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Going deeper: Yayoi Kusama

March 26th, 2018

Mika Yoshitake stands in front of paintings and sculptures by Yayoi Kusama.

Image by the AGO.

From her incredible Infinity Mirror Rooms to the spectacular installation Narcissus Garden to her powerful paintings, Yayoi Kusama’s work continues to inspire and amaze us. But how much do we know about the artist herself? In part two of our interview with Mika Yoshitake, the exhibition’s curator, she shares exciting details about the artist and her craft.

AGO: Having met the artist and seen her studio, can you tell us a little about how she works?
Mika: Kusama is both methodical and intuitive. She comes to her studio at 9 am every day and works straight for about three to four hours, has lunch and then goes back to work for the rest of the afternoon until about 6 pm with an occasional break. She is someone who has an incredible amount of concentration. Working long stretches is cathartic for her. She doesn’t work from sketches but paints directly onto her canvases, allowing her motifs, patterns and colours to generate intuitively.

AGO: What word best summarizes Kusama’s work?
Mika: Obsession

AGO: Despite decades of amazing and groundbreaking work, Kusama was largely ignored until the 1980s. What was it that brought her work to the forefront?
Mika: Her first retrospective in New York was in 1989. It was curated by Alexandra Munroe, and relied heavily on archival research. That moment brought her to the attention of powerful gallerists in New York. In 1999, MoMA organized a major show that focused on Kusama’s New York years. One of her first fully darkened Infinity Mirror Rooms, Fireflies on the Water (2001) acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art, was a sensation. She then began having numerous retrospectives around the world, the Tate Modern (2012) being the most notable. This was around the time her work was beginning to be captured on Instagram, which contributed to an explosion in popularity beyond art world audiences.

AGO: It’s an exciting moment in Toronto when we get to see work by two contemporary Japanese artists – Yoko Ono [currently featured in an exhibition at the Gardiner Museum] and Yayoi Kusama. Both spent formative years in New York and became international art stars, largely through the creation of participatory installations. Should we draw similarities between them and their work? 
Mika: Both artists left Japan in the early postwar period and spent a formative period in New York during the 1960s. In this sense, their work comes out of a similar social context that fostered radically liberal perspectives, but the nature of their work is strikingly different. Yoko Ono is a conceptual artist and her instruction pieces require audience participation to complete the work and individual contemplation. Kusama is a much more visual artist with prolific production that centres on iconic motifs she has developed over her lifetime.

AGO: If you had to spend infinity in one of the Infinity Mirror Rooms, which would you choose? 
Mika: Infinity is an impossible concept. I love them all in different ways, but if I had to choose, it would be Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity.

Last month, Mika spoke to a sold-out crowd in Baillie Court about the artist and her work. In case you missed it, we got the whole thing on tape.

Watch her talk below for more insight.

(For optimal viewing, use the Chrome internet browser.)

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