The astonishing, immersive psychedelic artwork of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) is all the rage in San Francisco these days. Known as the priestess of polka dots for her love of placing the playful round objects in her works of various media (sculptures, mixed installations, and paintings), the 94-year-old international icon is at a pinnacle of popularity. And Kusama’s celebrity comes at just the right time for SFMOMA — attendance has been down, as it has been at most cultural venues.
“Infinite Love,” the special SFMOMA exhibit, is Kusama’s first solo museum presentation in Northern California and features two “Infinity Mirror Rooms” on the museum’s sixth floor. The two closed mirrored box-like spaces are bland on the outside but are a mass of dazzling, mystifying colorful shapes and colors on the inside. The concept is that they convey a “feeling of unlimited potential and possibility,” although entering each room can be a bit disorienting. Each group of five or six viewers has two minutes to walk around and take photos in each room. And that seemed like enough time to drink in the overall sensation.
The first space, “Infinite Love,” “Dreaming of Earth’s Sphericity, I Would Offer My Love” (2023), is in a silent room that features apparently limitless reflections of large, vivid-colored circles of acrylic material that dangle from the walls and ceiling. The imaginative effect resembles what it’s like to be in a kaleidoscope.
The second room, “LOVE IS CALLING” (2013), is one of Kusama’s largest and most immersive mirrored installations. It’s filled with large tentacle-like rubber balloons of various pastel colors, each covered with large black polka dots. The tentacles are of varying sizes and colors; some approach six feet tall. An audio recording in Japanese of the artist reciting her poem “Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears” accompanies the installation.
Kusama’s monumental, attractive, sensual sculpture “Aspiring to Pumpkin’s Love, the Love in My Heart” (2023) is a long, curved, undulating row of pumpkins in deep yellow with black polka dots. It is 18 feet in length and more than 11 feet high. Pumpkins have fascinated Kusama since childhood because of their “generous unpretentiousness” and “spiritual balance.” Housed on the museum’s fifth floor, seeing “Aspiring to Pumpkin’s Love…” is included in the general museum admission without timed entry.
Despite all her talk about universal love, Yayoi Kusama’s bigotry has been widely written about. Her 2003 autobiography, “Infinity Net,” is full of stereotypical racist tropes about Black people. Should she be excused because of her abusive Japanese upbringing during World War II? In “Infinity Net,” she describes suffering from vivid hallucinations. After living as a young artist in New York (1957-1972), she moved back to Japan and, in 1977, voluntarily committed herself to a psychiatric hospital where she still lives. It is difficult to evaluate the possible impact of her mental state on her bigotry.
I wish she were the only brilliant artist whose personal beliefs and interactions were offensive, but sadly, that is not the case. Just consider the reexamination of Gauguin and Picasso. With all three, I try to separate the artist from the art. I found her creations exceptional and imaginative. But I wouldn’t invite her to dinner.
December viewings of “Infinite Love” are already mostly sold out for non-members, whose timed tickets cost $10 above the standard SFMOMA entrance fee, which ranges by age from $23-$30. While timed reservations are highly recommended, some tickets will be made available on the day of one’s arrival.
And, while you’re at the museum, don’t miss Diego Rivera’s “Pan American Unity” (1940), his fabulous 30-ton, 74-foot-wide-by-22-foot-tall mural. It’s on display at SFMOMA’s free first-floor gallery.
By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2023 All Rights Reserved