New York: A Love Story
When Kusama Yayoi first arrived in New York City in June 1958, she recalls climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and looking down at the latticed city below in complete awe. At 29 years old, the young artist realized that in order to succeed in the city she would have to do something spectacular: “I aspired to grab everything that went on in the city and become a star” (the artist quoted in an interview with Akira Tatehata, Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 11). Shortly after, Kusama began work on what would become her most rarefied and renowned series of Infinity Net canvases—a prized body of paintings that remain Kusama’s paramount achievement—and staged her New York debut in October 1959 by organizing her first solo exhibition at Brata Gallery. In the next decade and a half that Kusama remained in New York City, the artist produced an astonishing body of work that was unprecedented in its visual and emotive power, intensely personal yet universally resonant in its bold rupturing of prevalent paradigms, and remarkably prescient in its anticipation of subsequent artistic developments in both the United States and Europe. The divinely elegant, exquisitely rendered infinity net Untitled was created in 1972—the final year of Kusama’s love affair with New York City before her return to Japan in 1973—thus representing a grand, technically outstanding, emotionally complex and almost wistful summation of the artist’s epoch-defining New York era. A rare work from the artist’s final New York years, in which Kusama’s artistic production was scarce, due to her preoccupation with public performances, the current work previously belonged in the eminent collection of Beatrice Perry—one of the first gallerists to support Kusama during her early years in America and who forged a lifelong friendship with the artist.
In terms of aesthetics alone, the present lot is exceptional on many levels, imbuing it with extraordinary personal and historical significance. First, whilst exhibiting overarching cherry blossom hues, Untitled is composed of a highly complex palette comprising deep blue, white, varying layers of pink as well as yellow maize—rendering it possibly the very first multi-coloured infinity net on canvas to appear in Kusama’s oeuvre, as her previous nets in the 1960s exhibited only dual colours. Second, the predominant colour of pink, coupled with the softly lyrical aesthetic of the piece, is significant in that it is the only significant New York period net that harkens back to the artist’s early formative years in Japan—during which her works were distinctly more literary. When the artist first arrived in New York, she brought with her a collection of drawings, gouaches and ink drawings that consisted largely of still lifes, flowers, portraits, polka dots and patterns that hinted at her academic training in Japanese Nihonga paintings whilst also being reminiscent of French Tachisme and European modernism. Such works were significantly different in style and subject to the austerely abstract nets in the beginning of her New York period. Indeed, the artist has said, concerning the abrupt shift in style and aesthetic: “I could not survive in New York otherwise. You cannot live there with a lyrical frame of mind” (the artist cited in Laura Hoptman, Akira Tatehata, Udo Kultermann, Yayoi Kusama, Phaidon Press, 2000, p. 25).
As Tatehata Akira observes, after Kusama returned to Japan, “the fantastic and lyrical aspect of [Kusama’s] work that characterized the pre-New York works re-emerged” (Ibid.). In this sense, the current lot, created at the very end of Kusama’s New York period just before the artist’s return to Japan, is not only a graceful curtain call to the artist’s explosive and epochal 1960s decade, but also an incredible foreshadowing of her ensuing 1970s Japan era—a work that straddles the aesthetics and artistic mind-sets of the first two significant decades of the artist’s legendary career. Thirdly, and most remarkably, woven into the net—hovering slightly off-centre—seems to be a vague abstract impression of the figure of a little girl. Elusive, ambiguous yet impossible to ignore, the abstract impression seems to anticipate the later figurative works that Kusama became preoccupied with after returning to Japan. Furthermore, for viewers, the abstract figure may also allude to the artist's profound and unshakeable loneliness. For all the fame and recognition the artist gained during her one and a half decades in New York, and for all the public attention she garnered for her highly publicized performances, live events and radical Happenings, Kusama was never able to rid herself of intense feelings of isolation and lonesomeness. The artist once said, categorically: “In New York […] every day was a struggle with the outside world. It’s hell for a woman to live alone there” (Ibid., p. 26).
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, in terms of Kusama’s life story, the present lot coincides with a year of intense personal loss. 1972 marked the year of the death of fellow artist Joseph Cornell—a relationship that Kusama describes as her closest, most passionate (albeit platonic) relationship. During their relationship, Kusama spent days at Cornell’s home in Queens, and the two artists sketched each other. When Kusama returned to Japan in 1973, she brought with her boxes of magazine cuttings and other collage materials that Cornell had given her (Rachel Taylor, “Kusama’s Relationship with Joseph Cornell”, Tate Blogs, 22 May 2012). Indeed, viewers may observe the coinciding of the pink hues of the present lot with that of a portrait of Kusama by Cornell dated 1965, in which a female figure hovers amidst a gentle pink background. At once pensive and electric, meditative yet intensely alluring, the present lot thus arouses manifold symbolic meanings: a form of mourning and an expression of love for the American artist; a sublime bridging point between the artist’s New York and Japan periods; and an elegant and graceful ode to the transcendent power of healing via art that is so central to Kusama’s everlasting, extraordinary oeuvre.