Yayoi Kusama grew up around flowers and plants, carrying her sketchbook to her family’s seed nursery in rural Japan and drawing the violets and peonies. When she was 11, her grandfather showed her a pumpkin for the first time: Eight decades later, the gourd is still one of her favorite muses.
Now, the 92-year-old artist’s nature-inspired sculptures, paintings and “infinity rooms” have landed at the New York Botanical Garden. “Kusama: Cosmic Nature,” opening Saturday after a yearlong delay due to COVID-19, features dozens of works, including four brand-new structures created specifically for the exhibit, spread across the garden’s 250 acres.
Its arrival is like a gift after NYC’s long pandemic winter: a mood-lifting balm that inspires viewers to look at nature — and Kusama’s art — in a new light.
“We really wanted to show the range of her aesthetic,” guest curator Mika Yoshitake told The Post at a preview of the exhibit. “It’s not just depictions of flowers and pumpkins.” (Or polka dots, for that matter.)
The exhibit opens with “I Want To Fly to the Universe,” a 13-foot-high anthropomorphic flower head with red-and-white polka-dot petals and a yellow face dancing above the reflecting pool by the visitor’s center.
As you make your way through the garden grounds — planted with blooms that Kusama would have seen in her native Japan — more surrealist surprises sneak up on you: tall trees wrapped in spotted fabric along the main path, a sparkling mosaic pumpkin in the middle of a flower arrangement, psychedelic tulips floating above water. In one instance, horticulturalists have ingeniously re-created one of Kusama’s paintings, “Alone, Buried in a Flower Garden” using plants and dirt.
Kusama and her studio — who shipped all the materials and assembled several of the more gargantuan works in the couple of weeks leading up to the exhibit — have reprised several of her greatest hits here, including 1966’s hypnotic “Narcissus Garden,” featuring 1,400 shiny silver orbs floating on water.
Meanwhile, “Flower Obsession” replicates Kusama’s famed “obliteration rooms,” in which visitors cover an entire domestic interior with polka dots. This time, the installation is a greenhouse, and the polka dots are replaced with red poppies, echoing one of Kusama’s earliest childhood hallucinations. The 10-year-old artist was sitting at her family’s kitchen table, when suddenly, she later wrote in her autobiography, “I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers.”
“In that instant,” she continued, “my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space.” (Kusama has spent the past 45 years voluntarily living in a psychiatric hospital, which she says gives her the security to continue obsessively creating art.)
Curator Yoshitake said she wanted to explore the darker side of Kusama’s exuberant pumpkins and flowers. “Her inspiration from nature — yes, it was embedded in the early stages of her life. But it was also during [World War II], and in her [childhood] sketchbook, she depicts not just the flowering blooms of flowers but also the decay and the cycles of life and death.”
The garden’s library contains several of these childhood sketches, as well as paintings and sculptures that help give context to Kusama’s work: many of the abstract, expressionist canvases here have never before been seen in the US.
Yet despite Kusama’s obsession with obliteration and death, there is so much light. Part of that is due to the garden’s setting; Kusama’s busy creations have room to breathe. But that’s also because Kusama finds transcendence in everything on Earth and beyond. “She expands this proximity to death into a cosmic realm,” said Yoshitake.
Her world is full of talking flowers, dancing pumpkins and exploding cosmos — and it’s glorious. As she wrote on March 6, in a statement shared with the botanical garden, “Dancing through our universe are noble souls whose magnificent forms are saturated with mystery. I invite you to explore the endlessly expanding ode to the beauty of love that is my art.”
“Kusama: Cosmic Nature” runs at the New York Botanical Garden through Oct. 31. To buy timed-entry tickets, visit NYBG.org. Kusama’s new “Infinity Mirrored Room — Illusion Inside the Heart,” in the garden, will open in June and will require an additional timed ticket, available in late spring.