Frantic Hallucinations at the Bass Museum: The intense world of Yayoi Kusama

Japanese-born artist Yayoi Kusama once described her art as “psychosomatic.” Indeed, her work–a selection of which is currently on display at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach–is a fanatically brilliant expression of visions that have haunted her since childhood. Kusama’s creations vary in medium but all share a common theme of obsession, repetition and accumulation.

Although it is moderate in size, the Bass exhibit shows a wide spectrum of Kusama’s work. Beginning with a collection of polka-dotted paintings, it then meanders past a sea of writhing white snake-like arms (that seem to intend upon enveloping the floor space), and ends in a room lined with giant statues of Venus “obliterated by infinity nets.”

A couch frame covered by hundreds of white phallic forms is what Kusama calls “aggregation-sculptures.” The phallus, a form that is used consistently by the artist, echos her obsession and attempt to master her fear of the penis. Behind the couch, adding to the intrigue and shock value, is a picture of Kusama, naked, lying on the couch.

In the center of the second room, surrounded by the multicolored Venus statues, sits a giant six-sided structure made of mirrors. As people walk around it, they can see themselves reflected with the Venus statues in the background. In this way, the observer experiences his or her self as being connected with, or part of, the art. The inside of the mirrored structure is also in the exhibit. There is a small rectangle cut into one side, just large enough to peer into as the eyes are overwhelmed and dazzled by a series lights, flashing Vegas-style in a repetitive pattern. The walls mirror each other and create the sense of infinity. Perhaps this visual experience is similar to what Kusama experiences in her “visions.”

Kusama is a master of self-promotion and has a knack for grabbing the attention of both the art world and the public at large. Tucked away in a corner is a small television playing one of her self-made videos from the 1960s, an example of such self-promotion tools. It documents some of her projects, which include what she refers to as “happenings,” which were public displays of nudity occurring in places like Central Park and the New York Stock Exchange. Sometimes the artist used naked bodies like canvases and covered them with polka dots; at other times, nudes were used to draw attention to Kusama’s political protests.

Producing an excellent sense of Kusama’s world, each piece is an articulation of her frantic, obsessive visions; each is an attempt to free her mind of the plaguing patterns and hallucinations by translating them into a tangible form. It’s amazing and intriguing. Go experience it for yourself.

Yayoi Kusama works are on display at the Bass Museum of Art, 2121 Park Ave., Miami Beach, until May 11. Call 305-673-7530 for more info.

Liz Johnson can be reached at