Enter legendary artist Yayoi Kusama’s infinite world

Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrors"

Washington is the first stop of a North American tour for a new exhibit by legendary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Her “Infinity Mirrors” exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is a collection of psychedelic art that appears to go on forever.

The first 9,000 tickets were reserved in just six minutes. The museum’s website crashed from demand. There is almost no end to the number of people wanting to enter Kusama’s infinite world, reports CBS News correspondent Errol Barnett.

One step into the space, and the experience is quite literally limitless.

Yayoi Kusama’s “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins”  CBS News

From her quirky latest work titled “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins” to her earliest mirror display, never before have so many of the 88-year-old artist’s captivating “Infinity Mirrors” rooms been shown in the same place at the same time.

Rarely seen outside of Japan, Kusama, who identifies herself as an avant-garde artist, established herself in the American art world after her move to New York in 1957.

“In the late ‘50s, it’s the post-World War II period in Japan, and I think it was also very much a period where if you wanted to become an artist you really had to go to a place like New York,” Hirshhorn Museum director Melissa Chiu said.

Legendary artist Yayoi Kusama Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

“I would say that it started with her arrival in New York … She became kind of enamored with performance art, which was developing at that time,” Chiu added.

As an anti-war activist, Kusama staged what she called “Happenings” against violence at the height of the Vietnam War.

“She wanted recognition. She wanted to be known as an artist,” said Mika Yoshitake, who has studied Kusama’s work for decades.
“The young people who were in her studio also frequented Warhol’s studio, and so she had her-- she was very kind of competitive,” Yoshitake said.

As one of the few women in an art world dominated by men, Kusama saw male artists like Andy Warhol as rivals, but the pace of her life in New York was unsustainable.

“She came back to Japan in 1973 and went through quite a dark period,” Yoshitake said.

She worked herself mad in “40 to 50 hours at a stretch,” Yoshitake said.  

Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room Cathy Carver/Smithsonian Institution

Kusama has lived in a Tokyo mental institution for 40 years, checking herself out to work at a nearby studio every morning and returning to the psychiatric hospital each evening.

In a video made for the exhibit, the media-shy artist shared her philosophy.

“The effect of infinite, constant repetition leads us to finding our ever-expanding hope,” Kusama said in Japanese.

“She’s developed a method or a rhythm to stabilize her condition and art really is a way for her, it’s a healing process,” Yoshitake said.

“Is she happy?” Barnett asked.
“That’s a hard question I think. There’s a lot of kind of, dualities in her work,” Yoshitake said. “Some of her work is very dark.”

“So you wouldn’t go as far as to say she’s happy, she’s maybe, in many ways, conflicted,” Barnett said.

“She barely smiles when I see her. I think the only time she smiles is when she finishes one of her paintings,” Yoshitake said.
Kusama has described her art as therapy and her appeal has been profound.

“This is the most visited exhibition in the museum’s history,” Yoshitake said.

Kusama’s “Obliteration Room” started out with no color at all. Museum-goers, who are given sheets of stickers, are encouraged to cover the room in polka dots in every size and color.

Yayoi Kusama’s “Obliteration Room”  CBS News

One visitor said “it’s a trip,” while another said “it is a reality unto itself.” 

It’s an immersive experience created by a tormented artist with a decidedly positive impact.

“It made me feel really happy!” young visitor Zena Bochkared said.

Of course something like this has become a hit on social media. Hashtag #infinitekusama has reached 43 million accounts on Twitter and Instagram, with 212 million impressions. From D.C., the exhibit heads to Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, Cleveland and Atlanta.