Yayoi Kusama, A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe

Through June 30, 2024
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Details here

On the 15-acre downtown Sarasota campus of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is an engaging poetic crossover project between art and science.

Titled Yayoi Kusama, A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe, this crossover combines an exhibition exploring the art and relationship between Kusama and O’Keeffe with Selby Gardens’ scientific and horticultural response.

Exterior garden horticultural installation #9, Reflections on a Landscape

The project was announced in November 15 last year when Selby Gardens invited Patti Smith, singer songwriter poet, instigator of the ’70s New York punk scene, to kick off the announcement celebration with a concert.

November 15 is significant as it is the anniversary of Georgia O’Keeffe’s birthday – and significant as Smith once wrote a poem to O’Keeffe, who upon reading it, commented, “That’s about right.”

During her performance, Smith read a piece Georgia O’Keeffe wrote about flowers –

“A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower – the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower, lean forward to smell it, maybe touch it with your lips without even thinking, or give it to someone to please them. Still in a way, nobody sees a flower, really. It’s so small.

“And we haven’t time, and to really see it takes time, like to have a friend, that takes time.

“So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see, what the flower is to me. But I’ll paint it big, and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it. And I’ll make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see. A flower.”

Close-up of petunias used in Reflections on a Landscape. Petunias are one of the flowers O’Keeffe painted

The exhibition opened on February 10 and is installed in the ground floor galleries of the historic Payne Mansion, which became part of Selby Gardens’ multi-faceted complex in 1973.

To get there is a journey in itself – a mini pilgrimage – beginning right at the ticket entry point where a couple hundred cactuses in small pots are hung upside-down, like the sword of Damocles over where all visitors must past.

Exterior garden horticultural installation #1, Dot Matrix over the garden entry. On the right is the ticket booth

This aerial display of cactuses is the first in a series of ten horticultural arrangements winding through the whole of Selby Gardens, leading to the Payne Mansion.

Horticultural Installation #3, Tropical Conservatory located in the greenhouse

During a preview tour, David Berry, Vice President for Visitor Engagement and Chief Museum Curator described the process when I asked him how the various horticultural designs were developed.

“When we initially land on the theme of the show, we research into the work of the artists. What the horticulture team is interested in particular, is getting to the essential elements that define the works. We discuss as a group, bounce ideas around.

“The goal is to get beyond the literal and obvious – what are the structural elements that characterize the artists’ work, and using that as starting point for each horticultural display.”

Exterior garden horticultural installation #4, Mirage

“In this case looking at Kusama’s work there were some obvious things – the pumpkin, the polka dot, the emblem elements – getting to the root of it, what is she doing about pattern and repetition, about the circular spherical form.

“They looked at the idea of immersion, either walking into completely, surrounded by it, or looming over your head…”

Detail of Tropical Conservatory installation in the greenhouse

“So the team takes a starting point that is drawn from the works of the artists, that become the foundation – in a sense, a separate art form, which is horticulture.”

Perspective view of Reflections on a Landscape

A round pink plaque identifies each distinct arrangement, each with a QR code that visitors can scan with a cell phone camera that then links to a quote by Kusama or O’Keeffe, adding another dimension to the displays.


Result of scanning the QR codes on the round pink signs identifying each horticultural installation. Shown here is a screenshot from installation #4, Mirage.

For the upside-down cactuses, titled Dot Matrix, the QR links to this Kusama statement –

“I was under the spell of the polka dot nets. Bring on Picasso, bring on Matisse, bring on anybody! I would stand up to them all with a single polka dot.

“That was the way I saw it, and I had no ears to listen. I was betting everything on this and raising my revolutionary banner against all of history.”

Detail of Tropical Conservatory installation in the greenhouse. Note goldfish swimming up into one of the glass spheres

For those not familiar with the art of Kusama, the polka dot is a visual element that she adopted, leaned into, transformed – and it became her, communicating her thoughts and mental state, and evolved a whole mythology of the infinite, in what she calls Infinity Net.

From very early on, these dots runs through her works, sculptures, paintings, installations, books… all aspects of her creative output.

Installation view with Kusama’s iconic pumpkins on a Louis Vuitton bag

In the QR link from the 6th horticultural arrangement, Pops of Red

“The polka dot has the form of the sun, signifying masculine energy, the source of life. The polka dot has the form of the moon, symbolizing the feminine principle of reproduction and growth.

“Polka dots suggest multiplication to infinity. Our earth is only one polka dot among millions of others.”

Exterior garden horticultural installation #6, Pops of Red

And jumping ahead to the last gallery in Payne Mansion, the autobiographical Kusama drills down further “… In exploring these questions I want to examine the single dot that was my own life. One polka dot: single particle among billions.”

While she may not be the first or the only living artist painting the dot, this micro/macro view from a single dot – the thoughts and emotions, philosophy and meaning, the physicality she has imbued is singular, encompassing, and reaches beyond all other accumulated attempts.

Banner announcing the exhibition outside entry to the greenhouse

On the expanse of nature, here’s Georgia O’Keeffe in the ninth horticultural arrangement, Reflection on a Landscape, planted on the edge of Sarasota Bay – “Give my greetings to the sky and the mountains and the sun and the wind.”

The tenth arrangement, Moments of Levity is a field of smooth gray pebbles floating over the groundcover growing on both sides of the entry walkway to the Payne Mansion and Kusama’s accompanying quote –

“Nature never grows old, endlessly unfurling her infinite beauty through the seasons.”

Exterior garden horticultural installation #10, Moment of Levity

There’re four main spaces in the Payne Mansion galleries.

The windows on the entry façade are covered with overlapping dot patterns, casting a graphical light/shadow play into the first gallery where the exhibition title wall greets visitors.

Exterior façade of the gallery entry into the Payne Mansion, which the Marie Selby Foundation purchased in 1973 to be part of the Selby Botanical Gardens complex

On the right is a floor to ceiling didactic panel where Kusama begins the story of how she discovered Georgia O’Keeffe, and while looking at a book of O’Keeffe paintings, “… somehow felt that she was someone who could help me if I went to the United States… and right then and there, I decided to write her a letter.”

Entry didactic panel detailing how Yayoi Kusama discovered the art of Georgia O’Keeffe that inspired her to write to O’Keeffe

O’Keeffe at the time was living in New Mexico, an acclaimed artist with numerous exhibitions, including a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, distinguished as the first woman artist to have a retrospective there.

Installation view of Kusama’s letter to Georgia O’Keeffe; also including Georgia O’Keeffe in a group photo during her travel to Japan

Kusama meanwhile was a young artist living in Japan, following an artistic path her family did not approve. Somehow this art book with O’Keeffe’s paintings found its way to Kusama’s provincial corner of the world, moving her to write O’Keeffe for advice.

Detail of letter, and a New Year’s card with patterns of her early Infinity Net paintings she also sent to O’Keeffe

In the next gallery an enlarged facsimile of the letter visitors can read and the envelope that carried the letter to –

Mrs. Georgia O’Keeffe
Abiquiu, New Mexico

Abiquiu was the town where O’Keeffe lived. And the return address –

Miss Yayoi Kusama
704 – Nakajo, Matumoto City,
Nagano-ken, Japan


Here Kusama continues the story that not only did Georgia O’Keeffe reply to her “clumsy and reckless” letter – in 1961 when O’Keeffe was visiting New York, she came to Kusama’s studio to see how she was doing.

In another text panel, Kusama writes, “She was my first and greatest benefactor. It is because of her that I was able to go to the USA and begin my artistic career in earnest.”

Installation view with magazine covers, books, stamps and other artifacts illustrating the depth these two artists have influenced a much wider culture

Besides the letter that began this heroic saga, two circular glass vitrines in this gallery display objects, posters, books, magazine covers, fashion designs and even champagne bottle packaging, pointing to the success of both artists in the art world, and their influence in mainstream culture.

From here visitors enter what was the original front entry to the Payne Mansion, with archway and stairs to the second floor balcony. It now serves as a transitional gallery documenting the common interest and inspiration for both artists, and where this interest overlaps with Selby Gardens’ mission and expertise.

This space tells of encounters both artists had with the natural world from early age – O’Keeffe raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and Kusama’s childhood in her family’s plant nurseries.

View of the corridor gallery with microscope focused on plant cells for visitors to look. The window coverings show some of those plant cellular patterns that have inspired both Kusama and O’Keeffe

In here are vitrines with science models of plant cellular structures, and two microscopes focusing on plant samples that those models illustrate.

Over one of the microscopes is Georgia O’Keeffe’s text on flowers that Patti Smith read during her performance.

Over the other is quote from Kusama – “Deep in the mountains of Nagano… I had found my own unique method of expression: ink paintings featuring accumulations of tiny dots and pen drawings of endless and unbroken chains of graded cellular forms or peculiar structures that resembled magnified sections of plant stalks.”

Large fabric panels printed with this cellular patterns hang over the windows, backlit by sunlight.

Installation view of inner gallery with Kusama’s acrylic on canvas Infinity Dots on right, and O’Keeffe’s flower prints on left

This leads to the last gallery, a mesmerizing four-panel painting of thousands of yellow/green dots greets you. Titled Infinity Dots, this 1993 acrylic on canvas envelopes you.

To the left are a series of O’Keeffe flower prints from her 1939 portfolio. As Curator David Berry explains, it was through publications like this in a secondhand bookshop in Matsumoto that Kusama had her first exposure to O’Keeffe.

Close-up of O’Keeffe’s flower prints

On the wall opposite Infinity Dots are photographs by Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, photographer and O’Keeffe’s partner – and a Kusama’s art print titled Infinity Net.

So that’s the overview, but not the end, particularly for Selby Gardens’ horticultural team. Again, Curator David Berry –

“There’s an added element to the horticultural side which is the sustainability factor, because the show runs for nearly five months and it spans different seasons – so the goal is to keep it evergreen.

“The team has to think about what is robust enough, for what they can switch out to keep the experience consistent from opening day to the day we close. With ephemeral materials, with living things that are going to change and go through their own cycles, of seasonal cycles and patterns of life. They’re very mindful of what can be done, what can be sustained.”

Exterior garden horticultural installation #8, Enmeshed in Nature

And this living element deserves multiple visits, as O’Keeffe wrote about time with a flower and a friend – and Kusama’s Infinity Dot painting reveals depths and patterns the more one sees it, the longer the eyes lingers.

In the same evening of Patti Smith’s November 15 performance, Selby Gardens President & CEO Jennifer Rominiecki announced the inauguration of an Artist in Residency program, and that Smith will be its first artist.

Patti Smith performing with longtime band mate Tony Shanahan and Smith’s daughter Jesse on keyboards

In a conversation with Rominiecki, she noted that the idea of an artist residency organically evolved when Patti Smith participated in the Gardens’ 2022 exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry and Light.

A relationship naturally developed from there and Smith was interested when Rominiecki presented the idea of a residency to her.

Rominiecki continued, “… botanical gardens are unilaterally known for connecting people to nature, plants, green space… but how about a place where art can be created?”

An encore evening with Patti Smith honoring Georgia O’Keeffe and celebrating the opening of the Yayoi Kusama, A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition

“Patti was an artist who resonated with Selby Gardens because she is an interdisciplinary artist who self describes as an artist who merges disciplines, and that’s what we’re trying to do with our exhibition program is to merge disciplines.

“There’s the visual arts component – our team is creating a living art component with horticultural interpretation. And we always have performing arts programs throughout the run of the shows. And there’s food connected to our exhibits. So we really are striving for a multi-sensory experience that is very interdisciplinary.

“With this program we not only highlight major artists and their connection to nature, but also connect that back to our mission-driven work and our own botanical research collections.”

To conclude, here’s Kusama from her 2021 retrospective exhibition in the Gropius Bau in Berlin, Germany – A Bouquet of Love I Saw in the Universe.

“I have devoted my entire life to the challenge of art, painting and creating every day.

“My art, my beloved art, is my infinite love for the universe. Its magnificence is still burning.

“My art, the best of my art singing the beautiful love and splendor of humanity, which marks time until death and lives forever.

“I want you all to see it, to remember all of this moment, the mystery of the forms, the longing for the universe, to which I have given my whole heart.”

Addendum – besides the 15 acres at their Downtown Sarasota Campus, Selby Gardens also has a 30 acre Historic Spanish Point Campus about ten miles south on Sarasota Bay, where through August 31 a series of large-scale Clyde Butcher photographs are strategically installed along its meandering paths.

An alfresco exhibition!





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