State of the Art


With colorful flowers and polka dots, these museums are bright spots during the dreary days of winter

Takashi Murakami captured in front of his colorful art, photo by RK.

Chances are, your Instagram feed has already alerted you to the fact that exhibitions by Japanese artists Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama are currently happening at two major museums in San Francisco. They mark the first solo presentations in Northern California by both.

At the Asian Art Museum, Takashi Murakami: Unfamiliar People—Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego closes February 12. The 75-plus works on view aren’t all about monsters, though, as Murakami’s happy flowers occupy the galleries, too. According to curator Laura W. Allen, the Unfamiliar People series originated during the pandemic, as Murakami realized its impact on his relationships with others. “People were becoming unfamiliar,” Allen elaborated. “People were walking around with masks on, but also people were appearing on social media…spouting views that were quite surprising, even disturbing.”

The stunning 82-foot-long Judgement Day— which Allen described as “brand new, right out of the studio”—draws on ukiyo-e, a Japanese style of woodblock print and painting that dates back to the 17th century. Another new piece, Lidded Jar with Design of a Lotus Pond, is inspired by a Ming dynasty porcelain jar (1522–1566) in the museum’s collection. While in town for the show’s opening, Murakami shared that the works depicting fish swimming were three decades in the making. When he was 29, he visited a ceramics museum in Osaka, where Chinese blue-and-white porcelain jars were on display. “I had always wanted to create a painting based on that,” he said. “These fish paintings are particularly something that I have deep feelings about because they took a long time for me to complete.”

Yayoi Kusama; courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, Ota Fine Arts, and Victoria Miro; © YAYOI KUSAMA; photo: Yusuke Miyazaki.

A mile away, at the SFMOMA, Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Love runs through September 7. Tanya Zimbardo, the museum’s assistant curator of media arts, observed that “the San Francisco Bay Area is recognized as the epicenter for experimental media, with a rich legacy of artists working with light in particular.” The exhibition features two immersive Infinity Mirror Rooms that, Zimbardo added, “give our audiences a direct firsthand experience of Kusama’s luminous installations with their illusion of boundless space.”

Yayoi Kusama, LOVE IS CALLING, 2013, installed in the exhibition Yayoi Kusama: I Who Have Arrived In Heaven, David Zwirner, New York, 2013 © YAYOI KUSAMA. Courtesy the artist, Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner.

Infinite Love also includes Kusama’s large-scale sculpture, Aspiring to Pumpkin’s Love, the Love in My Heart, situated one floor below the Infinity Mirror Rooms’ Dreaming of Earth’s Sphericity, I Would Offer My Love and Love Is Calling. The latter features a recording of Kusama reciting a love poem in Japanese. A recurring motif in the SFMOMA show is Kusama’s well-known dots, the significance of which the 94-year-old artist has previously explained: “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.”

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