Love Letter

Art in Bloom! Yayoi Kusama's Polka Dots Make New York Want to Dance

by Linda Cabasin
Yayoi Yayoi Kusama's "Dancing Pumpkin" at the New York Botanical Garden. All photos by Linda Cabasin.

NEW YORK CITY — I confess: I wondered how the monumental pumpkins and polka dots of beloved Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama would transfer to the serene, 250-acre New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx. But the garden’s KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature exhibition, running from April 10 through October 31 in 2021, is the perfect antidote to the pandemic, an expression of hope and joy set in the natural world that has inspired the artist from childhood. The NYBG and Kusama’s works enhance each other: The art merrily shakes up the blossoming spring landscape and makes the viewer see the world fresh and new, and the landscape grounds the art and helps reveal its connection to the natural universe.

The ten outdoor and indoor installations around the NYBG include some works created for the show, and performances by musicians and special events will add to the fun. This will be the only venue for KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature, so it’s a hot ticket. Admission is by timed admissions (with numbers restricted by Covid-19 requirements), so it’s good to book now.

"I Want to Fly to the Universe."
Kusama on polka dots.

As I walked through the main entrance, my first view was of I Want to Fly to the Universe (2020), a 13-foot-high, red-and-purple polka-dotted, flowerlike form rising above a pool. Who wouldn’t smile? The wonderful label here (as on others throughout the exhibition) quotes Kusama: “I convert the energy of life into dots of the universe. And that energy, along with love, flies into the sky.”

"Hymn of Life—Tulips."

Around the historic Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a marvel in itself, are several works. The 16-foot-high painted-bronze Dancing Pumpkin (2020) seems to do exactly that on the lawn. It made me want to do a cartwheel! NYBG visitors know the ponds outside the conservatory for their water lilies; now they are energized by Kusama’s Hymn of Life—Tulips (2007), oversize fiberglass flowers.

"My Soul Blooms Forever."

The Kusama works inside the conservatory, a celebration of the artist’s love for plants, reminded me that the NYBG has done these amazingly informative seasonal shows about artists and their relationship to nature for years: Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo are examples. The domed Palms of the World gallery forms a perfect backdrop for My Soul Blooms Forever (2019), a sculpture of polka-dotted flowers reaching toward the sky.

"Starry Pumpkin."

A favorite of mine inside the conservatory is the pink-and-gold Starry Pumpkin (2015), nestled among woodland plants. An information board quotes Kusama on pumpkins, which have fascinated her since childhood when her family ran a nursery: “What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness. That and its solid spiritual balance.”

Early Kusama drawings.
Kusama's 1968 anti-war Happenings.

To learn more about Kusama’s life and art, I went to the Mertz Library Building and the Ross Gallery. The library gallery has examples of paintings and sculptures from throughout her career, including a flower drawing from 1945, when Kusama was 16. A timeline of the artist’s life in the Ross Gallery has photos of her political activism in the 1960s and beyond.

"Narcissus Garden."
About "Narcissus Garden."
The "Flower Obsession" greenhouse.
Visitors asked if the tablecloth was for sale.

I appreciated Narcissus Garden (1966/2021), the 1,400 shining, reflective orbs floating in the pools in the Native Plant Garden. As a gardener, though, I couldn’t resist Flower Obsession (2017/2021), one of the artist’s Obliteration Rooms. In this tidy glasshouse with artificial plants, gardening gear, and a table charmingly set for a meal, viewers get stickers and synthetic flowers to leave on objects. These will eventually cover the surfaces of the room. Nearby, Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees (2002/2021) has cheerful red-and-white fabric draped around towering trees.

"Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees."

There’s more Kusama to see, including a brand-new outdoor installation Infinity Mirrored Room—Illusion Inside the Heart (2020) that will open over the summer, and other garden areas to explore. I stopped in the NYBG shop with its cute Kusama-themed merchandise, too: socks, keychains, books, and more.

Kusama mania in the gift shop.
These will thrill the Kusama-loving toddlers in your life.

Yayoi Kusama shared a message about KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature with the NYBG in 2021: “I invite you to explore the endlessly expanding ode to the beauty of love that is my art.” This exhibition, originally scheduled for 2020, was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As spring unfolds and life blooms all around, it offers a spirit-healing way to reflect and to enjoy art and nature. I’ll go back. I may even wear polka dots.

Everything is in bloom at the New York Botanical Garden.