In the 1950s, a young Yayoi Kusama, disgruntled with life in ‘feudalistic Japan’ as she called it, dreamt of breaking free from her family and moving to New York to become an artist—a big dream for a small girl from Matsumoto.
While grappling with her reality in Japan, Kusama came across a book of paintings that—unknown to her—would set the ball rolling and lead to her artistic career. In the book, she saw a painting that particularly stood out to her. And, in a moment of reckless abandon, she wrote a letter to the artist professing her admiration for her work. The artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, not only responded to her but, in Kusama’s own words, ‘gave her the courage to take the leap of fate and move to New York’. Even after Yayoi took the plunge and moved to the States, the two kept up their correspondence, with O’Keeffe acting as her mentor and often providing the emotional support that the young, lonely, and neurosis-stricken Yayoi needed at the time to keep her spirits up.
Now, as a 91-year-old and widely accomplished artist Kusama gears up for yet another exhibition of her installation at the Tate, Georgia O’Keeffe writes to her, picking up the broken thread of their correspondence, and yet again providing confidence and support, and reflecting upon the times.
Dear Yayoi Kusama,
I remember once when someone asked you what your biggest fear was, you said it was solitude. That struck me as odd because you always seemed to thrive in it, as do I. And this year hasn’t given us much choice but to make peace with it. But I won’t lie, sometimes it can get to me too. Do you remember I told you about my house here in New Mexico, and the pictures I sent? I do love it. And like I said back then, you’re welcome to join me here whenever you find yourselves overwhelmed by the bustle of New York.
It’s been a strange year, this one. I can’t say it’s really affected my days here—I live now, as I always did (it’s a good thing animals aren’t carriers because they’re my closest confidants here), but I do miss my friends in the city. It's a shame I couldn’t make my yearly trip to New York. Oddly, I also miss the occasional curious visitors who would come wandering my way, especially at this time of the year. The weather is perfect for tourists and backpackers but, of course, we haven’t had any of those this year.
I still remember when I received your first letter all those years ago. I must confess it was the Japanese return address that caught my intrigue and made me open that mangled envelope from a stranger. I remember how scared and unsure of yourself you were back then. But through the words of distress peppered with adulation, I could sense your resilience. You were determined to fight the cards that fate had handed you and make your own destiny.
“Will you kindly show me the way?”, you asked. But it is this resilience that made you leave your old life in Japan and move to a strange city—merciless New York at that—to become an artist, and it is this reliance that made you create your own path leading up to where you are now.
I am overjoyed to hear about your year-long exhibition at Tate Britain. I look forward to the travel bans lifting so I may travel to London to see it in person.
As for advice on coping with the times, I will tell you what I wrote to Frida just last week. Embrace the situation and its discomforts, dear friend, like I know you have every other curveball that life has thrown you, but don’t let the anxieties of the times get to you. Empty your mind of the ‘what ifs’ and ‘whens’ and worries of the blurry future. Don’t be afraid to speak to yourself and, more importantly, to listen to yourself. The inspiration for art comes from the world around us, however empty it may look, so don’t shy away from it. For slits in nothingness are not easy to paint, but sometimes you need to be standing knee-deep in it to find the colours that can.
Has spending time away from people, and too much time with yourself, been getting to you as well? Perhaps Georgia’s words or the unabashed certainty and ease she felt in her own company might motivate you to lift your spirits. And if months of isolation has led to a drastic depletion in inspiration, perhaps a look at the lives of these artists that thrived in isolation will give you a refuel. I hope her inspiring words reach her long time mentor Yayoi, and maybe we might get a response soon!
The art world is full of such friendships and camaraderies. Read here about the famous friendships between artists.