Yayoi Kusama’s painterly output is vast, propelled by a compulsive relationship with the activity of painting itself. Painting is very much at the core of Kusama’s practice, with her work in other media invariably bearing the hallmarks of the medium. She paints daily, and this selection of paintings on canvas is drawn from a body of 100 works she produced as a challenge to herself over an 18-month period in 2009 and 2010 — a staggering production rate, even before the artist’s age and the intricacies of the pieces are taken into account.
After a monochromatic ground is prepared, the canvases are laid flat on a workbench with the artist painting around them from the sides, rather than in a position directly in front of an upright surface. Their composition is improvised in the process of execution, as is their combination of figurative and abstract forms, while the only direction that seems to matter is a general movement between the edges and the centre. Certain motifs are repeated within individual works, while others appear randomly, their repetition detectable only over the series. As with their constituent elements, the meaning and visual vibrancy of the paintings is compounded through accumulation.
Their palette is restrained, but striking: executed in two, three and, very occasionally, four or five flat hues, they are usually composed of bold and high-contrast colours. Exhibited together, they produce a buzzing visual field as various abstract forms, childlike images and sophisticated compositional devices mingle within and across the frames of works. There is something of a diaristic quality to them as the accumulation of labour over time — months of intricate work and emotional energy is displayed all at once.
Kusama is not unfamiliar with challenges of production. After graduating from art school, she produced work at an astonishing rate, experimenting with a wide range of materials, techniques and motifs. Her exhibitions in Japan in the 1950s typically featured works numbering in the hundreds, and when she left for the United States in 1957, she was able to destroy several thousand works. In New York, this work ethic translated into the vast scale and intricacy of her net paintings, and she was known to paint for 50 to 60 hours at a time, a habit resulting in her hospitalisation from exhaustion on more than one occasion.
As with many artists, Kusama feels compelled to make art. Her obsessive approach to art-making is often explained in terms of her illness, and it has been suggested that her illness actually enables her to take pains that many would find difficult to handle. She recently stated:
As a result of trying to create too many paintings during the never-ending days of my life, I began suffering from a psychosomatic disorder. I have continued working in this state for several decades . . . With my inexhaustible energies, I create paintings and sculptures every day from morning until night. All I think about is creating artworks, rather than getting old.