Yayoi Kusama’s works have been making headlines for the past five decades. Starting off as a struggling artist in post-war New York, the Japanese artist made a name for herself as one of the most shocking artists of our time. She just might be the world’s most famous living female artist at the moment. Kusama is best known for her polka dots, pumpkins, and infinity mirror rooms. Here are some of Yayoi Kusama’s most iconic works.
1. Infinity Nets (1959) by Yayoi Kusama
Infinity Nets was the first series of paintings that Yayoi Kusama exhibited after coming to New York in 1958. Shown at the artist-run Brata Gallery in October 1959, the five-part series consists of high canvases painted with tiny dots, some more accentuated than others. Kusama began working in her signature repetitive style during her early career in Japan, but the Infinity Nets formed a large-scale solidification of this style.
In the United States, The Infinity Nets’ were considered to be part of the Abstract Expressionism movement that was popular at the time. For Kusama, however, the pieces came from a more personal exploration of trying to come to terms with her polka-dot hallucinations. By creating hallucinatory repetitive artworks, she strived to control her own hallucinations and come to terms with her fears.
The series was also important for Kusama’s debut as an artist in the New York art scene. It certainly helped that the series got a positive review from fellow artist Donald Judd. Judd began writing reviews for ARTnews in September of the same year, and he used his influence to speak positively about Kusama. Having purchased one of the paintings himself for $200, Judd began the review with the sentence Yayoi Kusama is an original painter. He continued to support Kusama throughout his life, echoing his early words by saying how at the time, the Infinity Net paintings were the best new paintings of the time. It would take time for the art world to trust his opinions. By 2022, the price of Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings had increased, with Infinity Nets Towpp (a 2008 edition) selling for $1.8 million.
2. Accumulation (1961–c.1966)
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In the early 1960s, Yayoi Kusama began working with environmental installations, the type of art that she would become most famous for. She called this series of works Accumulation, although there are also some of her older works that bear the same name. The artist made these soft sculptures by covering everyday objects and furniture pieces with textiles resembling phallic shapes. The works shocked critics because of Kusama’s sexualized transformations of everyday objects.
Just as the rest of Kusama’s oeuvre, Accumulation has its roots in the hallucinations from which the artist suffered since early childhood. In her early teens, Kusama developed a fear of sex that caused the hallucinations to include phalluses covering everything that she looked at. Just as with Infinity Nets, Kusama turned her hallucinations into art in order to overcome her fears. She sewed all of the soft sculptures by hand. Kusama learned sewing skills during the Second World War when she was forced to work in a parachute factory in Japan as part of the military effort on the home front.
Kusama showed the Accumulation series in several exhibitions during the 1960s. The first of these was also her first public installation created during a 1963 solo show at the Gertrude Stein Gallery called Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show. This time, the soft, hand-sewn phallic sculptures covered a big boat. 999 photographs of the boat covered the wallpaper creating an infinity of boats. In short, Kusama showed one thousand boats with thousands of phallic symbols. She exhibited the complete series during the 1964 exhibition Driving Image Show. During this exhibition, all of Kusama’s Accumulation pieces were placed in one room, creating a complete environment.
3. Infinity Mirror Room (Phalli’s Field) (1965)
Yayoi Kusama’s most famous pieces consist of mirror rooms. These rooms feature a space covered in mirrors that create an illusion of infinity. The artist created her first mirrored environments in her studio in the mid-1960s. She exhibited one called Infinity Mirror Room (Phalli’s Field) at the Castellane Gallery in 1965. In this work, phallic soft sculptures painted with the artist’s emblematic polka dots cover the floor of a mirrored room.
The photograph above shows Kusama in the middle of her installation, dressed in red. The audience was invited to engage with the phallic forms, wander around the room and see themselves through the mirrors in an infinite universe of polka-dotted objects. As curator Catherine Taft writes that the stuffed protuberances, which were multiplied through infinite reflection, enveloped the viewer, creating an almost psychosexual encounter with one’s own body and image.
4. Peep Show or Endless Love (1966)
Another example of Yayoi Kusama’s early infinity mirror rooms is the iconic Peep Show or Endless Love Show. Here, the soft sculptures have been replaced by polka-dotted lights. Instead of the larger room where the audience is invited to enter, the viewer peeps into the space only to find the artist performing inside a mirrored angular space.
Just like the 1965 mirror room, Peep Show was shown at the Castellane Gallery. Despite causing quite a stir among critics, Kusama was struggling to get larger galleries to showcase her work. This did not mean that the more established galleries were somehow against mirror rooms. For example, the Pace Gallery would show Lucas Samaras’ Room No. 2 or Mirrored Room. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Kusama would later accuse Samaras of stealing her ideas.
5. Narcissus Garden (1966)
Yayoi Kusama performed her anti-institutional and critical works outside of museums. An exquisite and early example is Narcissus Garden, performed without invitation by the Italian pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 1966.
Here, visitors would find Kusama dressed in a gold-colored kimono surrounded by 1500 plastic mirror orbs. The piece consisted of Kusama selling a crystal ball to people for 1200 lire (2$) a piece. People were invited to buy one and look into the ball for a mirror image of themselves. This performance got Kusama kicked out by the authorities, who argued that the artist was selling things without a license. The work, however, remains ingenious: showing visitors a mirror image of themselves either as a critique of selfishness, self-preoccupation, and commercialization of the art world.
6. Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA (1969)
Another unauthorized performance by Yayoi Kusama is known as the Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA. The happening served as a critique of the Museum of Modern Art in New York choosing to showcase dead over living artists. This performance included friends and volunteers bathing nude in the fountain of the museum’s sculpture garden while playfully interacting with the marble sculptures and each other’s bodies.
The work is part of late 1960s performances and happenings that Kusama created in order to protest art institutions, capitalism, and the Vietnam War. These happenings often included naked participants who were sometimes covered in polka dots and brushstrokes.
7. Yellow Pumpkin (1994/2022)
Yayoi Kusama’s international fame started growing in the 1990s. Kusama started to create larger-scale commissioned projects. One of which is now an example of the most famous contemporary public works. The piece called Yellow Pumpkin is located at a pier on Japan’s art island Naoshima. The gigantic pumpkin garnered new attention in 2022 after it was damaged beyond repair during a typhoon, prompting the artist to create another in its place.
8. Dots Obsession (1996)
Finally an internationally acclaimed artist, Kusama went on to fill museums with her signature polka dots. Although there are many site-specific versions of the dot work in various colors, one of the early famous pieces is known as Dots Obsession. The installation is a claustrophobic one. It features a rather small, yellow-painted room featuring black dots in various sizes painted onto the walls, the floor, and the ceiling. There are also three huge balloons covered in the space, and the audience is invited to try to walk through it.
9. Fireflies on the Water (2002)
Since the 2000s, Yayoi Kusama has been creating infinity rooms in museums around the world. One of the most iconic ones is Fireflies on the Water at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The installation piece features a small room lined with windows with a pool of water in the middle and 150 small lights hanging from the ceiling. It can perhaps be best understood as a larger version of Peep Show or Endless Love Show from 1966. Just like her earlier infinity rooms, the installation gives a hallucinatory effect where dots of light have taken over the universe.
10. Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (2009) by Yayoi Kusama
Similar infinity light-and-mirror installation environments followed, many of which form part of permanent museum collections or national art exhibitions. In 2009, Kusama created a whole series of these works, including the Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The lights in Aftermath take on a slightly different shape referencing the Buddhist Water Lantern ceremony that honors the family ancestors.
Contrary to early mirror rooms, more recent versions often include lights turning on and off. In this particular installation, the visitor is also invited to enter the room and stand on a platform in its middle. Today, the rooms are on display all over the world.