This exhibition focuses on flowers as a key subject within Kusama’s work and looks at the variations in the flora-inspired organic forms in relation to the aesthetics of symbolism and mysticism, which left a lasting impact on the artist’s vision during her early years.
One of the most decisive events in Kusama’s life was her migration to the US in 1957 at the age of 28, prompted by her encounter with Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). O’Keeffe is renowned for her series of flower paintings created between the mid-1920s and 1950s. Depicted in close-ups, O’Keeffe’s flowers reflect the artist’s intensive observation of the colors and forms of the mundane subject, with the resulting images appearing as symbolic and alluring visual metaphors. Besides O'Keeffe, Kusama also paid attention to artists of the Pacific Northwest School such as Mark Toby (1890-1976) and Morris Graves (1910-2001), whom she regarded as the important contemporary American artists.
These West Coast artists would sometimes appropriate Asian-style ink drawings and calligraphy when depicting plants and animals in a surreal and delicate manner. Although not widely known today, the Pacific Northwest School was back then introduced in Japan as the latest art movement of the West, along with Abstract Expressionism and the European Informel; in fact, Kusama held her first solo exhibition in the US in Seattle, as if to reflect such cultural exchange. Starting in the mid-1950s, Kusama’s work on paper was characterized by an organic form floating amid a dark background with a sense of weightless closure and an infinite depth of the pictorial space. Arranged through the subtle juxtapositions of the material’s textures and colors, such features imply Kusama’s association with the mystic expressions of the Pacific Northwest School and also anticipated the technique she went on to invent in the epoch-making “Net Painting” during the ensuing years.
Motifs drawn from flora and fauna continued to evolve in Kusama’s work following her return to Japan in 1973. Pumpkins and butterflies appear constantly in her figurative works, while her abstract images are mostly composed of repetitive patterns of varied organic forms. In particular, ‘Rose Garden’ (1998) presents fragile roses stemming from a cluster of protruding soft sculptures. It embodies a unique combination of the mystic nature of Kusama’s early works and the provocative avant-garde spirit of her 1960s performances and installations. ‘KUSAMA IN FLOWER GARDEN’ (1996) is another flower-themed work and is an extremely rare example of Kusama illustrating herself in the picture. The artist stands alone in a sea of frizzling flowers, while the countless yellow dots scattered in the black background create a poetic and dreamy landscape.