Yayoi Kusama / When I wanted to commit suicide, my doctor encouraged me to paint more
Yayoi Kusama: when I wanted to commit suicide, my doctor encouraged me to paint more
Ahead of a major new show, the pioneering Japanese artist reflects on her life, work and moving to New York
A young Yayoi Kusama posing with early 'Infinity Net' paintings in her New York studio in 1961
By Yayoi Kusama
7:00AM BST 23 Oct 2014
When I moved to America in 1957 I went to Seattle, but my dream was to have a solo show in New York. I arrived there in 1958, and compared to Seattle it was hell. I was all alone – very strange for a young Japanese girl. I spent all my time on my work and burned through the dollars I had. I lived in poverty, often painting furiously to survive cold and hunger.
My studio was in lower Manhattan, in the loft of an office building. Many of the windows were broken, my bed was an old door I found on the street, and there was no heating after 6pm. In winter I was unable to sleep – I would get out of bed and make more and more intense work.
One day Georgia O’Keeffe, who I got to know after sending her a letter from Tokyo, came to see how I was during a visit to New York. She introduced me to an art dealer, who bought one of my paintings. Immediately I spent the money on materials. On a jet-black surface I painted thousands of white arcs, creating the first Infinity Net. The works I am in front of in the above photo are early Infinity Net paintings. This concept that I invented became prominent in my work.
New York was saturated with the possibility of success, but the reality was hard. Though the art scene was still dominated by abstract expressionism, my work and that of my peers moved beyond this. Donald Judd was an early friend; we were both struggling in the city. He came to my first exhibition, where I showed the Infinity Net paintings, and wrote a beautiful review of my work.
I wanted to be an artist from an early age; I couldn’t help sketching the things around me. My family was of a high social standing and had managed seed nurseries for more than a century, and I would take my sketchbook to seeding grounds and draw what I found. Pumpkins have always inspired me.
Fear of Death, 2008
Growing up in Japan was very conservative, and escaping was my dream for a long time. As a child I suffered from hallucinations, and making art helped ease the shock. Painting saved my life: when I wanted to commit suicide, my doctor encouraged me to paint more. I fight pain, anxiety and fear every day, and art is the only method I have found to relieve my illness. My greatest achievement has been establishing Kusama art, and I am blessed that so many people have found a connection to my work.
Interview by Georgia Dehn
Yayoi Kusama’s new bronze pumpkin sculptures are on display at Victoria Miro gallery, London N1, until December 19