‘Pumpkins are lovable, and their wonderfully wild and humorous atmosphere, never cease to capture the hearts of people … Pumpkins bring about poetic peace in my mind. Pumpkins talk to me. Pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins. Giving off an aura of my sacred mental state. They embody a base for the joy of living. A living shared by all humankind of the earth. It’s for the pumpkins that I keep on going’ (Y. Kusama, ‘On Pumpkins’, 2010).
Painted in 1990, Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin is an exquisite celebration of one of the artist’s most iconic and beloved motifs. Profoundly autobiographical, this solid, hearty fruit of the earth becomes a weapon of incursion into the artist’s inner world. Kusama’s love for pumpkins stretches back to her childhood, when she first encountered one growing on its vine and it began to speak to her ‘in the most animated manner’. Since then she has found them to be ‘such tender things to touch, so appealing in colour and form’; as the artist explains, ‘I would confront the spirit of the pumpkin, forgetting everything else and concentrating my mind entirely on the form before me’. In 1993, the pumpkin became the focus of the Kusama’s installation for the Japanese Pavilion at The Venice Biennale, where the artist lived in a mirrored room filled with small pumpkin sculptures.
With its hypnotic, mosaic-like web and dense arrangement of polka dots, Pumpkin demonstrates the signature elements of Kusama’s visual language. The netted lattice work produces a hallucinatory quality, invoking the vast, infinite expanse of the universe, whilst her polka dots symbolise the individual particles constituting our world. ‘Our earth is only one polka dot among millions of others’, she claims. ‘We must forget ourselves with polka dots. We must lose ourselves in the ever-advancing stream of eternity’ (Y. Kusama, quoted in L. Hoptman, A. Tatehata, and U. Kulterann, Yayoi Kusama, London 2001, p. 103). Kusama’s bold juxtaposition of vibrant canary yellow and intense black propels the pumpkin’s bulbous, curvaceous form to the fore. Optically mesmerizing, the majestic fruit sits proudly at the centre of her composition – a powerful symbol of the artist herself.
Kusama’s oeuvre can be read as an illustration of many of her earliest experiences, when she became engulfed by hallucinogenic visions. As the artist has recounted, ‘When I was a child, one day I was walking in the field, then all of a sudden, the sky became bright over the mountains, and I saw clearly the very image I was about to paint appear in the sky. I also saw violets which I was painting multiply to cover the doors, windows, and even my body. It was then I learned the idea of self-obliteration. I immediately transferred the idea onto a canvas, it was a hallucination only the mentally-ill can experience’ (Y. Kusama, quoted in ‘Damien Hirst Questions Yayoi Kusama, Across the Water, May, 1998,’ in Kusama: Now, exh. cat., Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1998, p. 15). These episodes have informed Kusama’s visual language ever since, forming the basis of her six-decade long career and bringing her fantasy world into focus. In 1977, Kusama voluntarily committed herself to a psychiatric hospital, where she has lived and worked ever since.
Pumpkin is a rich, dynamic and deeply introspective work, in which Kusama has sought solace and joy though crafting her favorite subject. In her 2010 poem ‘On Pumpkins’, the artist pays tribute to the motif’s significance within her life and art: ‘Pumpkins are lovable, and their wonderfully wild and humorous atmosphere, never cease to capture the hearts of people … Pumpkins bring about poetic peace in my mind. Pumpkins talk to me. Pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins. Giving off an aura of my sacred mental state. They embody a base for the joy of living. A living shared by all humankind of the earth. It’s for the pumpkins that I keep on going’ (Y. Kusama, ‘On Pumpkins’, 2010).