2 March 2018




Yayoi Kusama, Butterfly, 1985. Photo courtesy of Kesang Nanglu.
Recently, the AGO revealed a selection of new acquisitions and two among them are prints from artist of the moment, Yayoi Kusama.

The prints provide visitors with a teaser for her upcoming blockbuster exhibition, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors opening this spring -- for which the first round of tickets sold out last month. If you're not familiar with Kusama and her work, you may be curious as to why there's been such a demand for tickets to the AGO's show, and why it seems like everyone and their grandmother is in the loop.

The AGO is the only stop in Canada for the travelling exhibition; it first showed at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington DC, where it experienced unprecedented viewer demand. 88 year-old artist Yayoi Kusama has had a prolific career after all, and her popularity continues to rise.

It's incredible to see how popular Kusama has become in recent years, which speaks to the timelessness of her work (as well as its suitability for selfie-taking), but it's perhaps even more impressive to remember that as a young woman, she was making waves in 60s New York City -- a post-war America with lingering anti-Japanese sentiment, and a thoroughly male-exclusive art scene.

Yayoi Kusama, Town, 1999. Photo courtesy of Kesang Nanglu.
Born to a conservative Japanese family, her mother's disapproval of her interest in art making led her to New York City where she established herself as a major figure in the avant-garde art scene. She's probably most famous for her sculptures and installations, but has also worked in painting, performance, poetry, and more.

In trying to discuss the artistic practice of such a complex artist who has been actively producing work since the 1950s, it's tempting (and easy) to simplify her story. A quick google search will come up with numerous articles that noticeably highlight the same aspects of Kusama's personal life in relation to her work.

These include anecdotes about her proximity to other famous artists of her time -- in particular her tumultuous friendship with Andy Warhol (who she accused of stealing her ideas), her fear of sex and  intense platonic relationship with Joseph Cornell, and her lifelong struggle with mental health, which eventually led her to voluntarily admit herself into a mental institution where she current resides today.

There is a tendency to sensationalize the personal lives of artists, particularly famous ones such as Kusama. What is troubling is how these narratives reinforce tropes, like the 'tortured artist' who suffers, but creates beauty and poetry from that suffering (see: Van Gogh, Munch, Schiele). Besides trivializing and even fetishizing mental illness, the stereotype can diminish or discourage other interpretations of an artist and their body of work.

Interestingly however, Kusama herself frames her work within this narrative, writing in her 2012 autobiography, “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art”. Rather than fall victim to the trope as-defined by critics and spectators, she makes the state of her mental health an open conversation, and uses her work as therapy, or as she calls it, "art-medicine".

So if you aren't able to score tickets for Infinity Mirrors, check out "Butterfly" and "Town" on the AGO's second floor (as well as Narcissus Garden, which is viewable with general admission). While admittedly less Instagram-able, the prints are beautiful examples of the diversity of her artistic breadth, and in them, you'll be able to identify Kusama's iconic use of repeated patterns and shapes: her lifelong obsession, and enduring remedy.

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