Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity, the first children’s book in English on Kusama authorized by the artist and her studio, features a sumptuous array of illustrations by Ellen Weinstein. It tells a complex story about independence and finding one’s own style in a straightforward, easily understandable narrative written by MoMA curator Sarah Suzuki. MoMA Publications’ Marketing and Production Manager Hannah Kim explains the genesis of the museum’s children book program, the only such line published by an art museum in the United States, to Hyperallergic: “It’s an idea that grew from ongoing conversations with colleagues in the Education department, spearheaded by our former Associate Publisher Charles Kim. Rather than focusing on an artist’s biography, our books try to explore the artist’s particular approach to art … to expand children’s perspectives on art and its role in our lives. ”
Much of the success of Infinity stems from its masterful illustrations, which are inspired by Kusama’s style but don’t parrot it. Weinstein works in the language of visual repetition from the first page, using the stones beneath a temple in the Japanese city of Kusama’s birth to introduce the idea of small, repetitive pieces comprising a visual whole. Suzuki’s narrative explains that while Kusama’s parents and art teachers wanted her to follow a traditional path in life and in art, she was drawn to representing the world around her on the granular level. Suzuki writes, “She looked closely at the pebbles that lined the riverbed and at the leaves and stalks of plants, and she drew them as chains of tiny cells that looked like dots.” Something as simple as the close observation of nature is radical in this context.
As the book continues, seriality appears in the form of raindrops, cars in New York City, and finally, seven eye-candy reproductions of original Kusama works, including the textured chair of stuffed appendages Accumulation No. 1 (1962) and an Infinity Room. In addition to its unique mod coolness, there is a spirituality to Kusama’s work that explains its enduring popularity. Suzuki gets it: “She was devoted to her dots — for her they were a way of thinking about the world among the stars, as one dot among millions of others. They were a way of thinking about infinity.” Suzuki told Hyperallergic: “Working on the Kusama book really made me think deeply about … how to tell a story for viewers (and readers) of all different ages and backgrounds. And that was definitely a challenge.”
As an adult reader, I experience good children’s books about art as a reminder to simply enjoy it and stop thinking in art-speak — a challenge if you work in the field.
Another MoMA children’s publication, Sonia Delaunay: A Life of Color, written by MoMA Curator Cara Manes, with illustrations by Fatinha Ramos, explains the principles of Orphism in a way that’s accessible to children and takes an artist whose work is often overshadowed by that of her husband and moves it to the forefront of a notable abstract movement. I appreciate both on behalf of the youngsters, but the fantastical story of an artist mother using a flying car to jet around Europe to explain how colors can represent movement and sound reminded me that abstraction can be pure pleasure.
We all know that art museums can feel austere, and that outside of education programs for children, a visit to the museum from a kid’s perspective runs the risk of seeming primarily about the observance of rules — don’t touch! Of course art and artists are neither institutional nor entombed in a web of regulations; explaining this might be essential to a child developing an interest in art. Following on the success of MoMA’s program, whose titles have won several awards and been published or licensed in more than 65 editions in eleven languages in the past four years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently announced a partnership with Abrams to produce a line of children’s books, launching in 2018. Here’s to more stories for children about artists and more fun for their adults, whose appreciation of art might be pleasantly reinvigorated!