Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Pairs Georgia O’Keeffe And Yayoi Kusama In New Exhibition

Arts & Celebrities

As fan mail goes, this was an all-timer.

In a letter dated November 15, 1955, a young Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) wrote from Japan to Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) in New Mexico. Kusama was seeking career advice. Unsolicited. O’Keeffe had long established herself as a legend, Kusama remained decades away from doing the same.

Kusama would send O’Keeffe two letters and some watercolor paintings.

“I’m only on the first step on the long and difficult life of being a painter,” Kusama wrote. “Will you kindly show me the way?”

Extraordinarily, O’Keeffe replied to Kusama’s message in a bottle, intrigued by the Japan return address.

In a beautifully handwritten response that still exists in the Kusama archive addressed December 4, 1955, O’Keeffe advises Kusama to the difficulties of art world success and says that if she’s serious about pursuing that path, she must move to New York.

The young artist was stupefied.

In her autobiography, “Infinity Net,” Kusama wrote, “I was mad to think she might ever reply… Astoundingly, though, Georgia O’Keeffe wrote back to me. I couldn’t believe my luck! She had been kind enough to respond to the sudden outburst of a lowly Japanese girl she’d never met or heard of before. And this was only the first of many encouraging letters she was to send me.”

The two kept up a sparse correspondence. Kusama shared in a 2019 interview with the Tate art museum in London that O’Keeffe regularly invited Kusama to visit her in New Mexico; she always declined.

“I was, and still am, astounded by such kind consideration for someone she had never even met,” Kusama said.

They would meet once, in 1961. Kusama received a call in her mid-town New York apartment out of the blue from O’Keeffe saying she was only 10 minutes away and dropping by. She did.

Kusama’s camera happened to be out of film, unfortunately, no photo exists.

Kusama’s first letter to O’Keeffe serves as inspiration for an exhibition at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, FL, “Yayoi Kusama: A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe,” which debuted February 11 and runs through June 30, 2024.

‘First and Greatest Benefactor’

Kusama first encountered O’Keeffe’s work through an illustration in a book she found in a secondhand bookshop in her hometown of Matsumoto in the years following World War II.

“O’Keeffe’s work immediately resonated with Kusama, who asked a friend about the artist,” Jennifer Rominiecki, president and CEO of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, told “The friend’s response was that O’Keeffe was then the most famous painter in the USA. Kusama saw in O’Keeffe a more established female artist who had found success in America, where Kusama felt she needed to be to develop her artistic practice to its fullest potential.”

O’Keeffe’s return letter didn’t as much inform as reinforce what Kusama already expected about a fine art career.

“By the time Kusama wrote her initial letter to O’Keeffe, she was already determined to move to America, which is where she felt she needed to be to produce the kind of work that would establish her career,” Rominiecki explained. “However, the support Kusama received from O’Keeffe clearly contributed to the confidence she needed to take this important next step. Kusama would later describe O’Keeffe as her ‘first and greatest benefactor.’”

O’Keeffe’s archive is full of letters. She wrote frequently in the days when doing so was commonplace. Still, those communiqués were exchanged with friends and professional acquaintances. Not unknown fans or aspiring artists.

“It is likely that O’Keeffe replied to Kusama’s letter because she sympathized with a young female artist determined to succeed in a male-dominated field,” Rominiecki said. “It is also probable that O’Keeffe was motivated, at least in part, by a love of Japanese art and culture. Kusama has noted that O’Keeffe’s depictions of flowers suggest the influence of Nihonga, or Japanese-style painting, to which she was introduced through the teachings of artist and arts educator Arthur Wesley Dow.”

Furthermore, O’Keeffe’s dramatic personal wardrobe included kimonos and she had an interest in bonsai. She visited Japan in 1959 when doing so was incredibly uncommon, a trip inspiring future works including a painting of Mt. Fuji.

Selby Gardens Big Year

“Yayoi Kusama: A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe” is the eighth edition of Marie Selby Gardens’ annual Jean & Alfred Goldstein Exhibition examining the work of major artists through the lens of their connection to nature. Previous editions have centered on Roy Lichtenstein and Claude Monet and Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

The Gardens explore the unexpected yet profoundly impactful mentoring relationship between the pair through artworks from both and landscape designs across the property inspired by them. A dynamic and exciting interpretation of the two iconic artists reveals itself in a way not previously seen.

2024 has already been a historic year for Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. On January 11, the 15-acre downtown campus celebrated the grand opening of phase one of its three-phase Master Plan. Included is a new parking structure, a garden-to-plate restaurant, a new gift shop and welcome center, vertical gardens, and a nearly 50,000 square-foot solar array which makes it the world’s first net-positive energy botanical garden complex.

The project adds 188,030-square-feet of new research facilities and amenities. A major stormwater management system has been installed to divert and clean millions of gallons of water each year before returning it to Sarasota Bay. A publicly accessible multiuse recreational trail enables multimodal transportation to the campus and the bayfront; off-site roadway improvements make access to the Gardens easier and safer.

New garden and water features provide more open space including a Lily Pond Garden, Glades Garden, and the restoration of historic Palm Avenue as a pedestrian-only promenade.

Thinking about O’Keeffe and Kusama, their correspondence and shared interest in plants examined so frequently in their artwork, it’s fun imaging them strolling the grounds at Selby Gardens, taking in the surroundings and the legacies they’ve left and inspired.


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