Yayoi Kusama
Comforting Pumpkins

“I love pumpkins because of their humorous form, warm feeling, and a human-like quality.
My desire to create works of pumpkins never stops.
I have enthusiasm as if I were still a child.” 

 

 

Kusama first began sketching pumpkins when studying at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in the 1940s. Having gained success when moving to Tokyo and then New York City in 1958, it was not until 1975 that Kusama would decidedly return to the motif, after she retreated to a psychiatric hospital in Japan. Working prodigiously and finding solace in her art, Kusama began to combine the pumpkin motif with the Infinity Net structures and obliterating polka-dots that had already garnered her international notoriety. Kusama’s use of repetition and her tactic of ‘obliteration’ highlights the pumpkin as an important personal symbol of relief from anxiety, obsessive thoughts and frightening hallucinations: ‘I would confront the spirit of the pumpkin, forgetting everything else and concentrating my mind entirely on the form before me’ (Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London, 2015, n.p.) During the 1980s Kusama explored vibrantly contrasting colour variations and played with the two-dimensionality of black that punctuates the present work. As the pumpkin became firmly entrenched in her practice, the artist’s defining global moment came in 1993 when she presented Mirror Room (Pumpkin) in the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This historic installation combined numerous black-spotted yellow pumpkin sculptures in a mirrored room that gave the impression of an infinite abundant field.

 

 

Through ocularly sensational means, Kusama presents a universally familiar form. Her self-proclaimed obsession with the pumpkin is deeply rooted in her own childhood memories of growing up in Japan. Amidst widespread national food shortages during World War II, a storehouse of pumpkins that her family owned provided a crucial life line and sustained much of their home village of Matsumoto. The pumpkin took on even more personal and psychological significance for the artist as she began to suffer from vivid hallucinations during childhood. Seeing pumpkins in their multiplicity provided a rare source of comfort, in contrast to the more menacing associations she held regarding flowers and other plants. As Kusama has recalled of her earliest encounter with these gourds: ‘The first time I ever saw a pumpkin was when I was in elementary school and went with my grandfather to visit a big seed-harvesting ground…and there it was: a pumpkin the size of a man’s head… It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner’ (Yayoi Kusama quoted in Infinity Net, Yayoi Kusama, translated by Ralph McCarthy, London, 2011, p. 75.) Utilising a portrait orientation that mirrors the squat shape of the gourds, Kusama’s pumpkins fill the canvases, each boasting individual characteristics that give them a distinctly personified presence.

 

 

Known in Japan as Kabocha, Pumpkins are positive images to Kusama because they represent some moments of relief from her troubled childhood. As a young girl, Kusama spent hours drawing pumpkins. To her, pumpkins are representative of stability, comfort, and modesty. She “prefers to use pumpkins because not only are they attractive in both color and form, but they are also tender to the touch.”

 

For example, in one of her more current installations, “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins”, Kusama featured her signature polka dots on large yellow kobocha sculptures. Inside the enclosed room full of black mirrors and hallucinogenic lighting, the visitor is immediately transported into a world full of imagination and fantasy. Standing among the many pumpkins, one is confronted with infinite energy, comfort, and warmth as that is what the pumpkins symbolize for the artist.

Pumpkins (Three works), 2002
acrylic on canvas
each 53 x 45.5 cm. (20 7/8 x 17 7/8 in.)

 

As a rare triptych consisting of three exemplary versions of the artist’s most iconic subject, Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin is a powerful culmination of the artist’s creative achievements. Painted in 2002, these three unique canvases represent not only a lifetime dedicated to this charismatic and highly personal motif, but they also express Kusama’s accomplished technical ability and formal innovations within the realm of painting. Carving out an idiosyncratic space between abstraction, and figuration – evincing profound links to the repetitive symbolism of Pop Art, the hypnotic illusions of Op Art and the formal project of Minimalism – Pumpkin reifies Kusama as an influential figure within the history of contemporary art, whilst ultimately pertaining to a vision that is unequivocally hers and hers alone.

 

 

Painted in 2002, the present work represents Kusama’s mature style and the technical complexity that is testament to her dedication to the motif. Through a deft and accomplished handling of paint, Kusama combines minutely precise detailing with a rhythmic dotting of the pumpkins’ skins to create an enthralling visual experience. The dots increase in size towards the elevated centre of each lobe of the pumpkin, with the dots decreasing in size and increasing in frequency towards the outer edges and grooves that divide each segment. The resultant advance and recession of form imbues the canvas with a unique visual energy that is almost sculptural. Fastidiously regulated yet highly sensual, using pattern to connote form, Kusama blurs the lines between abstraction and figuration.

 

Each work also achieves this sense of dynamic depth by contrasting a deep black with one of Kusama’s iconic primal colours that have visceral links to nature: the impassioned blood red, the verdant green of the forests and the glowing yellow of sunlight. Despite Kusama using only two tones on each pumpkin, her mastery of varied dot application means that she opens up the canvas to a nuanced cerebral realm that gives cathartic form to her personal view of the world.

 

Forming the background of each canvas we see a web of thin neon lines delineate tessellated triangles, which cluster together to form a vast network of unending pattern. As with the artist’s Infinity Nets series, her insistence on repetition of shapes and dots here also becomes a way of rooting the place of the individual in the wider universe; a recognition that ‘Our earth is only one polka dot among millions of others’ (Yayoi Kusama, quoted in L. Hoptman, A. Tatehata, and U. Kulterann, Yayoi Kusama, London 2001, p. 103.) Conflating the personal and the universal, it is the life-giving significance of the pumpkin that Kusama celebrates, imbuing this quotidian vegetable with a sense of majesty and wonder.