After a miserable winter, Yayoi Kusama’s ecstatic grotesques at the New York Botanical Garden come as a vital reprieve. Originally scheduled to open a year ago but foreclosed by the pandemic, this explosion of joy is even more welcome now that spring comes bundled with hesitant optimism. The 92-year-old Kusama’s hallucinogenic blooms, leaping up among young flowers, feel right for this moment of giddiness and anxiety.
A more perfect pairing of artist and venue is hard to imagine. Kusama’s sculptures are sprinkled among groves and bowers. Trees sport tunics of polka dots. A pumpkin as big as a bus dances on squid-like tentacles before a fluffy screen of cherries. Anthropomorphic tulips pullulate in a lotus pond, colossal stems coiling, heads opening to reveal snakelike stamens. We wander, like dreaming children, in a wonderland of her creation — a delightful place to spend an afternoon, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.
Kusama grew up surrounded by plants, and their forms imprinted themselves on her imagination. Her maternal grandparents owned and operated a nursery in Matsumoto, Japan, which supplied fresh vegetables to a hungry population during the second world war. As a child, she lodged herself in the family’s seed-harvesting grounds and filled sketchbooks with botanical drawings. In some, she rendered their beauty with meticulous objectivity; in others she abstracted it into large biomorphic forms or animate, cell-like shapes.
The flowers spoke to her, or so she imagined. “One day I suddenly looked up to find that each and every violet had its own individual human-like facial expression and to my astonishment they were all talking to me,” she wrote in her autobiography. The communication both charmed and alarmed her, and she responded to the plants’ entreaties with a generative compulsion that has carried her for decades. She felt the urge to reproduce whatever flowers made the leap from a garden bed into her mind — “to make them and make them and then keep on making them,” as she put it. She surrendered herself to her visions and effaced them at the same time.
“Flower Obsession”, one of the show’s standout works, takes place in a temporary greenhouse that doubles as a domestic interior. Bookshelves line the walls; a table with a quartet of place settings awaits guests for lunch. On entering, each visitor is presented with a plastic daisy and a floral sticker to apply to any surface. For now, the adhesive flowers are judiciously distributed, but eventually they will fur over the entire room, like mould. By Halloween, when the show wraps up, the airy chamber will have disappeared beneath tides of scarlet, a recognisable room swallowed by fake nature.
The installation springs from a traumatic memory. “One day, after gazing at a pattern of red flowers on the tablecloth, I looked up to see that the ceiling, the windows, and the columns seemed to be plastered with the same red floral pattern,” she recalls. “I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated . . . This was not an illusion but reality itself.” She restages the episode here in slow motion and so reclaims it. Art, for her, is a form of self-therapy, armouring her against mental illness. Since 1977 she has chosen to live in a psychiatric hospital close to her studio in Tokyo.
Perhaps by coincidence, Kusama shares the New York limelight with the late Niki de Saint Phalle, another female artist whose extreme mental states spawned huge and joyous public art. “I started painting in the madhouse, where I learnt how to translate emotions, fear, violence, hope and joy into painting,” Saint Phalle said, and the results of that journey are now on view at MoMA PS1. (Alice Neel, whose Met retrospective is equally giving her a burst of posthumous celebrity, also spent time in an institution before her career took off.)
From the beginning, Kusama looked outward as well as in. As a fledgling artist, she stumbled on the sensuous flora of Georgia O’Keeffe in a second-hand bookshop in Matsumoto. Entranced, she tracked down the older artist through the United States Embassy in Tokyo and the two struck up a correspondence. O’Keeffe encouraged her to come to America, advice that resonated with Kusama, who found her own country “too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women” to satisfy her ambitions. She lived in New York from 1958 to 1973, a period when her fondness for colourful gardens was amplified by a generation’s calls for flower power. For the 1966 series “Walking Piece”, she had herself photographed ambling around Manhattan, her bright pink floral kimono and parasol almost shocking against miles of hard grey asphalt. Soon, she was deploying troupes of naked dancers in happenings to protest the Vietnam war.
Kusama’s persona is always at the centre of her art. Like Saint Phalle and O’Keeffe, she has made a point of posing for the camera with her work and — also like them — she’s been rewarded with popular appreciation and targeted with highbrow condescension. Critics have regularly disdained (or grudgingly admired) her as a brand-name charlatan, a polka-dotted lightweight, a purveyor of selfie backdrops. Her most famous contribution to the culture of self-regard is the “Infinity Mirror Room”, a walk-in box, mirrored inside and out, that gives viewers an endless, 360-degree panoply of their own reflections. At the Botanical Garden, that cell isn’t open yet, which is fine, since stepping inside would mean leaving the dappled light and perfumed air for a glorified dressing room.
Far better to wander over to the Native Plant Garden, where an earlier reflection on reflection — “Narcissus Garden”, from 1966 — makes the most of the setting’s magic. Dozens of stainless-steel spheres bob on the surface of an artificial pond, drifting with the breeze. Occasionally, a few of the balls stray away from the shore on their own, but inevitably drift back to the pack. Gentle clicking punctuates the quiet; it’s as if each mirrored universe of one were chattering with all the others, looking for solace in the crowd of clones. As you bend down to listen or catch a distorted glimpse of yourself being passed from ball to ball, it’s easy to forget that Narcissus fell into the water and drowned.
to October 31, nybg.org