Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now opens at Guggenheim Bilbao

AN AMBITIOUS retrospective dedicated to one of the most influential figures of contemporary art runs at Guggenheim Bilbao this summer. Yayoi Kusama, who recently turned 94, is the subject of a sprawling show at the celebrated museum which explores over seven decades of the Japanese artist’s career.

Through paintings, drawings and sculptures, as well as vast installations and rare archival materials, the exhibition showcases an impressive range of Kusama’s output over the years, including several bodies of works that might not be as well-known to audiences as the polka-dotted pumpkins and mirrored rooms which have catapulted Kusama into the limelight over the past ten years.

Self-Obliteration (1966-74) Collection of M+, Hong Kong

The first drawings made by the artist as a teenager, during World War II, are delicate observations, which later lead to a series of creepy, surrealist collages composed in the 1970s. These works on paper are both emotive and exploratory, underlining some of the themes that went on to consume Kusama throughout her life, such as notions of infinity and accumulation, as well as the force of life itself, and, ultimately, death.

As is now well-known, the artist’s primary source material has been the vivid hallucinations she experiences – something which began to consume her from the age of ten. Kusama has described this sensation as ‘flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots’ which engulf herself and her surroundings in a process she calls ‘self-obliteration’.

In a major installation in the exhibition,  named after this phenomenon, constructed between 1966 and 1974,  a dining table surrounded by six mannequins and numerous chairs have been painted over with eye-opening colours, resulting in a technicolour ensemble.

Death of a Nerve (1976) Lito and Kim Camacho Collection

Pumpkins (1998-2000) Collection of the artist

A highlight of the show are the infinity paintings that Kusama first made for her debut solo exhibition in New York in 1959. The show, at the Brata Gallery, featured five enormous paintings titled Infinity Nets that were composed of intricate patterns that detailed overlapping loops.

One of the paintings at the Guggenheim (Untitled (Off Cut of Infinity Net Painting)) dating from 1960 is a fragment of the 10-metre-long Infinity Net painting Kusama created for her exhibition at Stephen Radich Gallery in New York in 1961, which is exciting to encounter.

Portrait of Yayoi Kusama, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner. Photo. Yusuke Miyazaki

The Infinity Nets developed significantly as they evolved across the decades: in the 1990s and 2000s, Kusama heavily referenced the natural forces that have always informed her work. Paintings from this period bring to mind never-ending cloudy skies and rolling fields of flowers.

Similarly, the sense of accumulation, of things becoming bigger and piling up, is highlighted through the artist’s furniture sculptures. In these works, the artist covered household objects, clothes and shoes in stuffed-fabric growths. In Accumulation of Hands (1980), a sofa and chair are engulfed by hundreds of stuffed-fabric gloves, underlining Kusama’s unique vision.

Infinity Mirrored Room – A Wish for Human Happiness Calling from Beyond the Universe (2020) Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts

Of course, an exhibition of her art wouldn’t feel complete without one of the famed Infinity Rooms. The Guggenheim delivers with Infinity Mirrored Room – A Wish for Human Happiness Calling from Beyond the Universe (2020), which prior to this display had only been exhibited at the Yayoi Kusama Museum in Japan.

The enclosed room, which dazzles with its spatial effects and luminosity, reminds us of the artist’s interest in the unseen reverberations within the universe. 

by Derby Jones

Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now is on display at Guggenheim Bilbao until 8 October.