The last time I saw Yayoi Kusama’s artwork in the flesh was during a rainy, cold trip to Tokyo in November 2020, just a few months before the pandemic shut down the United States. Inside a futuristic, compact building in Shinjuku, the 92-year-old artist’s signature infinity lights, circles and polka dots spanned five stories, a single silver pumpkin perched on the rooftop.
Yesterday, I experienced Kusama’s vision in a whole new environment: the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, where Kusama: Cosmic Nature, an indoor-outdoor exhibition featuring 10 of the artist’s works, will be on view beginning April 10. If you, like most of us, have spent the past year or so at home staring at the same four walls, visiting “Cosmic Nature” will deliver a much-needed shot of dopamine.
Kusama’s riotous sculptures interact splendidly with the garden, which is currently in full bloom. “I Want to Fly to the Universe,” a cartoon-like sculpture of a sun, lives in a fountain near the entrance, where rays from the water shine on the piece’s red, blue, yellow, and white tentacles. Deeper in the Garden, red and white polka-dot material is wrapped around a quartet of trees, cherry blossoms leave tiny pink petals all over the nearby grass. And in the Native Plant Garden’s pond, hundreds of sterling silver orbs (“Narcissus Garden”) float in the water, clinking softly when they touch one another.
It makes sense that Kusama would have such an eye toward the way the natural world relates to her art—the artist was born into a family that owned a seed nursery business, and she spent most of her childhood around their seed harvesting land. But at the Botanical Gardens, she has also created environments of her own, where her art can be consumed in new ways: a sort of truncated version of her famed Infinity Rooms can be experienced inside what looks like a converted bathroom. There’s also a twee greenhouse, constructed specifically for this exhibition, (it looks not unlike a staged home at Ikea) in which guests are invited to stick a faux flower and a sticker provided by the artist anywhere they like.
The advent of the outdoor art exhibition has been a welcome byproduct of the pandemic, after galleries and museums spent months hosting virtual viewing rooms. But the Garden has long hosted artists in its sprawling space—most notably Dale Chihuly’s CHIHULY in 2017. For those missing the traditional exhibition experience, Cosmic Nature offers that, too. Inside the Mertz Library Building, you’ll find a slate of paintings (some from as early as 1950), dioramas she calls “assemblage boxes,” and the metallic, worm-like sculpture “Life.”
The highlight of this exhibition, in my eyes, lives in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory—a humid, greenhouse filled with orchids, palms, and cacti of all sorts. There, you’ll find “Starry Pumpkin,” an enormous pink and gold sculpture sitting in a bed of purple foxgloves. It’s a fairytale-meets-cottagecore vision that’s potent enough to transport you to another place and time.