My desire to create works of pumpkins still continues. I have enthusiasm as if I were still a child.
Pumpkin presents a seldom-seen large-format pink and black rendition of Yayoi Kusama’s iconic pumpkins. Executed with impeccable technical precision, the canvas is resplendent and iconic in its striking hue of vivid magenta. In the background, Kusama’s scaled tessellations pulsate with the rhythmic intensity of the tightly woven pattern; while the pumpkin itself, meticulously crafted with row after row of multi-striated dots, settles regally within the centre of the painting. Flawless in terms of quality of execution and the disorienting yet mesmerizing complexity of pattern and form, Untitled is a superior archetype of Yayoi Kusama’s paradigmatic pumpkin canvases that have become a global icon of its own right.
As universally emblematic of Kusama’s oeuvre as the Campbell’s soup can was to Andy Warhol’s, the pumpkin is deeply central to the artist’s psyche, and its origins within her art can be traced back to her most early years. In 1948, three years after the war ended, a 19-year-old Kusama enrolled in a fourth-year course at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. “During my time in Kyoto I diligently painted pumpkins”, wrote the artist, “which in later years would become an important theme in my art” (Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, trans. Ralph McCarthy, Tate Publishing, 2011, p. 75). Kusama recalls having consumed the vegetable endlessly to the point of nausea in her childhood years during and after the war; in spite of this, she retains a fond attachment to its organic bulbous form, describing it as embodying a “generous unpretentiousness” and “solid spiritual balance” (Ibid, p. 76). Already experiencing hallucinations at the time, involving pumpkins that spoke to her in a most animated manner, Kusama found the gourd a benign and nurturing subject – as opposed to the more traumatic and menacing feelings she associates with flowers, plants and objects that plagued her throughout her life.
Kusama’s early pumpkins were painted with traditional Nihonga materials, which she left behind after her move from Matsumoto to New York in 1958. Within only eighteen months of her arrival, Kusama stunned the New York art scene with her radical Infinity Nets in 1959, executed in the Western medium of oil, which were followed by her Accumulation soft sculptures in 1961. In 1965 Kusama infused explosions of colour into her sculptures through the use of dotted and striped fabrics; by this time, the sheer breadth, scale and ambition of her diverse cross-media oeuvre had taken over the city like an epidemic. Her ubiquitous polka-dot and net motifs, manifested in mesmeric paintings, immersive rooms, hypnotic installations, body art and participatory performances, forged a wholly unique aesthetic that articulated a rigorous, overwhelming language of obsession and obliteration – a language that enabled the artist to combat her hallucinatory mental illness. The artist reflects: “I use my complexes and fears as subjects. I make them and make them and then keep on making them, until I bury myself in the process. I call this ‘obliteration’” (Yayoi, cited in Mignon Nixon, "Infinity Politics", in Francis Morris, Ed., Yayoi Kusama, Tate Publishing, 2012, p. 180).
After an explosive rise to fame in New York in the 1960s, Kusama retreated into a psychiatric hospital in Japan in 1975, withdrawing into a period of semi-obscurity whilst quietly amassing a prolific body of work. It was during this time that Kusama revisited her earlier pumpkin motif, combining her signature all-over Nets and obliterating polka-dot aesthetic with the theme of her favourite gourd. During the 1980s Kusama explored colourful variations of her pumpkin-pattern in two-dimensional paintings, drawings and prints; over the years her rendering of pumpkin ‘skin’ grew ever more deft and accomplished, with the flowing lines of dots advancing and receding rhythmically in a fastidiously precise yet dynamically organic manner. Even the seemingly blank or ‘undotted’ segments are overlaid with miniscule specks, contributing to a complex and intensely laborious configuration that pulsates and disorients with energy akin to that of Op art paintings.
Towards the latter half of the 1980s, Kusama began exhibiting more frequently at exhibitions around the world. Appreciation for Kusama’s work grew steadily, and in 1993, her international revival was made official when she was invited as the first solo artist and first woman ever to grace the Japanese pavilion at the 45th Venice Biennale. For the occasion, Kusama constructed Mirror Room (Pumpkin), consuming the entire interior of the pavilion in an immersive floor-to-ceiling extravaganza of black-on-yellow polka dots. At its centre was a dazzling mirrored room filled with pumpkin sculptures, echoing her seminal 1966 Infinity Mirror Room—Love Forever whilst introducing the theme of the pumpkin. Akira Tatehata, the commissioner of the Japanese Pavilion, also organized a mini-retrospective of Kusama’s career to accompany the newly commissioned installation.
The present Pumpkin was created in 1991, at the critical juncture as Kusama was making her way to become a global household name. The artist’s international resurgence and rise to global stardom occurred in parallel with – and was inextricably tied with – her iconic pumpkin motif. It was to pumpkins that Kusama turned for solace during her period of reclusion, and it was with pumpkins in mind that she set about creating a work for her momentous Venice Biennale comeback. The pumpkin thus stands as a symbol of triumph for the artist’s personal as well as artistic rebirth; as Alexandra Munroe writes, Kusama’s art requires her “not only to surrender to madness but also to triumph over it; trauma must be substantially transformed before it can communicate to others as beauty and meaning” (Alexandra Munroe, ‘Between Heaven and earth: The Literary Art of Yayoi Kusama’, in Exh. Cat. Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958-1968, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1998, p. 81). Consummately executed, Pumpkin presents the legendary artist at the height of her powers, exemplifying the extraordinary vision that defines Kusama’s epochal era-defining career.