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Playing With Pattern

How does Yayoi Kusama develop a motif in her work?

Most people know Yayoi Kusama for her paintings, sculptures, and installations. Superfans might be familiar with her performance art, her fashion collaborations, and even the musicals she’s written! But one thing is consistent throughout her work: She loves bold patterns. Read on to see how Kusama uses pattern in the three works featured here. Think about how they relate to one another to understand how the artist experiments with a motif, or visual idea.

Most people know Yayoi Kusama for her paintings, sculptures, and art experiences. Some know her performance art, her fashion designs, and even musicals she’s written! But one thing is the same in all of her work: She loves bold patterns. Read on to discover how Kusama explores a motif, or a visual idea.

Yayoi Kusama, Nets, 1957. Gouache on paper. ©Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai; Victoria Miro, London/Venice.

What inspired Kusama to make the painting above?

Safety Net

After leaving her home in Japan, Kusama spent 1957 in Seattle, Washington. She continued making paintings, including Nets, above, representing the nets she saw in her hallucinations. Look closely at the pattern. At first it might look like Kusama covers the canvas with polka dots. But she actually composes it with a series of semicircles, or U shapes, that are all connected to one another, creating a “net.” The pattern could repeat forever.

Kusama makes many paintings using this signature net pattern, working with a thick application of paint. In this example, the artist uses analogous colors red and orange, which appear next to one another on the color wheel. Notice how she adjusts the hues within the work, using bright colors in the center and muted one around the edges. This adds a sense of dimension to the abstract pattern.

After Kusama left her home in Japan, she spent 1957 in Seattle, Washington. She kept painting the nets she saw in her mind, like in Nets, above. At first the pattern might look like polka dots. But Kusama actually uses dark semicircles, or U shapes, that are all connected. This creates a “net.”

Kusama paints this net pattern in many works. Here the artist works with analogous colors red and orange. They appear next to one another on the color wheel. She uses bright colors in the middle and darker ones around the edges.

Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin, 2012. Art Basel, Hong Kong, South China, March 24, 2016. Credit: Xinhua/ Alamy Stock Photo.

How does Kusama use pattern to build the form in the composition above?

Passion for Pumpkins

Along with dots and nets, pumpkins are another common motif in Kusama’s artworks. They have a special meaning for the artist, which originated during her childhood. It is common in Japan to insult people by comparing them to pumpkins.

“It seems that pumpkins do not inspire much respect,” Kusama says. She finds this appealing and likes what she calls “the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness.” The artist incorporates both nets and dots in the painting above. But rather than creating a flat, abstract image as in Nets, in this example Kusama uses polka dots to create the illusion that the flat image is three-dimensional. The dots vary in scale, creating contours, highlights, and shadows. Kusama adds a flat net pattern in the background, which emphasizes the pumpkin’s shape.

Like dots and nets, Kusama uses a pumpkin motif in many of her works. The squash is special to her. In Japan, it’s rude to compare someone to a pumpkin. “It seems that pumpkins do not inspire much respect,” says Kusama. But the artist is fascinated with them.

Kusama includes both nets and dots in the painting, above. But she doesn’t create a flat image like she did in Nets. Instead, Kusama uses polka dots to create the illusion that the image is three-dimensional (having depth, width, and height). She plays with scale by making the dots different sizes. She does this so the pumpkin looks like it has curves, highlights, and shadows.

Yayoi Kusama, Life of the Pumpkin Recites, All About the Biggest Love for the People, 2019. Place Vendome, Paris, France. Photo credit: Pierre Suu/Getty Images.

How does this sculpture relate to the two paintings above?

Larger Than Life

Kusama revisits these motifs in a monumental sculpture installed in 2019 in Paris, France, above. Black polka dots cover the gigantic squash’s yellow surface, while the reverse appears on the stem. Kusama uses the dots’ scale strategically, with small ones receding into the crevices and large ones appearing in vertical lines on the outer ridges, as if stretched by the pumpkin’s round contours.

Consider Kusama’s statement that pumpkins are generous and unpretentious. Do you think she represents that idea in the sculpture above? Why or why not?

Kusama uses these motifs again in the monumental (larger than life) sculpture, above. She made it in 2019 in Paris, France. Polka dots cover the huge yellow surface. Again, Kusama works with scale by painting the dots different sizes. She paints small dots in the crevices and large dots on the outer ridges. It looks like the pumpkin’s curves stretch the dots.

Kusama believes pumpkins are for everyone. Do you think she expresses that idea in this sculpture? Why or why not?

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