Yayoi Kusama’s Fascination with Nature Is Crucial to Understanding Her Art

Salomé Gómez-Upegui
Apr 9, 2021 6:36PM

Yayoi Kusama, still from Flower Obsession (Sunflower), n.d. Courtesy of the artist.

Legendary artist Yayoi Kusama is a global sensation. She has paved the way for Minimalism, Pop art, performance art, and immersive art installations. And her radical works featuring pumpkins, flowers, polka dots, loops, and mirrors excavating ideas of self-obliteration, fear, and infinity have attracted massive audiences to prestigious art institutions around the world.

Although much has been written about Kusama’s popular “Infinity Nets,” her critically acclaimed “Infinity Mirror Rooms,” her mental illness, and even her rise to stardom, the artist’s eternal fascination with nature is an essential aspect of her prolific career that often goes unexplored.

Yayoi Kusama, installation view of My Soul Blooms Forever, 2019, at The New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Robert Benson Photography. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/ Shanghai; David Zwirner, New York; and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.

Yayoi Kusama
Tulip 38/75 , 1986
Whitestone Gallery

Kusama: Cosmic Nature,” the much-anticipated exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) that, after being postponed last year due to COVID-19, will at long last open its doors to the public from April 10th through October 31st, promises to be a profound exploration of this love affair.

Mika Yoshitake, curator of the NYBG show, noted that Kusama’s fascination with nature originated in early childhood. Growing up, she spent time in the meadows and greenhouses of her family’s grand seed nursery in the mountains of the Nagano Prefecture in central Japan. As the artist herself recalls in her autobiography Infinity Net (2003), she holds many memories of being immersed in a world replete with plants and flowers that would frequently come alive and speak to her.

Portrait of the Kusama Family, ca. 1929. Courtesy of the artist.

Betsy Johnson, curator of “One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection,” another Kusama show opening later this year at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., believes this intimate relationship with the natural world marks the start of Kusama’s artistic practice. “She was communing with nature, it was transporting her to what she felt like were other worlds, and that is really the foundation for her practice as it grew,” Johnson said.

Indeed, flowers served as the entryway for Kusama into a deeper comprehension of the universe around her. According to Yoshitake, “Kusama began depicting flowers from a very early age, but in particular, her drawings and sketchbooks from 1945 [many of which are on view at the NYBG exhibition] reflect intricate observations of plant anatomies and phases of plants.” Yoshitake added that although we can see traditional representations of flowers in Kusama’s early practice, during that time she also began “to develop her own style of botanical imagery, which often takes abstract forms such as cells, atoms, and orbs.”

Yayoi Kusama, Summer Flowers, 1988. Courtesy of the artist and The New York Botanical Garden.

Yayoi Kusama
Flowers, 1991
Omer Tiroche Gallery

Though Kusama constantly resorts to apparently straightforward depictions of the natural world in her work, such as dots, pumpkins, flowers, and phalli, she is unafraid of using these forms to delve into nonobvious concepts of the cosmos, space, and the self.

Narcissus Garden (2016), on display at the NYBG, is a quintessential installation that has had many iterations over the years. The piece initially gained fame at the 1966 Venice Biennale, where Kusama mounted the piece as an unofficial participant in the renowned international art event. Kusama surrounded herself with over 1,000 mirrored orbs that she attempted to sell to passersby for $2 apiece, while standing next to a sign that read “Your Narcissism For Sale.” The initial version of the piece has been understood as both an act of self-promotion and a critique of the commercialization of art, though later versions have been interpreted as vibrant reflective fields offering a sense of infinity and symbolizing the dynamics of an interconnected universe where every single sphere is dependent on the others.

Yayoi Kusama, installation view of Narcissus Garden, 1966/2021, at The New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Robert Benson Photography. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/ Shanghai; David Zwirner, New York; and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.

“I think metaphysical is an appropriate term to describe the way she sees the universe, her place in it, and the way it’s all connected,” Johnson said. Yoshitake echoed this sentiment asserting that in Kusama’s mind, “nature is alive, in a perpetual cycle of becoming, disintegration and rebirth, and part of a larger cosmos.”

Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Rooms,” kaleidoscopic environments in which she creates the illusion of an endless universe, are present in most, if not all, exhibitions featuring the Japanese artist. This spring, the Tate Modern in London is set to open “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Rooms,” a show uniquely built around the iconic immersive artworks.

Beyond the highly Instagrammable appearance of these astonishing installations that arguably led her to present-day stardom, the participatory works contain many references to the artist’s fascination with nature and the metaphysical. For instance, for Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (Floor Show) (1965/2016), she filled a mirrored room with a carpet of red-and-white, polka-dotted, phallus-like forms. This exemplary piece—which is now a part of the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection—evokes Kusama’s early childhood experience of being surrounded by boundless fields while examining ideas of repetition, sexual exploration, and perception.

Polka dots, indisputably the artist’s most famous motif, are yet another symbol that reveals important elements of Kusama’s understanding of nature. Present throughout her performance pieces, installations, paintings, and sculptures, her devotion to dots can be traced back to her childhood, when immense grasslands would blur her vision and provide a sense of self-obliteration. “Kusama’s polka dot is analogous to an index of trained pressure points felt in peripheral areas of the body that are interconnected with cosmic life,” Yoshitake said. “The polka dot can be perceived not as a single, flat, circular form, but instead as a complex, boundless, spherical entity on the verge of explosive expanse like the sun.” As Kusama herself has said, “Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment. I become part of the eternal, and we obliterate ourselves in Love.”

Another significant aspect of Kusama’s affinity for nature, Yoshitake noted, is her way of humanizing plant life. This is especially evident in her treatment of pumpkins. Kusama once shared that the first gourd she encountered as a child spoke to her “in a most animated manner,” and since then, she has celebrated them “because of their humorous form, warm feeling, and a human-like quality.” Johnson noted that even though some of Kusama’s pumpkin sculptures might look similar from afar, every piece is a one-of-a-kind representation of a humble creature that the artist sees as highly differentiable, much like any human being.

Yayoi Kusama, installation view of Dancing Pumpkin, 2020, at The New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Robert Benson Photography. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts and David Zwirner.

This anthropomorphic treatment is also seen in some of the works on paper that are part of the NYBG exhibition. In The Night (1953), a floating sphere doubles as a pulsating heart; and in Seed (1952), an eye mimics a seed. Yoshitake said that in these early, visceral paintings, Kusama intends to depict “dark expressions of apparition, premonition, and emotion, yet we also witness a marvelous embrace of a light celestial nature that integrates the earthly and the cosmic.”

At 92 years old, Yayoi Kusama does not seem to be slowing down. In addition to the shows mentioned above, the grandest of them all this year will be “A Bouquet of Love I Saw in the Universe,” a major retrospective of the visionary’s seven-decade long career that, after being postponed multiple times due to the pandemic, will finally be opening at the Gropius Bau in Berlin on April 23rd, running through August 15th.

Salomé Gómez-Upegui