Nature takes a ‘cosmic’ turn in a garden exhibit


An expansive new show featuring works by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, famous for his fascinating peas, speckled pumpkins and fascination with the natural world, has opened at the New York Botanical Garden. Ticket sales have been buoyant in a city weary of the pandemic and hungry for new outdoor cultural events.

“Kusama: Cosmic Nature”, postponed for a year due to the coronavirus, will remain visible until Halloween.

Most of the artwork is outdoors and is large enough to be enjoyed while still being socially removed. Visitors will want to wear their walking shoes; the exhibition presents multiple galleries, installations and gardens. Elaborate flower displays complement some of the works, which are scattered throughout the 250-acre Botanical Garden in the Bronx.

The setting couldn’t be more suited to Kusama’s multifaceted works, all of which relate in different ways to the world of nature. Growing up in the greenhouses and fields of his family’s huge nursery in Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama has always focused his work on the natural world, says guest curator Mika Yoshitake.

“For Kusama, cosmic nature is a life force that integrates the terrestrial and celestial orders of the universe from both micro and macrocosmic perspectives,” Yoshitake says.

When Kusama was young, she started having vivid hallucinations, some of which involved peas or flowers spreading around her.

“Some people get stuck on the polka dots. Her work has a kind of inner sadness combined with an outer joy, which really speaks to the present moment,” says Karen Daubmann, vice president of exhibitions and public engagement at the garden.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s “I want to fly to the universe” sculpture is reflected in a swimming pool at the New York Botanical Garden on Thursday, April 8, 2021 in the Bronx neighborhood of New York. The expansive exhibit opened and ticket sales were swift in a city weary of the pandemic and hungry for outdoor cultural events. (AP Photo / Mark Lennihan)

The works making their debut at the exhibition include the 16-foot-high painted bronze “Dancing Pumpkin” (2020), which appears to be frolicking happily on the lawn of the Haupt Conservatory; “I Want to Fly the Universe” (2020), a 13-foot-tall, brightly colored biomorphic form installed near the Visitor Center; and “Infinity Mirrored Room – Illusion Inside the Heart” (2020), an outdoor installation reflecting its surroundings.

Three galleries of the Conservatory present horticultural celebrations of Kusama. Towering polka-dot flowers in “My Soul Blooms Forever” (2019) greet visitors in the Palm Gallery. Nearby, the pink and gold “Starry Pumpkin” mosaic (2015) is surrounded by flowers and woodland foliage with complementary pastels. And to complement the vivid colors of Kusama’s painting “Alone, Buried in a Flower Garden” (2014) is an exhibition of seasonal flowers and foliage designed to be equally strong in form and color.

Highlights elsewhere in the garden include “Narcissus Garden” (1966/2021), consisting of 1,400 stainless steel spheres set in a water feature, and “Ascension of the Polka Dots on the Trees” (2002/2021) , which features soaring trees, their trunks wrapped in bright red fabric with white polka dots.

In the garden library, an exhibit includes sketches, paintings, collages and sculptures by Kusama, including a 1945 sketchbook she kept at 16. It is full of meticulous and realistic drawings of plants. His painting “Infinity Net”, inspired by the Pacific Ocean seen from an airplane, is also on display; the work was exhibited at the Whitney Museum in 1961.

A small photo exhibition focuses on Kusama’s life in New York City, where she lived around 1958, making performance art among other works before returning to Japan in 1973.

Kusama, 92, now divides her time between the Japanese mental hospital where she has voluntarily lived since the 1970s and her neighboring studio. She has not traveled to the United States since 2012.

Its installations were carried out with the help of a team with which it works in close collaboration; they reviewed the placement of the works with Kusama using photos. Various galleries in New York and Tokyo that represent Kusama also participated.

To keep viewers safe during the pandemic, the garden has implemented a timed, limited entry ticketing system to promote social distancing. Advance purchase of tickets is required.

The Garden and Galleries Pass, which provides access to the Kusama Lounge, is already full for some weekends, though there is still availability on weekdays, according to the Botanical Garden.

Current guidelines limit capacity to 33% and social distancing to 6 feet. Because the gardens are so large, the garden can still accommodate several thousand visitors per day.

The exhibition, which will not travel beyond New York, will be accompanied by a catalog co-published with Rizzoli Electa, including essays by Yoshitake, art historian Jenni Sorkin, curator Alexandra Munroe and others. The catalog will focus on Kusama’s ongoing engagement with nature and the interdependence of all living things.


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