Pumpkins have been a persistent motif in the works of Yayoi Kusama. This fruit, along with Kusama’s signature polka dots and infinity nets, have become synonymous with the artist herself. Pumpkins appear in Kusama’s work as early as 1948, when the young artist was only 19 and a student of traditional Japanese painting styles and techniques. Born in 1929, Kusama came of age during World War II. While other parts of Japan were subject to food shortages, Kusama’s village of Matsumoto was protected from famine. Her family operated a wholesale business with a storehouse full of pumpkins that sustained the family and the village. After working in New York for 15 years, Kusama returned to Japan in 1973, where she began creating paintings that paid tribute to her hometown. It was at this time that she started making her pumpkin ‘portraits’-- paintings of colorful, speckled pumpkins adrift over her infinity net background. Just as her polka dots repeat, she has created endless iterations of these pumpkin portraits, in scales ranging from small objets d’arte to the human-sized pumpkin patch she presented at the 1993 Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. Despite this deliberate repetition, the pumpkins that Kusama crafts are never identical. Like the fruits themselves, Kusama’s paintings each take on their own distinct shape, demonstrating the artist’s meticulous attention to detail and introspective nature.
Pumpkin was executed in one of Kusama’s signature color combinations—black and yellow. The heavy contrast of these colors casts a glow upon the entire work, as if the bright yellow is illuminating a dark, shadowy space. The canvas pulsates with the intensity of the artist’s focus as she placed dot upon dot in carefully controlled rows. The largest dots run down the center of the fruit and grow smaller as they reach the creases of the nodes. The pattern repeats and repeats, hearkening to the artist’s use of mirrors in her installations. By doing this, she creates the appearance of depth without having to use more than two colors. This technique can be likened to the Ben-Day dots of Pop Art, a movement that was taking off when Kusama herself moved to New York in 1958. A webbed net painted in yellow forms the background behind the pumpkin, connecting to the artist’s series of Infinity Nets, which together with the painted polka dots, form the foundation of the Kusama painterly language since the 1960s.
For some, the image of a pumpkin may appear trivial or juvenile, and Kusama has often been questioned about this choice of subject matter. The artist herself admitted, “…it seems that pumpkins do not inspire much respect. But I was enchanted by their charming and winsome form. What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s general unpretentiousness. That and its solid spiritual balance.” Despite the commonplace nature of the object, Kusama devotes the same care and attention to this form that she does to any other work, elevating the status of this fruit to one worthy of contemplation.
When she created her enormous infinity net paintings, Kusama would sit before the canvas for days, repeating the same shape over and over again. This working method is a kind of meditation, with Kusama completely immersing herself in the creation of her art. In her autobiography, Kusama writes of how painting the pumpkin provided a healing remedy that quieted her mind: “I would confront the spirit of the pumpkin, forgetting everything else and concentrating my mind entirely on the form before me… I spent as much as a month facing a single pumpkin”. With her pumpkin portraits, she demonstrates that the same spiritual transcendence achieved by creating her Infinity Nets can be achieved by depicting figurative subjects. In this way, Pumpkin represents a kind of communion, as well as transcendence for the artist, resonating and radiating with the spiritual charge the artist feels emanating from her subject matter. It is this artistic method of thoughtful meditation and repetitive execution that has made Yayoi Kusama one of the most celebrated and prolific artists of the 20th century.