Painted in 1981, Pumpkin is a glimmering golden squash set against a dazzling hypnotic backdrop and reveals an intimate portrayal of Yayoi Kusama’s hallucinogenic world. Adorned with a bright red polka dot trimming, this painting is a rare and early example of Kusama’s career-defining pumpkins. Canvases depicting this now iconic subject matter and executed in her subversive collage technique emerged in the artist’s oeuvre during the early-1980s, and since that time have now become one of the central motifs of her art.
Pumpkin evokes an illusion of depth through strong lines and contrasting colors. The combination of black-yellow and red-white are both iconic color choices that are strongly associated with Kusama’s prolific oeuvre. Blurring the boundaries between representation and abstraction, Kusama’s iconic polka dot pattern is mottled ever so carefully to evoke the ribbed texture of pumpkin skin. Recalling seventeenth-century still life studies of everyday fruit, vegetables and flowers, Kusama pushes the boundaries of this age-old genre by embracing the ‘pop’ aesthetic of commercialized Japanese art. By reconciling contrasting cultural contexts through a painstaking technique, Kusama demonstrates her obsessive patience and ability to transcend genres.
From a young age, Kusama experienced hallucinations in the form of animated conversations with pumpkins. By the early-1970s, upon returning to Tokyo from New York, Kusama underwent an intense period of depression, where only through drawing pumpkins did the artist find solace. Mesmerized by the “unpretentious and simple beauty” of these organic forms, Kusama re-emerged onto the art scene in the early-1980s with her confidence and ambition restored. As a result, Pumpkin, a work executed in 1981, signals this poignant moment. Alexandra Munroe describes this healing process as a “privileged if disturbed access to unconscious and possibly supernatural realms of being” (A. Munroe, Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958-1968, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 81). Kusama herself also stated that “(a)rtists do not usually express their own psychological complexes directly, but I use my complexes and fears and subjects” (Y. Kusama, quoted in Yayoi Kusama, London, 2012, p. 10).
Collaging plays a unique role in Pumpkin. Affixed onto two edges of the canvas, the red fabric trimming pays homage to Kusama’s earlier years working with textiles at a Japanese parachute factory and later her hand-sewn phallus-covered sculptures in New York during early-1960s. As a technique, collaging played a decisive role in twentieth-century image making, with artists such as Hannah Höch and Kurt Schwitters creating new types of pictures that were bold, direct and communicable in a glance. Similarly, Kusama employs a polka dot pattern to create disjunctions between her printed and painted dots, thus calling into question which is more reality itself.
What began as a young child’s creative, yet uncertain grip on reality, became a central motif to Kusama’s endless search for self-identity. Kusama wanted us to see her hallucinogenic world: “I am now determined to create a ‘Kusama world’ which no-one else has ever done and trodden into” (Y. Kusama, quoted in Yayoi Kusama, London, 2012, p. 192).