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Dots all, folks—at the Hirshhorn, artist Yayoi Kusama immerses viewers in infinity

One With Eternity: Yayoi Kusama, the new show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., is small and magical. Much like the artist. Five-foot-not-much, Yayoi Kusama uses just a handful of elements — dots, pumpkins, mirrors, phalluses — and creates environments you can enter, and then lose yourself in.

Is it great art? "We think so," Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu says with a chuckle. Smilingly, she points to a huge, glossy Kusama pumpkin — yellow with black dots — that occupies a gallery whose yellow walls, ceiling and floor are covered with more black dots. We carve pumpkins at Halloween; 93-year old Kusama enshrines them as art.

"When she was seven, " says curator Betsy Johnson, "she recounts that pumpkins would speak to her from time to time." Johnson says Kusama showed signs of psychosis very young. In her small village in Japan, she started drawing her hallucinations, putting them down on paper. "She came to call it psychosomatic art." Compulsively, over and over, with her black marker, she makes repetitive images. They calm her down.

In the 1960s, Kusama began creating works which made special magic. "Kusama environments," Hirshhorn Director Chiu calls them. Infinity Mirror Rooms, Kusama named them. They take the form of cube-shaped rooms. Inside, mirrors cover the walls, the ceiling, the floor. They reflect an infinity of images. The first, in 1965, creates a field of phallic-shaped soft sculptures she made — white fabric, covered with lipstick-red dots. There are photos of her at age 36 in a lipstick-red leotard, resting among them.

Kusama's Infinity Rooms are most breath-taking when she suspends countless small lights from the mirrored ceiling. I entered one of those at the Broad in Los Angeles (there are others in New York, Dallas, Houston and Boston). I could stay inside for only 45 seconds, timed by a museum guard. So many people came to experience the Kusama, we could only get quick glimpses. I stood there, alone — in the cosmos, it felt. 45 seconds, out of this world. The lights and mirrors made infinity, and made us joyful.

I ask curator Betsy Johnson what makes Kusama so popular. "We want to experience something that bowls us over," she says. Something "that makes us feel different than what we get to experience day in and day out."

That may be the artist's motivation as well. The work is her happiness.

Yayoi Kusama, creator of joy, says she has been suicidal for some years. In Tokyo, she lives in a mental hospital, and crosses the street to her studio every day to make these delights. Her art sustains her, and transforms audiences.

Art Where You're At is an informal series showcasing online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.

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