Pop artist Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929, grew up in a family of Japanese merchants, and began hallucinating polka dots when she was 10 years old.
Kusama later wrote that the dots — which became central to her art — acted as “a way to infinity.”
“When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots,” she added, “we become part of the unity of our environment.”
As a young adult, Kusama moved from Japan to New York City, where she contributed to the 1960s art scene until health problems sent her home in 1973. She has resided in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo ever since. In 2017, she told the Wall Street Journal that there is not a single day when she does not think of suicide.
According to Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston director Jill Medvedow, Kusama’s artwork was overshadowed by her male contemporaries throughout the 20th century. Her room-sized work was too big for museums. Her colleagues got credit for innovations she had come up with.
“Her pioneering art was often first, though she did not receive the recognition, the value, or the credit that went to the men at work at the same period of time,” Medvedow said.
But today, Kusama — a pioneer of pop art and minimalism — has emerged as one of the preeminent artists of her generation. For the first time this month, one of her works is coming permanently to a New England museum — and “LOVE IS CALLING,” which opened at the ICA on Sept. 19, is launching to enormous fanfare. According to Medvedow, the first round of tickets sold out in an hour.
“I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Yayoi Kusama is the most important artist working today,” ICA curator Eva Respini said.
The exhibit at the ICA consists of one of Kusama’s “infinity rooms,” a house-like structure of mirrors built inside a larger gallery. The structure is filled with glowing, color-changing stalagmites jutting out from all sides. The walls and ceiling are lined with glass, replicating the polka-dotted peaks to — as the name asserts — infinity.
In the background, Kusama’s voice reads a poem that she wrote herself in Japanese. The piece’s title translates to “Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears.”
“When you enter the work, you're going to immediately be in the experience — immersed in this infinite field of vividly, psychedelically colored, tentacle-like inflatable sculptures,” Medvedow said.
In a press event introducing the exhibit, both Medvedow and Respini lauded Kusama for her decades of cultural relevance. “LOVE IS CALLING,” the two observed, is a natural fit for the Instagram era: While Kusama has made infinity rooms throughout her career, the rest of the world is only just catching up. The Boston Globe’s first article about the exhibit is titled “Here Come the Selfies.” Large-scale art like Kusama’s is having a long, Internet-driven moment.
According to Respini, however, Kusama’s work represents something deeper than critically panned efforts like the Museum of Ice Cream or the Happy Place. Kusama isn’t discussing hedonism. Instead, her work is about “obliteration.”
“What's interesting to me is that the repeated sharing of photos online echoes the deeper themes of Kusama's work, things ... about repetition, human connectivity, life, love, death,” Respini said. “And these ideas seem to have a hold on our contemporary zeitgeist.”
Medvedow added that the museum’s mission is to ensure that Kusama — who “was important for 50 years before there was Instagram” — is treated with the respect the artist deserves.
Accordingly, Respini said that the infinity room is paired with contemporary works to accentuate Kusama’s themes. And the background poem is printed along the wall, putting the topics Respini mentioned — obliteration, illusion, love — into Kusama’s own words.
“When the time comes around for people to encounter the end of their life / having put on years, death seems to be quietly approaching,” the poem begins. “It was not supposed to be my style to be frightened of that, but I am.”
According to Medvedow, both the poem and the infinite room express “universal themes of life, time passing, loss, and love.”
“It's poignant,” Medvedow said. “And it speaks to her desire to express and convey a universal message of love through her art.”
Kusama’s voice, reading the poem in measured Japanese, plays in a loop whenever there are people in the infinity room. Kusama is now 90 years old. She is still creating art.
“It's truly an amazing feat for an artist to create, from ordinary materials, a work that utterly transports the viewer to somewhere else,” Respini said. “[It takes the viewer] to another world, another reality — perhaps even another consciousness.”
— Staff writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.