By some measures, Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama is the most famous living artist in the world.
Time magazine named Kusama one of the world’s most influential people in 2017. Artsy, a website devoted to collecting and discovering art, placed her at No. 3, wedged between Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst among the top living artists of 2015.
At 89, the internationally celebrated artist’s characteristic polka dots ornamenting pumpkins, mannequins, people and the surface of her paintings, have achieved a comparable instant recognition to an Andy Warhol soup can or Picasso bull. Fans have camped out overnight to score tickets to her exhibitions. Every show in her multi-city retrospective, “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” which originated in February 2017 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and opens Nov. 18 in its final iteration at the High Museum, has sold out.
Like another radical octogenarian, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kusama’s embrace of vanguard ideas and unceasing productivity and energy have endeared her to the kind of younger viewers so many museums are trying to attract, who have flocked to her shows to experience her immersive Infinity Mirror Rooms and record that interaction via Instagram. The #InfiniteKusama hashtag has reached 91 million Twitter and Instagram accounts, and a selfie captured in one of her Infinity Mirror Rooms has become the barometer of cool for art goers clamoring for access to the hottest ticket in town.
Not bad, especially for a female artist in a contemporary art landscape where, according to The Art Newspaper, only 27 percent of the 590 major exhibitions held in the U.S. from 2007 to 2013 were devoted to female artists. Kusama has become big business and a big deal.
And now Kusama Fever has officially come to Atlanta where pre-sale tickets have already garnered the High 4,900 new members, a significant gain over the 2,000 new memberships they anticipated. And though advance tickets to the exhibition have already sold out, the High will release 100 tickets each day onsite to meet the extraordinary demand. All tickets are for timed entry to ensure a manageable flow of visitors.
Atlanta’s near miss
Amazingly, the Atlanta show almost didn’t happen. When originating curator Mika Yoshitake, formerly of the Hirshhorn Museum, pitched it to the High, the museum was transitioning between directors from former director Michael Shapiro to Rand Suffolk, who had not yet been hired. The window of opportunity closed. It was only after Suffolk was hired, and through his dogged pursuit, that the show finally came to the High.
“Just about any way we looked at it, I believed this exhibition made sense for our schedule,” says Suffolk, who cited Kusama’s importance as an artist and the longevity of her creative output as reasons.
But also, Suffolk said, the show “dovetailed with our commitment to presenting work by artists of diverse backgrounds and perspectives … and we felt strongly that there needed to be a venue for this exhibition in the South.”
The exhibition of more than 60 works in a variety of disciplines plus six Infinity Mirror Rooms is not only a chance for the High to introduce a local audience to the power of immersive installation art, it also represents the final stop in a long road toward recognition for Kusama, who for decades was lost in the dustbin of history.
A troubled life
Kusama was born in 1929 into a conservative, prosperous Japanese family where her art making was aggressively, often violently, discouraged. Plagued with an obsessive-compulsive neurosis, exacerbated by the trauma of infidelity and marital discord in her family, Kusama began to experience recurring visual hallucinations from a young age. When she was 10, Kusama began making art incorporating those visions of polka dots and repeating patterns to create a sensation of infinity.
“By obliterating one’s individual self, one returns to the infinite universe,” Kusama told Bomb magazine of her life’s work. The delightful worlds Kusama has imagined in her artworks — polka-dotted pumpkins and soft sculpture “Accumulations” with strange, comical shapes and juicy colors that suggest a Pop world founded on fun and imagination — is a manifestation of the visual hallucinations that attend her mental illness and the sometimes terrifying existential circumstance of contemplating a vast, devouring universe.
In 1958 Kusama moved to New York City where she became a peer of artists Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Donald Judd. And though she made a splash in the art world of the late ‘50s and ‘60s for her paintings, sculptures and performance-related Happenings, Kusama eventually ran out of money and returned to Japan in 1973, where she virtually disappeared.
Considered a pariah for her nude performances and avant-garde art making, Kusama sank into a deep depression upon her return, and was eventually admitted to the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in 1977 where she continues to live today. It wasn’t until the 1990s when Kusama’s work was rediscovered by a new generation of curators and critics and featured at the 1993 Venice Biennale that her renown spread. Says the show’s originating curator Mika Yoshitake, that fame was important to Kusama, perhaps because it was denied for so long.
Atlanta-based film producer Karen Johnson, whose recent Sundance-featured documentary “Kusama: Infinity” charts the artist’s life and career, sees this Kusama resurgence as validation, considering how difficult it was for her and director Heather Lenz to garner interest or funding for their film back 2004 when they began the project.
“People thought we were crazy to get involved in a film about a Japanese female artist whose name no one could pronounce. There was years of rejection for this project.”
But they persisted, says Johnson, because “Kusama’s contribution was important to various art movements including Pop Art and Minimalism. We celebrate and acknowledge the men like Andy Warhol who helped to introduce those movements so, why would we overlook the women?” she queried. “Aren’t we all better educated and life more interesting if we can expand our experiences to include different genders and cultures?”
What to expect
Over the course of her 50-year career, Kusama has created epic “Infinity Nets” paintings, gorgeous watercolors that suggest microscopic views of cellular life, as well as performance pieces and films. She also wrote novels and poetry. But her superstar status rests on the 20 Infinity Mirror Rooms she created during her lifetime, six of which will be featured in the High Museum exhibition.
Kusama created her first breakthrough immersive environment, “Phalli’s Field,” in 1965, the first Infinity Mirror Room High viewers will see upon entering the exhibition, a “sensory overload of form and color and shape,” says the High’s curator of modern andcontemporary art, Michael Rooks. “It looks like a closet —some storage facility — but when the doors open and you go inside, it is this illusion of endless space and the effect is incredible. It is this wonderful surprise the first time you go in, and I think the audience will be really eager to experience the next one.”
Viewers will have 20-30 seconds in each room, though they can engage with the show for as long as they like.
These Infinity Mirror Rooms, says Rooks, are an opportunity to enter Kusama’s headspace. “She’s created these simulacra of the kinds of visions she’s having. You are actually in her head and in her body,” he says.
While the Mirror Rooms are the star of Kusama’s exhibitions, Yoshitake’s goal with the “Infinity Rooms” retrospective was to show audiences the true depth and breadth of Kusama’s output. The rooms are only one expression of ongoing themes plumbed in her work — of the vastness of the universe, the marvel of the natural world and the puniness of the individual within the cosmic void. To that end, the first works viewers will see in the exhibition include a selection of the 550 paintings Kusama has created since 2009 in her “My Eternal Soul” series that demonstrate her remarkable ongoing productivity.
The exhibition will also include a number of films documenting Kusama’s performance pieces, which demonstrate not only her innovations in that realm but also her activism. Many of Kusama’s New York performance pieces during the ‘60s were protests against the Vietnam War. In fact, Rooks says, Kusama’s time in New York was formative to her career, a definitive American experience where she discovered a freedom and creative expression not available in her native Japan.
The final room in the show, “The Obliteration Room,” invites viewers to participate in an exercise of applying iconic Kusama polka dots to a pure white room where furniture and items donated by High staff have been painted white. It’s also the most locally grounded “Southern” moment, says Yoshitake, in an exhibition that has often drawn inspiration from the cities where it tours.
Today Kusama, whose carrot-orange hair and dotted clothes have made her instantly recognizable, walks a short distance each morning from the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill to her studio. She paints six days a week and writes on the seventh day. Yoshitake marvels at her output and her discipline.
“I’ve never met someone so driven,” Yoshitake says. “Even when I’m talking to her, she’s still painting.”
“Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.” Nov. 18-Feb. 17, 2019. $29, $5 for children 5 and younger. $175 VIP includes catalogue and evening access with smaller crowds. Approximately 100 tickets will be released on a first-come, first-served basis (two per person) on-site each day beginning one hour before the museum opens. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.
“Behind the Lens: Kusama Films.” 7 p.m., Nov. 15 and Dec. 13. $14.50. High Museum of Art Memorial Arts Building, Rich Theatre.
Talk with curator Mika Yoshitake. 7 p.m., Nov. 29. $14.50. High Museum of Art, Hill Auditorium.
Art, Stories and Book Signing. Family friendly event with Ellen Weinstein, illustrator of “Yayoi Kusama, From Here to Infinity.” 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Jan. 12. $14.50, free with museum admission. Museum of Art, Robinson Atrium, Stent Family Wing.