ART OF OUR TIME: “MERELY DECORATIVE”? JAPANESE ARTIST YAYOI KUSAMA’S BALLOONS

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s current exhibition at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles is a sensation. It’s a huge bona fide hit. In large part this is due to her super Instagrammable and severely FOMO-inducing art installation known as the “Infinity Room.”

Tickets to visit the “Infinity Room” are sold out months in advance. We haven’t seen it in LA., but were fortunate enough to experience it at the Whitney Museum in New York several years ago and have seen Kusama’s work as part of shows at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, at MoMA, and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, as well as at art fairs like Frieze NY.

While her “Infinity Room” might be getting all the attention from fervent art lovers and rabid Instagrammers, it’s Kusama’s use of polka dots and pinks, what she calls “infintity jets,” in paintings and on sculptural surfaces that first caught our eye, and there are massive spherical balloons she’s designed with these dots whimsically hovering in the curvelinear lobby of the Broad. These same balloons were hung in the Whitney Museum at her show there in 2012.

These balloons might be dismissed as a “merely decorative” baubles serving as preview to the larger exhibition in the galleries beyond the lobby. But the pink polka-dotted balloons are at the heart of Kusama’s singular and obsessive aesthetic vision. These are her trademark. 

We’ve been a fan for years.

We remember the first time we stumbled upon the artwork of Kusama and her universe of dots and pinks. It was in a copy of a now-defunct indie art magazine called Index that we had picked up while in Osaka, Japan around the year 1998 (when we were barely out of our diapers).

We remember sitting in a cafe drinking a Japanese-style cafe au lait and reading the Index article about Kusama and seeing a picture of this remarkable artist with a remarkable background and personal story, her eyes a haunted stare in a photo published with the article. We were thoroughly fascinated.

“Wow, this is crazy,” was our first thought, sitting there in our Paul Smith Jeans and Bathing Ape (BAPE) t-shirt, taking a sip of the warm, milky coffee as we finished the article. “SHE is crazy. Amazing. And crazy.”

Why did we think this, savvy reader? Because in a sense she Kusama was (is) literally “crazy,” clinically, psychologically in the generally understood sense of the word crazy as in neurotic or mentally ill.

But she was not insane.

Kusama had in the late 1970s voluntarily sought the seclusion and psychological treatment offered by living full-time in a psychiatric hospital in Japan. She continue to create artwork and worked at a studio she conveniently set up near the hospital.

“If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago,” Kusama is quoted as saying. It’s a stark and revealing sentiment that leaves no doubt about her relationship to her work and condition.

At the time, the Index article coincided with a major retrospective exhibition of Kusama’s work at the MoMA in New York, and offered readers a rediscovery of an artist that had decades before legitimately established herself in the international art scene with a radically inventive and stirring body of artwork, but whose star had faded into obscurity. 

In the nearly two decades since, Kusama has re-emerged and exploded, within the art world itself, with a string of major museum exhibitions around the world, and beyond with major licensed and commissioned work, including a massive international collaboration and campaign for Louis Vuitton in 2012 that resulted in her artwork appearing in the display windows of every Vuitton store around the world at the same time.