Yayoi Kusama has arrived in Washington, D.C. While the reclusive and iconic Japanese artist — known for her use of dots and pumpkins, and explorations of infinity, notably through her social-media-friendly Infinity Mirrors pieces — isn’t physically in the American capital herself, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has mounted a comprehensive retrospective of her work spanning over five decades. It’s the largest North American museum show of Kusama’s work, and the first time that six of her Infinity Mirrors have been shown side-by-side in the same space. After the exhibit’s run in D.C. — which is ticketed for the anticipated crowds — the show will tour to the Seattle Art Museum, The Broad in Los Angeles, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Cleveland Museum of Art. We spoke to Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu about the show before opening weekend.
WWD: How did a show of this scale on Kusama’s work come about?
Melissa Chiu: It was many years ago that I was writing a book about some of the very early artists who were in my studies, who had been really important to understanding what it meant to be an artist from Asia coming to New York City. Kusama was one of those artists who I wrote about, and I had become intrigued by her Phalli’s Field piece that she had done in 1965, which was really the genesis and starting point of the exhibition. The show itself has a focus on Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, and it’s the first time bringing together such a large number of them with many of her sculptures and paintings. You’ll see a kind of consistency of practice from the way that she in the Fifties was thinking about this concept of infinity, and then the Infinity Mirror rooms came as a 3-D interaction of that.
WWD: What story do the mirrors tell when shown together as opposed to shown separately?
M.C.: You can certainly see the development of her ideas from 1965. That original work was interesting because it was art, sculpture, part installation, part performance. And then her most recent work is multiples of pumpkins in a field of pumpkins, as opposed to Phalli’s Field, which is the original title of that ’65 piece. You’ll see that over the years, she’s still addressing this idea of multiplicity, this long view out into infinity and within an enclosed space. But it’s taken many different shapes and forms, and through very simple lights and mirrors. So you get a sense for how her ideas have evolved over these past few decades.
WWD: Why was the show organized chronologically?
M.C.: We wanted to show the evolution of her ideas. She’s an artist who’s been really actively practicing since the Fifties, so that’s basically half-century of thinking, working, creating art. And we felt it important to on the one hand, give a sense of that evolution of ideas, but also consistency of practice, while seeing the interrelationship during different media that she carried through her ideas — whether it was poetry, painting, works on paper, sculpture, installation and then infinity mirror rooms.
WWD: Why do you think her work, specifically the Infinity Mirror rooms, speaks to so many people? Do you think it’s the Instagrammable nature of it? What about her work makes it appeal to a larger audience?
M.C.: I think it lends itself to social media because it’s reflective and it’s immersive. Social media in some ways gives one an ability to share an experience with others, so this is one of those unique experiences that also reflects a viewer within the experience. I think that’s a great desire, especially on the part of a younger generation and sharing their experience. I would also just say that I think that one of the really important elements of her infinity mirror rooms is to resist that tendency. There are so few moments that we have today where you can actually be immersed in an environment, alone to experience something else. It’s almost a form of virtual reality in a way, you are transported to somewhere else. And that’s one of the really compelling elements of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror rooms.
WWD: Why do you think it’s taken so long for a retrospective of her work to be organized in the setting of a museum?
M.C.: It’s an interesting question — I think that the way that mid- to late-20th-century art is thought of by art historians, we were really interested in artists who were part of movements, whether it was abstract expressionism or minimalism. Those who are loosely grouped around a common idea. I think today, there’s much more of an emphasis on and interest in individuals, and those who have been able to articulate their one vision of the world in a very unique way. So what we’re seeing is, I think, a recovery, a process of looking back at that 20th-century period for artists who were essentially outliers. Yes, she was very much a part of the New York art world, which was a very small world in that moment — they all knew one another — but she was never considered part of a larger movement. I think it’s these outlier artists who have a great deal to say about contemporary culture of today. It’s very much a 21st-century statement, even though she was thinking about these same issues as much as 50 years ago.
WWD: What do you think it means for this show to come out at this specific time and in D.C. during a tumultuous political period?
M.C.: I have to say, one of the overarching messages that she had is all about a younger generation, firstly, and secondly it’s a very optimistic view of today. She’s very hopeful for today, even though she herself has had a very difficult life, and the work itself speaks to some of those psychological difficulties. But overall, she had a very optimistic, positive message for people, and I think that’s conveyed in the work.
On view at The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through May 14.