Reflections on Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on May 2, 2017
Obliteration Room. 2001-17


Trajectory: a curve that a body like a planet or a comet describes as it moves forward in space.

Encountering the phenomenon of the daily crowds at the Hirshhorn Museum coming to see the Kusama exhibition, it becomes obvious why it has been that experience that has most occupied responses to the retrospective.  The six “infinity rooms” are indeed wondrous, albeit the fact that because of the overwhelming public response to the exhibit, one is only allowed 20 – 30 seconds per room, and, if your 20 seconds includes a few when all the lights go black, you don’t get an extension.  While my companion and I thoroughly enjoyed the mirror rooms, despite the restricted access, I felt that much of the work and archival objects that make up the rest of the exhibit could use a bit more attention since they afford an opportunity to see the completeness of the trajectory of Kusama’s career up to this point and her place in the recent history of art.

Sculptural installation view. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Events in the artist’s early life, as described in her autobiography, had a profound impact on her work.  Born into a relatively prosperous Japanese family in 1929, her early childhood was not without significant trauma.  Her father’s sexual escapades were known to her mother who forced her to accompany him, apparently in the hope that her presence would limit his behavior.  Instead, she became the unwilling child witness to sexual acts between her father and other women, creating a fear and loathing of phalluses that she would later compensate for by creating thousands of them in her most characteristic work.  Whether this trauma alone was responsible for her later mental illnesses is not known.  However, the suffocating environment of the family situation, followed by her inability to suffer art school in Japan, may well have contributed to them, and eventually to the visual and auditory hallucinations that were the origin of her polka dot and net motifs.  These same hallucinations were the motive for her pursuit of personal obliteration, a loss of self in artistic creation that was, and continues to be, a catharsis and release for her.

Kusama first came to the United States for an exhibit of her paintings at the Zoe Dusanne Gallery in Seattle in 1957.  Her experience of seeing the moving surface of the ocean while flying from Tokyo to Seattle resulted in one of the most interesting of the early works in the show.  Pacific Ocean (1959) is among the first appearances of the net motif that would occupy the artist in larger paintings.  In the early watercolor and ink on paper the network of tiny curved gestures evokes the motion of the ocean, swirling in places to create an image that also evokes the infinity of space, with gaseous clouds forming galaxies of stars and dark matter.

This inner/outer imagery is something that was also funneled into the mirror room spaces, in which Kusama’s desire to express something deeply intimate is coupled with her desire to achieve an “infinite expansion of the image”[1] into which the viewer becomes completely immersed.

Infinity Nets Yellow. 1960. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Kusama spent the following fifteen years in New York (1958-73), the first part of which was marked by extreme poverty and both physical and emotional hardship.  The “infinity net” paintings, expanding the motif in Pacific Ocean, began in 1960 with a large work titled Infinity Nets Yellow (oil on canvas, 94.5 x 116 in.).  Working on a canvas primed with a black ground, the artist made successive gestures with her brush, a wrist flick, to create the all over effect of black apertures dotting the surface.  The gestures are small, but they convey a visual intensity that is matched by the compulsive effort they appear to represent.

Infinity Net. 1961. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

In these works there is no center, no beginning and no end.  In this they seem to respond to contemporary minimalism, in particular to her neighbor and friend Donald Judd’s concept of “wholeness”.  But, with their hand worked gestural layering of paint and the artist’s later avowed intent with these works to explore “the infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots—an accumulation of particles forming the negative spaces in the net…I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life,”[2] their affinity to Abstract Expressionism, as well as to Minimalist silence is simultaneously evident.

Installation from left to right: Ennui, Red Stripes and Arm Chair Accumulation. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

In New York, during those heady years of the late sixties/early seventies, Kusama became a celebrity, and her work took on a political and performative aspect. Her idea of the repeated image, best expressed in Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, her installation at the Gertrude Stein Gallery in 1963-4, both predicted the deadening multiplication of images by Andy Warhol (essentially a Minimalist gesture) and was right in step with the development of Pop and Op art in the New York scene of the moment.[3]  The “infinity net” paintings definitely have an Op effect—shimmering and forming patterns that seem to jump around on the surface.  This is especially marked if you stand as close (as allowed) to the work, recalling Kusama’s admiration of the work of Barnett Newman, and his advice that his large paintings, the ones that took up one’s whole visual field, were best seen up close.

Arm Chair. 1965. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Arm Chair. 1965. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Kusama’s Accumulations of phallic forms, sewn from cloth, hand stuffed and painted, proliferate in the Hirshhorn exhibit.  Among the earliest are pieces of furniture, two of which are in the exhibit, completely covered with them.  All white, Arm Chair (1963) is punctuated with painted shoes on the arm rests, decorated with protruding horn-like pouches.  Again, according to the artist, the first time she saw her father engaged in extra-marital sex was on such a chair.  Yet, these works were also an inspiration to Claes Oldenburg whose wife later “apologized” to Kusama for his having stolen the idea of white painted soft sculpture.

Blue Spots. 1965. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Panels covered with the phallic forms also begin in the early sixties.  Blue Spots and Red Stripes (both 1965) seem like a trope on the American flag.   Johns’ first Flag was painted in Dec. 1954-Jan. 1955, but not exhibited until Jan. 1959.  While his work is probably, among other things, an expression of his own status as a gay man through McCarthy’s protracted witch hunt that culminated in 1954, Kusama’s is broader in its possible reference.  Nevertheless, because the artist effectively fell out of American consciousness once she left New York (until her recent resuscitation since c.2005), her possible relation to Johns or Rauschenberg is never mentioned in literature about her, nor in the huge bibliography of either male artist.

Ennui. 1976. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

The exhibit includes an installation of some of Kusama’s recent paintings and soft sculptures—yes, she’s still working.  These are brightly colored exotic forms, somewhat reminiscent of late Miro and of Niki de Saint Phalle, but if anything, more childlike in feeling.  Large square paintings with imagery that seems to evoke bacteria and plant life, or optical “floaters”, are dated 2014-16.  Their source is apparently in Kusama’s ongoing hallucinations.  Nevertheless, they top the exhibit with a sense of inner joy that is not present in much of her other work, except for the large inflated pink balloons with polka dots, Dots Obsession-Love Transformed into Dots, that also date from the current decade.  This childlike explosion of color and primitive form appears as yet another phase in the long trajectory in this most prolific of contemporary artists.

Violet Obsession. 2001.

[1] Jill Johnston, “Reviews and Previews: Kusama’s One Thousand Boat Show,” ARTnews, 62, n. 10, 1964, p. 12.

[2] Alexander Dumbadze, “Infinity and Nothingness,” in Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC, 2017, p. 120, quoting the artist’s autobiography, Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, trans. R. McCarthy, London, 2013).

[3] A 1994 remake of the original boat work, Violet Obsession, is installed in the Hirshhorn exhibit, along with hundreds of photographs of it lining the floor and walls of a small dark space devoted to it.

Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrors is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through May 14, 2017.  The museum is located at 7th Street and Independence Avenue SW.  More information available online at