Lost early Yayoi Kusama works unearthed at The Smithsonian

Lost early Yayoi Kusama works unearthed at The Smithsonian
Autum by Yayoi Kusama; courtesy of The Smithsonian American Art Museum

We all lose things- socks, keys, letters, wallets. And as the people who run galleries are human too, they are just as susceptible to misplacing things of importance. And just as when you lose that sock and eventually forget about it, so too do correspondences and works get forgotten about after being lost in the shuffle. As time passes, these pieces of work that hide from the public eye become time capsules for a point of their creator’s life. Sometimes this just makes for a novel new layer on pre-existing work, early designs hinting at finished products we now know and love. But then there are cases where the works unearthed give us a radically different perspective on an artist’s work, such as these lost early Yayoi Kusama works discovered in the records of the Smithsonian.


These paintings were found together in an envelope amongst correspondence between Kusama and American artist Joseph Cornell, who had supported the Kusama’s work. Found in the Joseph Cornell Study Centre of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the purchase of the works dates back to August 22nd, 1964, when Kusama was in her early 30s. The pair had a passionate friendship upon her arrival in the New York art scene, and there is something very Kusama-esque in this exchange of work between two friends becoming a half-century secret.


But what is decidedly less indicative of Kusama’s flavour is the actual paintings themselves. The pieces, while still beautiful and pops of colour reaching out towards the eye, the major tones are sombre, deep, and weighty. There is something primal in the energy of it, the lines and strokes bearing some resemblance to primitive works. Most of the works exude a very introspective sense of dread, the brightness of each work surrounded by encroaching darkness, compressing the light. The crisp, clean, geometric spaces that Kusama is now known for are not even hinted at in the style of these works. These paintings- entitled Forlorn Spot, Autumn, Fire, and Deep Grief– truly feel like they could be from a different mind entirely, but that is also indicative of just how much she has changed throughout her artistic growth, and this surprise is undoubtedly just as novel a reflection for her as it is for her fans.


Deep Grief by Yayoi Kusama; courtesy of The Smithsonian American Art Museum


The Smithsonian’s discovery of these lost early Yayoi Kusama works brings a snapshot of an internationally beloved artist to the surface that is quite unfamiliar to the public. Not only are we seeing first-hand some specific pieces of Kusama’s mind that were almost lost to manilla envelopes and filing cabinets, but we’re seeing a portion of time to hold up the artist’s current work against. Yayoi Kusama’s work will always be appreciated, this much is obvious, but when the public is given an opportunity to appreciate even more deeply what an artist’s work means today- that is always a gift to the mind.