Pappajohn Sculpture Park gets a big addition
There’s something new growing at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park.
And unlike so many of the park’s current abstract residents, the rust-hued, bulbous new piece of art should be instantly recognizable.
It’s a giant pumpkin.
The aptly named “Pumpkin Large” by Yayoi Kusama, which is scheduled for installation Tuesday, will sit on the Grand Avenue side of the park in front of Kum & Go’s new headquarters.
Towering above the nearby art, the pumpkin will be about 8 feet from ground to stem, including a 3-foot pedestal.
Made from bronze and featuring a repetitive, recessed dot pattern across its surface, the vegetable’s soaring height is matched by its expansive girth.
The new piece is a “definitive work by one of the most important contemporary artists working today,” said Jeff Fleming, director of the Des Moines Art Center.
“Kusama has been working for decades and has been a part of many movements, but she has, since early in her career, established herself as an entirely unique artist. There is no one who does anything like her.”
Pumpkins are of particular importance to the 88-year-old Japanese artist, who has been working for 65 years. Growing up in prewar Japan, Kusama’s family owned a seed nursery and were sustained by gourds such as the pumpkin, Fleming said.
A recurring motif in the artist’s work, the pumpkin represents a “source of radiant energy to Kusama,” according to a Smithsonian description.
Kusama “has written, ‘Pumpkins bring about poetic peace in my mind. Pumpkins talk to me,’” the Smithsonian article reads. “Viewing the pumpkin as both humble and amusing, this whimsical vegetable comes to represent an alternative self-portrait of the artist.”
Kusama has been a favorite of John Pappajohn, the park's namesake, since early in his art collecting career. And because of the meaning pumpkins have to the artist, finding one for the sculpture park was imperative, he said.
“Because the pumpkin is Kusama’s favorite image, it took years for us to find this piece, which is so unique, and we are so lucky to get this,” Pappajohn said. “To my knowledge, a piece of this size and scale isn’t on display anywhere else in the world.”
A 2-year journey to Des Moines
The pumpkin took a circuitous route to its perch in the Sculpture Park. Conceived by a Japanese artist, the piece was made in London, flown to Chicago and driven to Iowa.
But before it could be forged in a London foundry, the piece had to be found, which was a two-year endeavor for the Pappajohns.
Unlike other investors, Pappajohn and his wife, Mary, take specific pride in choosing art for the park. They are on the lookout for new sculptures all the time but don’t regularly find items they both like and are available for purchase.
The park's selection process is set up so the Pappajohn family, the director of the Art Center and the City Council members all must be in agreement to add a new item to the outdoor collection, Pappajohn said.
So, no, he added with a laugh, your sculptor cousin cannot show in the park.
“Every month, it seems, we are looking for new pieces,” he said. “But the piece has to be special and it has to be world-class because the artists in the park are world-class.”
The Kusama work should fit in nicely with the contemporary masters already included in the park, said Melissa Chiu, director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
“She has a worldwide reputation, and that reputation will stand the test of time,” Chiu said. “The other thing that is very timely about her is that she has recently gained international acclaim and will fit in nicely with the other international artists in the park.”
Although most artists who have sculptures in the park are Americans or U.S. citizens born offshore, there is a growing number of foreign artists, including Yoshitomo Nara, whose white ghost sits at the corner of 15th and Grand, and Olafur Eliasson, whose panorama of rainbow mirrors is a favorite of many visitors.
“We have work by women and African-American artists and artists from lots of cultural backgrounds and a variety of ethnicities,” Fleming said. “And we try to have a diverse collection of formats, from realistic to figurative abstraction to abstraction.
"We truly want there to be something for everyone.”
Individuality and Instagram-ability
Although Kusama’s oeuvre is as worthy as many other artists’ from the mid- and late- 20th century, her work wasn’t seen as representative of a specific movement in art history enough to becoming defining of a time period, Chiu said.
But, now, that eccentric individuality seems to be attracting Millennials to her canon.
“She has always been part-performance, part-sculptor, part-painter; she didn’t fit into a category, and with our 21st century views, we are giving greater recognition to these kinds of artists,” Chiu said.
The Hirshhorn recently held an exhibition of Kusama’s works that broke all previous attendance records, Chiu said. And the visitors were decidedly young.
The themes of repetition and patterns that seem to go on into infinity “naturally appeal to a younger audience,” Chiu said, and, in the Hirshhorn exhibition, the sensory rooms and hands-on galleries connected to a youthful audience.
Asking some of the guests where they were finding out about the exhibitions, Chiu didn’t get traditional answers such as newspaper stories or art criticism.
“They kept saying they had seen it on social media,” Chiu said.
Or put simply: Kusama’s work is perfect for Instagram.
On Tuesday afternoon, stop by the Sculpture Park, pull out your phone and see for yourself.