The celebrated Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama started her ongoing 'My Eternal Soul' series in 2009, when she began expanding her trademark polka dots into paintings. In these works, the artist painstakingly renders shapes through a combination of solid blocks of unmodulated colour and shimmering fields, where hundreds of tiny marks lie very close to each other but never touch.Read More
Some paintings within this series insert linear details of facial physiognomies, where organic regularly positioned oval patches of hot bright colour are superimposed with outlines of faces or profiles (side-by-side).
Completed in acrylic on canvas, other paintings in this body of work similarly mix figuration with abstraction. Kusama's works depict wobbly patchwork quilt patterns, cellular structures, microscopic biological creatures, wiggling worms or eyes, multi-hued starfish, flowers and glowing commas. Others still have centrally positioned throbbing squares, some of which are surrounded by concentric frames full of vibrating motifs. Often when only two tonally clashing colours are used, they are complementary so that their optical harshness makes them extra strident and piercing.
All of the paintings from the 'My Eternal Soul' series take about two or three days to complete, and are presented on 2 x 2 metre stretchers. She has made over 500 so far. She has even said 'I want to paint 1000 and 2000 paintings. I want to keep painting even after I've died.' These can be displayed individually or butted together to make a long double-layered frieze that effortlessly marches along gallery walls. The exuberant and impulsively planned paintings work well collectively as modules.
Improvisatory and highly instinctual, and slow in execution, Kusama's rhythmic organic images revel in obsessive repetition. Their motifs exploit many nuanced variations, each instinctively drawn element floating in a square pool and positioned within a vaguely grid-like ordered structure.
Kusama avoids chromatic restraint in order to revel in highly saturated colour, her emphasis being on manual process that emphasises a continuum—well as a buoyant primitivist folk art—the nonstop production of optically physically imposing images that retinally overwhelm the viewer.
This overpowering is most obvious in her intensive, walk-through, polka dot installations and mirror works. Though beguiling and unrelenting, the paintings are not so extreme (i.e. not so immersive) because they as portable objects—when experienced as butted modules or in isolation—are restricted to the human scale, and so are quite accessible. Kusama's restless figurative elements assist this popularity, allowing her to attract large audiences.
Accessibility part of Kusama's art
Such accessibility has always been a part of Kusama's 'brand'. Indeed, even early on in the sixties when Yayoi Kusama's paintings and sculptures allowed her to be considered a Pop artist, despite her consistent interest in obsessive repetition, religiosity and abstraction. The bright clean colour and recognisable flat contoured forms (as found in comics) seen in much of her imagery were part of this, even though later her spectacular eye-popping installations dominated her public profile.****
Represented by David Zwirner, Ota Fine Arts and Victoria Miro, purchasable portable paintings allow Kusama's practice to physically reach domestic and commercial spaces far beyond her studio. The ongoing manual activity (with direct tactile interaction with the materials) is an important driver for production (even though she now has a small group of assistants) as is the intimate scale. When seen in isolation, their body-based proportions are crucial for audience communication.
These uplifting paintings have a surprising optimism and positivity, exuding faith that many of the problems besetting the planet can be fixed by more recent generations—the different age groups depicted in her paintings. Through the poetry and artist statements that accompany her exhibitions, Kusama calls for love that inspires commitment to solving the world's social problems, and correcting overt injustices. Her perky and bubbly works become square 'banners' of hope for activist causes, pitched to all ages within the global community, optimistically celebrating changes to come and exuding joy.
In 2021, Victoria Miro in London opened a major exhibition entitled I Want Your Tears to Flow with the Words I Wrote featuring an art installation of paintings from Kusama's iconic My Eternal Soul series, which also included bronze pumpkin sculptures and painted soft sculptures. On the occassion of the exhibition's opening and speaking with Ocula Advisory, Victoria Miro co-director Glen Scott Wright described Kusama having a universal appeal, having 'that rare ability to attract admiration from both curators and the most sophisticated collectors and critics, as well as the broadest lay audiences with little knowledge of contemporary art history.'