Plump, feisty and bursting with an electrically psychedelic energy, Pumpkin (TWPOT) evinces a rare and seldom-seen shade of golden-orange and manifests as an unequivocally consummate and technically impeccable archetype of Kusama’s oeuvre – a testament to almost nine decades of astonishing dedication to art and creation. Arguably the most important living female artist today, responsible for revolutionising Abstraction, Expressionism, Emotionalism, Pop Art and Minimalism, Kusama Yayoi’s phenomenal oeuvre transgresses paradigms in all fields and media. Since her early days of explosive stardom creating cutting-edge avant-garde art in parallel with key figures in the male-dominated global art scene such as Andy Warhol, George Segal, Donald Judd and Claes Oldenburg, Kusama’s ground-breaking innovation never diminished; now in her late-eighties, the octogenarian shows no signs of slowing down. Fuelled by an irrepressible drive and a singularly extraordinary vision, Kusama works tirelessly and compulsively, producing captivating and intricate works each more beautiful and mesmerising than the last. The present Pumpkin (TWPOT) was created in 2010 at the apex of the artist’s return to global eminence, manifesting as an emblem of the artist’s epochal multi-faceted oeuvre.
Embodying an iconic, charismatic and highly personal motif, Kusama’s pumpkins are as universally emblematic of her oeuvre as the Campbell’s soup can was to Andy Warhol’s. Rendered in a shade of golden-orange, Kusama deliberately painted Pumpkin (TWPOT) in the gourd’s essential colour with a direct semblance to a sweet, tender and luscious kabocha. The work is covered in precisely painted polka dots and set against a wall of tessellated nets – all of which are wholly iconic and era-defining features of the artist’s style. Developed to mature perfection through decades of near-obsessive production and reproduction, each of these distinct elements of the piece reflect a different segment within Kusama’s expansive aesthetic philosophy whilst coming together to create a dazzlingly hypnotic visual narrative – one that evokes strong associations with the formal reduction of Minimalism, the repetitive symbolism of Pop and the hypnotic illusions of Op Art. Surreal and fantastical, Kusama’s pumpkin paintings exhibit extraordinary dexterity in skill and execution as well as the single-minded meticulous vision that defines the artist’s career – all the while being deeply personal and indexical, representing a wholly epic extension of Kusama’s legacy in contemporary art and culture.
The incipient appearance of Kusama’s mature pumpkins occurred in the 1980s and 1990s – a period in which Kusama returned to works with richer narrative content as opposed to the stark austere aesthetic of her 1960s infinity nets. However, the initial manifestation of the motif itself (not yet rendered in its present polka-dotted form) can be traced back to the artist’s Nihonga practice at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in the late 1940s. The pumpkin is deeply central to the artist’s core psyche, stemming from a vivid hallucination from her childhood. “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” (Infinity Net, Yayoi Kusama, trans. Ralph McCarthy, Tate Publishing, London, UK, 2011, p. 75). The anthropomorphised pumpkin can here be seen as indexical to Kusama’s other encounters with animated plants and objects, such as her memory of speaking to a talking flower and dog in her childhood. However, unlike the traumatic feelings that the artist associates with the flower and dog, the talking pumpkin exuded a “generous unpretentiousness” (Infinity Net, Yayoi Kusama, trans. Ralph McCarthy, Tate Publishing, London, UK, 2011, p. 76), emitting a “solid spiritual balance” (Ibid.).
Functioning as both an allegory and a form of self-portraiture, Kusama’s pumpkin as an uncanny yet benign and nurturing subject exudes peace, serenity, life and vigour. Traditionally a symbol of fertility, the pumpkin also gives one a feeling of abundance, joy, triumph and reward – not unlike the feelings one would experience when reaping one’s harvest after an arduous season of work. In 1993, after almost two decades of a retreated presence from the international art world, Kusama was invited to be the first solo artist and first woman ever to grace the Japanese pavilion at the 45th Venice Biennale. For this momentous occasion she constructed Mirror Room (Pumpkin), consuming a section 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 installation whilst grandly introducing the theme of the pumpkin. The pumpkin thus stands as a symbol of triumph for the artist’s international resurgence and rise to global eminence.
Repetitive net patterns are also a central representative element of Kusama’s visual lexicon. Starting with the New York period Infinity Nets, Kusama’s nets have become synonymous with “obsession” – a word that populates many of her interviews, book covers, as well as art reviews. To the artist, this “obsession” with reproduction at the most minute level was and is much more than meets the eye. Looking back on her nets, Kusama remarked that hers was a “method opposite to the emotional space of Abstract Expressionism (which prevailed in New York)” (Yayoi Kusama, “A Lone Woman Takes on the International Art World”, Yayoi Kusama Exhibition, Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, Kitakyushu, Japan, 1987, p. 117). Indeed, working against conventions and forging her own unique path, Kusama’s method was one that was primarily born of her mental illness – her way of combatting fears through obliteration. “Artists do not usually express their own psychological complexes directly, but 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 Kusama, Tate Modern, 2012).
The process of repetition is also a method through which Kusama attains technical and formal perfection. The present Pumpkin (TWPOT) embodies the artist’s unequivocally consummate and impeccable technical execution – a dazzling image of flawless and meticulous exactitude. “Forget yourself,” proclaimed Kusama, the “High Priestess of Polka Dots”, on a 1968 flyer for one of her art shows. “Self-Destruction is the only way out – but, after self-destruction comes Resurrection, a new life of oneness, peace and happiness with the other beings of the Universe” (Kusama’s Body Festival in 60’s, Access Co., Ltd., p. 148). This mantra of “self-obliterating”, of blurring the lines between where one being ends and the next one begins, has been tremendously representative of Kusama’s oeuvre. Pumpkin (TWPOT) no doubt exhibits this feature: it is hard to tell where the polka dots end and the psychedelic nets begin; it is as if they are one and the same, blending seamlessly into one another, creating an enthralling piece of oneness and cohesion within Kusama’s Universe.