The Self-Obliteration of Kusama’s Polka Dots

December 07, 2023

Livia Caligor is an NYC-based writer and photographer who works in media operations. She graduated from Cornell University in 2021 with a B.S. in Fashion Management, a concentration in Communications, and a minor in English. She’s worked in marketing, wholesale, and operations at brands including Lafayette 148, Elie Saab, Alexander Wang, and Marchesa; through these international experiences, she developed a keen understanding of the supply chain and issues of sustainability and social responsibility – with bylines in Architectural Digest, teenVogue, and the Folklore, she seeks to use writing to facilitate industry change and make design a more equitable space. Livia is passionate about deconstructing the social stigmas around mental health; she is especially interested in how socio-economic and racial privilege, beauty standards, and industry cultures inform and shape mental health. As a new member of the BTWFoundation, she seeks to address barriers to treatment, especially for kids without the means. In her free time, she loves reading, boxing, photography, and drawing and is an avid member of the little monster community!

Follow her Instagram @livia.caligor and her photography page @puddlesbylivia

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“One polka dot: a single particle among billions,” Yayoi Kusama reflects on her signature motif. “I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life. One polka dot: a single particle among billions.” Like the Infinity Room, polka dots are a distinct staple of the artist’s work. From meticulously painted pastel polka dots reverberating across a canvas to a psychedelic dotted pumpkin floating on the island pier of Naoshima, polka dots are pervasive throughout Kusama’s career in almost all her installations and works. But like infinity nets and rooms, they evoke the artist’s lasting battle with mental illness and the reprieve she finds only through her work. 

Kusama’s exploration of polka dots began as a child, when she would spend many of her waking hours staring at the seemingly infinite number of white pebbles by the riverbed near her home. The repetition of shape and form became a coping mechanism as she began to suffer from hallucinations – the repetition of the dots helped Kusama achieve what she calls “selfobliteration,” a method of detaching from her anxieties. She created acrylic on canvas pieces in color palettes ranging from pastels and fluorescents to primary colors juxtaposed against a stark black canvas. This style of painting continued throughout her career, even up until today. For instance, her solo exhibit “I Spend Every Day Embracing Flowers” at the David Zwirner Gallery this past summer featured a wide range of textures, patterns, and memories conveyed through layers of polka dots.

Like the infinity nets – which translated threedimensionally into infinity rooms –, her polka dots also took on threedimensional media and intersectional art forms. Mirrored reflective polka dots and acrylic panels became a primary tactic Kusama used to construct her infinity rooms. 

One of her earlier sculpture installations, “Narcissus Garden” (1966), similarly marries form and reflection in a similar way. Instead of two-dimensional mirrored circles, three-dimensional stainless steel spheres engage viewers and prompt selfreflection. The installation now lives at the Crystal Bridges Museum, where it floats on a pond in the sculpture garden and constantly travels in different directions. 

“Narcissus Garden” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (1996) /Photo courtesy of@puddlesbylivia

Kusama’s sculpture installations – the most widely-recognized being pumpkins and flowers – are also clad in polka dots. Her signature yellow pumpkin on the pier of the Benesse Art Site in Naoshima has also inspired numerous recent works, such as her bronze installation “Aspiring to Pumpkin’s Love, the Love in My Heart” (2023) at the David Zwirner and “Dancing Pumpkin” from Kusama’s solo exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, “Kusama: Cosmic Nature.” (2020)

Kusama also incorporated her signature polka dots into the surface design of her flower sculptures, another motif inspired by her profound connection to nature. One of Kusama’s most pervasive art forms, these flower sculptures are all over the world to this day, from “I Want to Fly the Universe” (2020) and “I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers” (2023) to the ongoing series “Flowers that Bloom Now.” (2009 – today)

Additionally, Kusama integrated painted polka dots into her political statements and interactive works; for instance, in the late 1960s, as Kusama became a leading – and one of the only female – voice in the pop-art scene in New York, she participated in and orchestrated anti-tax and anti-Vietnam war protests with models and actors clad in her polka dots. 

(“Phalli’s Field Infinity Room” in 1965. Photo courtesy of Tate Modern)

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