Arcs of Infinity
In front of paint brushes and canvas, my hands react to them and make my work before I think of anything. Then, when the piece is completed, I look at it, and am surprised by the result—always. -- Kusama Yayoi
Dated from 1960, the exquisitely electric Net-No.2 Yellow (Lot 1039) is the first large yellow net from Kusama Yayoi’s early period infinity nets to appear at auction. Standing at almost a metre tall, the piece is a masterpiece of blazing radiance, exhibiting endless repetitions of minute solid yellow arcs dabbed dexterously over black—a palette rarely seen in the market for Kusama’s early period nets, which mostly employed white and red. Bright yellow would in later years become one of the artist’s most signature and representative colours, as seen in her omnipresent pumpkins, rendering the current lot an important forerunner in Kusama’s legendary oeuvre. The vast net pulsates with infinite rhythmic ripples and dynamic undulations, featuring an endless writhing mass of elegant scalloped arcs punctuated by occasional swirls of thick impasto that add beguiling textural depth. A rare specimen hailing from Kusama’s most celebrated series from the most coveted era of her career, Net-No.2 Yellow is exemplary of Kusama’s iconic brand of abstraction that first established her indomitable position in the Western art world.
Kusama exhibited her first Infinity Net paintings in New York in 1959. Employing the minimal repeated gesture of a single touch of the brush, Kusama’s revolutionary paintings responded critically to the emotionally and semiotically charged brushstrokes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Albeit a relative novice to oil painting at the time, Kusama was able to at once firmly grasp and radically redefine the medium in bold defiance of gestural abstraction, meting out the ecstatic masculine gesture into dainty increments and forging a sophisticated feminine aesthetics of obsession and repetition. Replacing the expressive gesture with an exhaustive one, Kusama’s meticulous and labor-intensive methods literally pushed painting to its limits. The New York art scene was fascinated, with critics describing her work in oceanic terms: "huge" in scale and composed of "innumerable small arcs", like waves.1
"This was my epic, summing up all I was", Kusama once remarked. "And the spell of the dots and the mesh enfolded me in a magical curtain of mysterious, invisible power".2 Diagnosed with an obsessional neurosis, Kusama used her art to "self-obliterate" hallucinatory visions through the process of compulsive reproduction of dots and arcs. Her art was that of epic excess, exuding an infinitely self-perpetuating momentum that engulfs and overwhelms even as it entrances and enthralls. In a conversation with Gordon Brown in 1964 the artist declared: "My nets grew beyond myself and beyond the canvases I was covering with them. They began to cover the walls, the ceiling, and finally the whole universe. I was always standing at the centre of the obsession, over the passionate accretion and repetition inside of me".3 Compulsively painting, often for days at a time, Kusama’s high-intensity process is integral to the meaning of her celebrated Nets series: each loop and each arc is indexical to her very being.
Kusama is often heralded as a harbinger of Minimalism and, in their youth, artists such as Donald Judd and Frank Stella turned towards her for aesthetic guidance. Her influence has also been keenly felt throughout much of Europe and in 1960, Kusama, together with Mark Rothko, was one of only two American-based artists to be included, alongside Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni, in a seminal exhibition of Monochrome paintings at the Städtisches Museum in Leverkusen in Germany. Although central to New York's post-Abstract Expressionist art discourse of the 1960s, Kusama did not affiliate herself to any art movement. She was, and remains, a resilient nonconformist, one who refused to be labelled and confined to any established movement or ideology and who ultimately forged a career of truly universal, cosmic proportions.
1 Mignon Nixon, "Infinity Politics", in Kusama Yayoi, Tate Publishing, London, 2012, p. 179
2 Kusama Yayoi, Infinity Net, London, 2011, p. 23
3 Kusama Yayoi in conversation with Gordon Brown in 1964 in Laura Hoptman, Yayoi Kusama, London 2000, p. 103