Polka Dots and Pumpkins: Kusama Comes to the New York Botanical Garden
by Mark A. Thompson
When you grow up in a plant seed nursery, perhaps it’s only natural that your creative dreams pulse with polka dots and pumpkins, as is the case with artist Yayoi Kusama. Raised in Matsumoto, Japan in the shadow of World War II, Kusama found solace in nature, fueling her imagination with the beauty of flowers. Or, in her words, “Forget yourself and become one with nature! Obliterate yourself with polka dots!”
An ongoing inspiration to millions and one of the world’s most popular artists, the nonagenarian Kusama has proselytized for the positivity of art throughout a life that has been marked by adversity as well as adulation. Her exhibitions around the world have broken attendance records, delighting millions with polka dots and pumpkins—and her wildly popular Infinity Room. Now, for the first time, Kusama’s work will blanket the 250-acre expanse of New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) with an expansive exhibition titled KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature that reveals the artist’s lifelong fascination with nature.
As Kusama wrote in a greeting to her public, “This spring, the New York Botanical Garden will unveil my desire for eternal cosmic beauty, which emerges from my heart. Everyone, this exhibition is my great message for all those who support the future progress of the Garden.”
On view from the 9th of May through the 1st of November 2020, the massive installation features Kusama’s signature mirrored environments and polka-dotted sculptures of flora, as well as the debut of new works. An obliteration greenhouse invites visitors to apply coral flowers while a 16-foot dancing pumpkin will frolic on the Haupt Conservatory Lawn. Special weekend programs include Polka Dot Picnics and Pumpkin Power Weekends. This year, at last, Charlie Brown and Linus will glimpse their Great Pumpkin on Halloween weekend in the work of Kusama at the New York Botanical Garden.
The return of Kusama to New York recalls her fifteen-year chapter in the city during the Sixties. From 1958 through 1973, Kusama worked alongside her fellow artists Joseph Cornell, Donald Judd, and Claes Oldenburg. Her correspondence with Georgia O’Keeffe resulted in a friendship that facilitated Kusama’s first show and sales of her work—and in 1966, Kusama scandalized the Venice Biennale by selling the silver spheres of her piece Narcissus Garden on the lawn in front of the Italian pavilion.
Photographs and news clippings about Kusama’s work in Sixties New York reveal an almost halcyon era marked by body painting, be-ins, nude happenings, and artistic protest such as a naked march across the Brooklyn Bridge. In 1968, Kusama created the piece Homosexual Marriage during which she performed a marriage ceremony for two men. Her nude performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden and a nude dance-in at the New York Stock Exchange epitomized the free-for-all spirit of the avant-garde art world and its desire to shock the establishment.
In more recent years, the anti-capitalistic fervor of Kusama’s youth has evolved into collaborations with Louis Vuitton and Lancôme—with the result that Kusama has become the most famous living female artist. At NYBG, visitors will have an opportunity to interact with the work of Kusama in an exhibition that promises to obliterate social media with polka dots and pumpkins.
Established in 1891 during the Beaux-Arts heyday of 19th-century New York, NYBG is the largest botanical garden in the United States and a National Historic Landmark. The collaboration between NYBG and Kusama offers an opportunity to revisit the visionary glory of one of New York’s most beloved institutions. As Kusama has stated previously, “The first thing I painted was flowers. There are no objects more interesting.” In keeping with Kusama’s flora passion, NYBG horticulturalists will replicate the Kusama painting Alone, Buried in a Flower Garden (2014) in a living work of art marked by seasonal plantings.
In the words of Kusama, “I create art for the healing of all mankind,” a heartfelt sentiment made manifest throughout NYBG’s Kusama: Cosmic Nature.
A member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and New York Travel Writers (NYTW), Mark A. Thompson is an editor, journalist, and photographer whose work appears in various periodicals, including Travel Weekly, Metrosource, HuffPost, OutThere, OutTraveler, and MRNY. The author of the novels Wolfchild (2000) and My Hawaiian Penthouse (2007), Mark has been awarded fellowships and residencies at various artists’ colonies, including The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center. He holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.