Lots of Dots: Kusama, Baldessari, & Molly Hatch

For this class we focused on artists who use dots and circles in some form in their art. The artists we decided to focus on were Yayoi Kusama, John Baldessari, and Molly Hatch. This blog post will be about Yayoi Kusama but we will include the art activities for Baldessari and Hatch at the end as well!

Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Japan in 1929. She started experimenting with painting dots and nets at the age of 10, using all sorts of mediums such as watercolors, pastels, and oil paints. She loved to create art, but her parents discouraged her and her mother tore up her drawings insisting instead that she learn etiquette so she could get married. Kusama had a dream as a child that she was in a field of flowers and the flowers talked to her. The tops of the flowers looked like dots that went on forever, and she felt like in this huge field she was self-obliterating’ or disappearing into the infinity of it. This experience influenced her to make her infinity and self-obliteration rooms. She uses mirrors and colors to make the rooms feel like they go on forever, and when you see your reflection in them it feels for a moment like you go on forever with them. You can watch a video walking through some of her infinity rooms here.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room — The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013

She also made what was called an Obliteration Room at the Tate Modern in 2012 in which the museum-goers took part in the art making process by placing colored stickers on the surfaces of furniture, walls, and floors of the gallery. You can watch a video about with video of the making of it here.

Kusama’s interactive Obliteration Room

Kusama persuaded her parents to let her go to art school and then in 1958 she moved to New York to be around the artists who were making the art she wanted to make. While living in New York she made watercolors called infinity nets, she did performance art walking through the streets in her full Japanese national costume, and she painted dots on dancers to protest the Vietnam War. In the 1970’s she returned to Japan but was having hallucinations and panic attacks and decided to admit herself into the psychiatric ward, where she has remained for 40 years. She still makes art every day — in fact, her popularity has grown enormously in the last decade. Her infinity rooms which used to have only a few visitors a day now sell out and have to have a time limit for guests to walk through them. Her popularity now feels, in part, making up for how little interest her work got in the 1960’s compared to her contemporary white male counterparts. Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg both eclipsed her in fame, but also got many ideas from her work: the repetition of Warhol’s screen prints and the soft sculptures of Oldenburg. As a Japanese woman she wasn’t recognized in the way these men were but now the link between their work and hers and her groundbreaking work with minimalism and pop art has given her the respect she deserved as an artist all along.

“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.”

For our Kusama artwork we decided to make our own little obliteration room! We covered the walls of our paint room with a large piece of paper and used our fluorescent paints to get the full Kusama effect. We showed the kids some examples of her infinity and obliteration rooms and then just let them decorate the walls however they wanted as long as they were making dots.

We know you probably don’t have a paint room in your home so you can get a similar effect by getting large pieces of paper and decorating them with dots using paint or garage sale stickers and then hanging them in a pantry, closet, bathroom or any small enclosed room in your house so you can be completely surrounded by dots. Bathrooms come with the added bonus of a mirror so you can see your dots reflected into infinity!

John Baldessari is best known for artwork in which the subject is obscured. Specifically for this class we focused on the pieces in which he places dots over the faces of people in old black and white photographs.

Gavel, 1987
Stonehenge (With Two Persons) Yellow, 2005

We started by discussing why he might want to obscure the faces of the subjects in the photograph. What is your attention drawn to when you can’t see the faces? Can you still tell what is happening in the photograph? Do Baldessari’s color choices mean anything to you in your understanding of the mood of the person or the scene?

If you obliterate the face, then you begin to see the hands and the ribbon as full of meaning. Because no two ribbons, no town hands, no two ceremonies are the same.

We then held up large solid colored dots we had cut out of paper and acted out scenes, like charades, but with our faces covered. Was hard to tell what was happening? Are there more ways to interpret a scene when you can’t see the faces than when you can?

Baldessari’s art is deeply conceptual so starting small and with a game like this one children have a better vocabulary and are less daunted to try conceptual art, and discuss conceptual art, themselves.

For our art activity we placed the same sort of garage sale stickers you could use for Kusama over the faces of people in old photographs we had. In your own home you could scan and print your own photos, maybe old ones of family members or recent ones of yourselves and place stickers over you own faces.

Molly Hatch uses dots to break up her art into grid-like structures, abstracting the otherwise traditional paintings.

Hatch’s paintings are inspired by Dutch still-lifes from the 1600’s but instead of painting on canvas or paper she handmakes each ceramic plate and paints a small piece of the painting on each.

Token, 2018

For this activity we took full pages out of magazines, National Geographic work well because they often have full pages of a single photograph, and punched circles out of them in a grid pattern and then reassembled and glued the circles onto another paper (preferably white to match Hatch’s plates on the gallery wall). The image can still be seen even though it is abstracted — our brains almost automatically fill in what we think should be there. You could do the same thing with a painting or drawing you make yourself as well. We used a 2" circle punch like this one, but you could trace a quarter (or a cup if your picture is large) and then cut the circles out by hand.

Circles are a simple shape but there are so many ways to use them and to interpret their use! They obscure, abstract, and become infinities and are easy for children to replicate and make their own. We hope you have as much fun learning about these artist and making art like them as we did!

We are a 501c3 non-profit in Provo, Utah. Our goal is to make art accessible and inspire a lifelong love of art and creativity for children in our community.