Is Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama the most interesting woman in the world? Born in 1929, she influenced Andy Warhol, is considered a predecessor of Pop Art, sports a wicked carrot-colored pageboy, is the darling of the Instagram world, and tops the charts in artist popularity (based on museum attendance).
She's had a long and storied career. Moving to New York in 1958, she was an important member of the avant garde and, in the sixties, painted brightly colored polka dots on nude people at her popular "happenings." Decades later, she returned to Japan to spend time in a mental hospital (which still cares for her) and dropped briefly out of view, until her representation of Japan in the 1993 Venice Biennale placed her back on top.
Kusama's stock is sky-high now: Time Magazine named her one of "The 100 Most Influential People" this year (and the only artist on the list), she's earned the title of second most expensive living female artist (White No. 28 sold for $7,109,000 at Christie's New York in 2014, and NO. RED B sold for $7,034,566 at Sotheby's in 2015), she partners with Louis Vuitton on a line of handbags and accessories, and fans literally pitched tents outside a Mexico City museum to view a retrospective before it closed last year.
Her early paintings, part of the “Infinity Net” series, were protominimalist works covered with small arcs superimposed on each other until they pulsed with lace-like proliferation. In the early nineties, she began making plastic kawaii sculptures, giant pumpkins and flowers, perfect for the Hello Kitty culture of cuteness.
She's no stranger to Houston audiences. In 1997 she turned the Rice University Art Gallery into a hallucinatory and surreal explosion of yellow with black polka dots, with monolithic, tubular forms dominating the space like radioactive organisms.
Now she's back, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in a new summer exhibit, “Kusama: At the End of the Universe,” with an installation titled Aftermath of Obliteration of Infinity. “This is actually the reason why we're doing the show; we just acquired this piece. We're very excited,” says Alison de Lima Greene, Isabel Brown Wilson Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art. “It's going to be part of the museum's permanent collection.”
Aftermath, as well as another large-scale installation (Love Is Calling), is part of the artist's “Infinity Rooms” series. “She made her first infinity rooms in the mid-1960s, and they are so called because the mirrored floors, ceilings and walls give you the sense that the reflections bounce around. That everything's infinitely reproduced,” says de Lima Greene. “So you get this sense of yourself in the larger cosmos.”
She describes the installation as a “wonderful house-of-mirrors effect” in a smaller gallery space. “When you see the exterior of the built-out space, it looks like a small cube. Once you step inside, it's a wonderful dissolve into the infinite.” She says it will hold only about three people at a time.
About ten or 12 people can experience Love Is Calling with each walk-through. The soft sculpture polka-dotted fantasy world has both stalactites and stalagmites, illuminated from within with changing colors. “[It's a] pan-dimensional environment,” says de Lima Greene. “One of the tentacles might be red, next moment it's blue, the next moment it's green. You hear the voice of the artist recorded in Japanese, reciting a love poem, then we will have the text [for the poem]."
But what's with all those polka dots? “She started using dots in her drawings as early as the 1950s. They occur again and again. She has said that sometimes she has these visual hallucinations of dots and so this is her way of translating it into her art. I also think in very straightforward terms, or formal terms, when you put polka dots on something, you complicate the surface. What was flat becomes much more modulated. It's an aesthetic decision as well as one that reflects her own [hallucinatory] visions.
“On one side, [Kusama] thinks in very ethereal and abstract terms, and on the other, the sort of more physical, more 3-D terms,” says de Lima Greene. “[She's a] cerebral artist with a sense of delight. When I explain it, you go, 'Oh my God, that's such a head trip,' but when you visit, it's pure visual delight.”
The new acquisition, Aftermath, has only been seen previously in New York, with variations shown in Japan and Brazil. “While Kusama has been seen in Houston before, this is the first time her infinity rooms have been seen in Texas,” says de Lima Greene.
Our advice? Don't wait until the tail end of this exhibit. The Museo Tamayo in Mexico City was forced to stay open for 36 hours straight during the final days of the exhibition to accommodate the 10,000 fans lined up to see her work.
"Kusama: At the End of the Universe" opens June 12. Regular viewing hours are Tuesdays and Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sundays 12:15 to 7 p.m. Through September 18. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org. $15 general admission.