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SFMOMA’s Yayoi Kusama Exhibition Will Cost You $10 a Minute. Is It Worth It?

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People in a mirrored room with red, blue, green and yellow circles reflected all around
An interior view of Yayoi Kusama's 'Dreaming of Earth’s Sphericity, I Would Offer My Love,' 2023, installed at David Zwirner. (© Yayoi Kusama; Courtesy the artist, Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner)

If the idea of spending $40 to access an art exhibition for four minutes gives you pause, just remember: that pause will cost you over 16 cents every second.

Beginning Oct. 5, the general public will be able to book first-come, first-served tickets to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Yayoi Kusama show, Infinite Love, with a $10 surcharge on regular ticket prices (starting Oct. 14, that’s $30 for adults, $23 for the 19–24 set).

You might know the 94-year-old Japanese artist’s work from social media, where her name alone has over one million tags attached to Instagram reels and posts of her art: whimsical pumpkin sculptures, magical infinity rooms and objects covered with the iconic dots that “are symbols of the world, the cosmos,” according to the artist.

White room with a large white cube at center, dotted by colorful circular windows
Yayoi Kusama, ‘Dreaming of Earth’s Sphericity, I Would Offer My Love,’ 2023, installed at David Zwirner in 2023. (© Yayoi Kusama; Courtesy the artist, Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner)

In an age when many people want to flout their experience of art by uploading it to their profile — which projects like the Color Factory and the Museum of Ice Cream are more than happy to oblige — Infinite Love’s arrival at SFMOMA has obvious appeal. But for as viral and critically acclaimed as her work is, this particular staging is disappointingly lackluster.

The SFMOMA show — two mirrored rooms that visitors are allowed to be in for just two minutes each — invokes infinity, a motif the artist is well known for. The first, Dreaming of Earth’s Sphericity, I Would Offer My Love, features boundless reflections of vibrant circles and half circles. The room is indeed breathtaking, as colorful and trippy as the tesseract scene in Interstellar. The quiet stillness of the expanse that surrounds viewers is the high point of the experience, but it’s not long before you’re shuttled out by a very punctual museum attendant.

Mirrored room filled with inflated colorful tentacle shapes covered in black polka dots
Yayoi Kusama, ‘LOVE IS CALLING,’ 2013, installed at David Zwirner. (© Yayoi Kusama; Courtesy the artist, Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner)

The second room, LOVE IS CALLING, is mirrored like the first but riddled with Ursula-esque tentacles instead of large-scale polka dots. A recording of Kusama reading her poem “Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears” plays on a loop in Japanese. The verses are thoughtful reflections on death, love and art, but they’re sweeping to the point of being pleasantly forgettable.

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I viewed the exhibition on Monday evening, when the museum invited upper level members to a preview of Infinite Love. Among the crowd was a child in $950 Valentino flats that matched her mother’s hot pink pumps, and a woman showing off a handbag she’d just bought in Paris. All of which felt on brand with Kusama’s, well, brand. Her works have gone for record-breaking millions at auction, and just this year Louis Vuitton relaunched their long-standing collaboration with Kusama, which includes polka dot bags that retail for $8,800.

(It’s no surprise that the SFMOMA store now sells ceramic Kusama pumpkins for $325.)

Older woman in bright red bob wig and red jacket, sits surrounded by colorful canvases
A portrait of Yayoi Kusama surrounded by her artwork. (Yusuke Miyazaki)

Kusama’s marketability — though inextricably linked to the beauty of her work — can become tiresome. The proliferation of objects and images glosses over deeper critiques of her long and complicated practice. She has, for instance, an alarming history of dehumanizing Black people in her work: in her 1984 novel Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street, and more recently, in her 2002 autobiography, Infinity Net. As Dexter Thomas has written for Hyperallergic, “a collective decision seems to have been made that in order to maximize profits, not only must Kusama’s occasional racist utterances be scrubbed, but also a more palatable artist needs to be ‘invented’ in her place.”

While the SFMOMA show positions Kusama as an artist nearing the end of her life sending out a “message of love,” the lack of any additional materials, coupled with the price of admission, leaves behind a hollow feeling.

A floor beneath Infinite Love, a fantastical pumpkin patch, Aspiring to Pumpkin’s Love, the Love in My Heart, is evidence of Kusama’s lifelong fascination with the form and spirit of the gourd. The conjoined bronze pumpkins, on view to those with regular-priced tickets, are curved in such a way so as to make the perfect photo backdrop. Up since Sept. 15, this installation already has a well-established etiquette in place: phones out, visitors queue for pics.

Sculpture of five conjoined pumpkin shapes painted yellow with black dots
Yayoi Kusama, ‘Aspiring to Pumpkin’s Love, the Love in My Heart,’ 2023, installed at David Zwirner. (© Yayoi Kusama; Courtesy the artist, Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner)

As in the mirrored rooms above, it’s up to the viewer to decide whether or not depth is an illusion here. The added price of admission to Kusama’s infinity rooms is no mirage, though. And if an extra $10 feels a little too real, there’s plenty of ways to view this one vicariously.

Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Love’ is on view through Sept. 27, 2024 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. While timed reservations are recommended, some tickets will be made available the day of. The museum has created an FAQ for the exhibition. ‘Aspiring to Pumpkin’s Love, the Love in My Heart’ is on view through August 2025.

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