and greenhouses and a range of other pieces never seen outside of Japan, is perfectly suited to our current stage of the pandemic: It is predominantly outdoors, and Kusama’s signature polka-dot motifs, mirrored surfaces, and undulating forms are a happy return to the playfulness and interactivity we’ve so missed this past year.
Some fans may not know of the deep, lifelong connection Kusama has to nature. She grew up on a family-run seed nursery in Matsumoto, Japan, and memories of the pumpkins, violets, and other flowers there have surfaced throughout her artistry. “[In this show] Kusama fans can dig deeper and see many of her early works,” says Karen Daubmann, the vice president for exhibitions and audience engagement at NYBG, noting a sketchbook of peony drawings from when Kusama was 16 that is on display. “It is a wonderfully broad assortment of works all tying together the themes of nature while being showcased in an incredible living museum.”
New installations, all created by Kusama and her studio in close partnership with the NYBG team, elucidate this through line. There is “Dancing Pumpkin,” a vivacious yellow and black polka-dot bronze octopuslike creature that holds its own outside of NYBG’s Haupt Conservatory’s 90-foot-tall Palm Dome (“It was wonderful to wake up and receive early-morning e-mails from the team in Tokyo containing imagery of small models that Kusama had created of it,” Daubmann says), as well as “I Want to Fly the Universe,” a red and white polka-dot sun, seemingly caught mid-boogie, that sits atop the reflecting pool outside the NYBG visitor center.
As visitors meander the 250-acre site, they can have spontaneous encounters with Kusama’s work. The “Narcissus Garden” of 1,400 stainless steel spheres (a signature Kusama installation) floats in a 230-foot-long water feature in the Native Plant Garden, moving with shifts in the wind and reflecting the surrounding landscape; and red and white polka-dotted printed polyester, bungees, and aluminum staples wrap around the trunks of existing trees as part of “Ascension Polka Dots.” Indoors, gallery spaces house a selection of paintings and works on paper. All of the works, Daubmann says, “allow our visitors time to stop and reflect, to be a part of the discovery of the artwork. These moments, in addition to the bright and cheerful polka-dot patterns, all seem to be what we need after a year of sadness and solitude.”
Of course, NYBG’s gardeners created natural displays to complement Kusama’s playful work. The curatorial team researched plants that could speak both to Kusama’s upbringing and the aesthetics of her artwork. Joyful blooms, like sunflowers, daisies, and pansies abound, as well as polka-dot begonias and tulips (specifically near a towering 2007 installation of curlicuing mixed-media flowers, “Hymn of Life—Tulips”). The plantings will change according to the seasons, so spring visitors can return in the fall to take in the addition of pumpkins and chrysanthemums.
And Kusama lovers fear not: There will be an Infinity Room. “Infinity Mirrored Room—Illusion Inside the Heart” is an outdoor installation whose colored-glass interior will, hopefully, host a limited number of visitors with timed tickets starting this summer—no lines required.
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