A look back at the legendary mirror installations and how they turned the Japanese artist out of a mental one Crisis point
Yayoi Kusama has become the best-selling artist in the world in recent years. In 2019, it was reported that her work represented 25 percent of the market of all auction sales of art by women. While she is undoubtedly a polymath and works in a number of different media – from pumpkins to polka dots – her signature shape is arguably the series of installations known as the Infinity Mirror Rooms. These works are an immersive experience of interiors lined with mirrors that create the illusion of endlessly recurring spaces. During the lockdown of the pandemic, The Broad Museum in Los Angeles even made one of their mirrored rooms, The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013), available online so that visitors from around the world can experience Kusama’s exploration of eternity.
However, their success is hard won. Although he had created the mirror room shape in 1965, another artist subsequently created his own mirrored installation and was recognized as the pioneer of the idea. This injustice may have sparked a crisis in Kusama’s life, but luckily mirrors would also play a role in her later recovery from this troubled time.
Take a look through the gallery above to revisit some of Kusama’s most famous artwork, while below we take a look at the secret history of the birth and evolution of their groundbreaking Infinity Mirror Rooms.
Courtesy of the artist
The origin of Kusama’s interest in the idea of mirrored space lies in her work as a child. Born in Matsumoto, Japan in 1929, she made thousands of small paintings in her early years, which she later developed into sculptures. Identified this as the beginning of her desire to create an infinite series of images, should the concept eventually come to fruition in her design of a mirrored room environment.
Kusama moved to America in 1957, arrived in New York in 1958, and held her first solo show in the city in 1959 at the Brata Gallery on East 10th Street. Over the next several years, the Japanese artist participated in a number of exhibitions in New York while developing her work.
It was the Castellane Gallery at 1078 Madison Avenue at 81st Street that later housed their very first mirrored room. Under the title “Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field (Floor Show)”, this solo exhibition in November 1965 consisted of a room lined with mirrors around a floor, which showed a large number of dotted, sewn objects in phallic form, the, in the mirrors reflected, created the illusion that these objects repeat themselves infinitely in the space around the viewer. Today iconic photographs of Kusama were taken by her in her installation, in a red jumpsuit that reflects her own self in her art as infinitely as the objects on the floor. “Phalli’s Field (Floor Show)” was followed by the next mirror room of her work “Peep Show” (or “Endless Love Show”), which was exhibited in the same gallery in March 1966.
Tate Presented by a private collector, New York 2019 © YAYOI KUSAMA Courtesy Ota Fine Arts and Arts Victoria Miro
That same year, however, another New York-based artist began to attract widespread attention with his mirrored installation artwork, dwarfing Kusama’s own groundbreaking work in the field. In 1966, Lucas Samaras’ “Room No. 2 ”(also known under the alternative title“ Mirrored Room ”) on public display at the Pace Gallery in NYC. Like Kusama’s work, Samaras’ room also used a mirrored interior space into which the viewer was allowed to enter, creating the impression of an infinite space within the installation.
Due to the high profile of the gallery, Samaras’ exhibition attracted more attention than Kusama’s previous exhibitions, and many people mistakenly assumed that he was responsible for creating this new shape. This incident became deeply depressed and was one of the factors contributing to Kasuma’s foiled suicide attempt around that time. The artist tried to kill herself by jumping out the window of her apartment, but she was saved from fatal injury when her fall was broken from a bicycle.
Kusama has turned to art all her life to help her through difficult times and it was art that helped her recover after this dramatic fall. When she took part in the 1966 Venice Biennale, she decided to start her own exhibition outside the official boundaries of the main exhibition. Like her rooms, the work she produced for Venice also included mirrored surfaces. Narcissus Garden consisted of 1,500 mirrored spheres, some of which she offered to sell to Biennale-goers for $ 2 each before festival authorities stepped in to prevent further sales.
© YAYOI KUSAMA, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York; Ota Visual arts
Kusama’s use of mirrored shapes in Venice helped her recover from the crisis following her struggle for recognition. Fittingly, it was Venice that later hosted Kusama’s return to the mirrored spatial form, this time in an official capacity as Japan’s representative at the 1993 Biennale.
Since then, Kusama has created more than 20 mirror rooms and is an increasingly important part of her artistic work. In recent years she has also spoken out publicly about what she and some critics see as the appropriation of her work by Samaras. During an interview conducted by Damien Hirst, he asked her what she thought was the difference between her work and Samaras’ mirror room. “Lucas Samaras always copies the work of other artists,” she replied. “His work lacks originality, I think. He inspired the Spiegelzimmer series from my work. Therefore my infinity room has nothing to do with his vision. “
Misunderstandings about the origin of the mirrored room concept still occur occasionally. While organizing a Kusama exhibition in Washington a few years ago, the curator Mika Yoshitake was contacted in advance by an unknown artist who said that Samaras was the first to create a mirror room. The anonymous person was stunned when Yoshitake corrected him by telling him that Kusama was indeed the pioneer of the form. However, most people are now aware that the creation of the mirror room environment was Kusama himself and has become the art form most commonly associated with the Japanese artist. It may have taken several decades, but now it’s getting the recognition it deserves.
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Room opens May 17th at Tate Modern