Behind Yayoi Kusama's Iconic Pumpkins

Through visually sensational means, the artist presents a universally familiar form.

Through visually sensational means, the artist presents a universally familiar form.

Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin (three works), 2002

As a rare triptych consisting of three exemplary versions of the artist's most iconic subject, Yayoi Kusama's Pumpkin is a powerful culmination of the artist's creative achievements. Painted in 2002, these three unique canvases represent not only a lifetime dedicated to this charismatic and highly personal motif, but they also express Kusama's accomplished technical ability and formal innovations within the realm of painting. Carving out an idiosyncratic space between abstraction and figuration — evincing profound links to the repetitive symbolism of Pop Art, the hypnotic illusions of Op Art and the formal project of Minimalism — Pumpkin reifies Kusama as an influential figure within the history of contemporary art while ultimately pertaining to a vision that is unequivocally hers and hers alone.

Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin, 1994

Her self-proclaimed obsession with the pumpkin is deeply rooted in her own childhood memories of growing up in Japan. Amid widespread national food shortages during World War II, a storehouse of pumpkins that her family owned provided a crucial lifeline and sustained much of their home village of Matsumoto. The pumpkin took on even more personal and psychological significance for the artist as she began to suffer from vivid hallucinations during childhood. Seeing pumpkins in their multiplicity provided a rare source of comfort, in contrast to the more menacing associations she held regarding flowers and other plants. As Kusama has recalled of her earliest encounter with these gourds: "The first time I ever saw a pumpkin was when I was in elementary school and went with my grandfather to visit a big seed-harvesting ground…and there it was: a pumpkin the size of a man's head… It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner" (Yayoi Kusama quoted in Infinity Net, Yayoi Kusama, translated by Ralph McCarthy). Utilizing a portrait orientation that mirrors the squat shape of the gourds, Kusama's pumpkins fill the canvases, each boasting individual characteristics that give them a distinctly personified presence.

Yayoi Kusama at work in her Tokyo studio 

Kusama first began sketching pumpkins when studying at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in the 1940s. Having gained success when moving to Tokyo and then New York City in 1958, it was not until 1975 that Kusama would decidedly return to the motif after she retreated to a psychiatric hospital in Japan. Working prodigiously and finding solace in her art, Kusama began to combine the pumpkin motif with the Infinity Net structures and obliterating polka-dots that had already garnered her international notoriety.

Kusama's use of repetition and her tactic of 'obliteration' highlights the pumpkin as an important personal symbol of relief from anxiety, obsessive thoughts and frightening hallucinations: "I would confront the spirit of the pumpkin, forgetting everything else and concentrating my mind entirely on the form before me" (Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London, 2015). During the 1980s Kusama explored vibrantly contrasting color variations and played with the two-dimensionality of black that punctuates the present work. As the pumpkin became firmly entrenched in her practice, the artist's defining global moment came in 1993 when she presented Mirror Room (Pumpkin) in the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This historic installation combined numerous black-spotted yellow pumpkin sculptures in a mirrored room that gave the impression of an infinite abundant field.

I would confront the spirit of the pumpkin, forgetting everything else and concentrating my mind entirely on the form before me. — Yayoi Kusama

Details from Pumpkin (three works), 2002

Painted in 2002, Pumpkin represents Kusama's mature style and the technical complexity that is testament to her dedication to the motif. Through a deft and accomplished handling of paint, Kusama combines minutely precise detailing with a rhythmic dotting of the pumpkins' skins to create an enthralling visual experience. The dots increase in size towards the elevated center of each lobe of the pumpkin, with the dots decreasing in size and increasing in frequency towards the outer edges and grooves that divide each segment. The resultant advance and recession of form imbue the canvas with a unique visual energy that is almost sculptural. Fastidiously regulated yet highly sensual, using pattern to connote form, Kusama blurs the lines between abstraction and figuration.

Conflating the personal and the universal, it is the life-giving significance of the pumpkin that Kusama celebrates, imbuing this quotidian vegetable with a sense of majesty and wonder.