Simultaneously enchanting and uncanny in their hallucinogenic repetition of multi-dimensional patterns, the egg-carton reliefs of the early 1960s showcase Kusama’s unique ability to translate private compulsions into mesmerizing abstract visions. Diagnosed with an obsessional neurosis, Kusama’s serial use of repeated patterns is an expression of the psychotropic visions of infinitely proliferating forms that haunted her from a young age; in replicating the boundless fields of her visions within the confines of her canvas, Kusama finds relief from her ungovernable compulsion. Remarking upon the therapeutic quality of her practice, Kusama notes, “You attempt to flee from psychic obsession by choosing to paint the very vision of fear, from which one would ordinarily avert one’s eyes. I paint them in quantity; in doing so, I try to escape.” (Laura Hoptman, Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 14) Arranged side-by-side across the canvas, the egg-crates of Untitled are a physical manifestation of this obsessive repetition, their cardboard shape forming a serial grid relief with rows of raised, convex forms. Between the serial protrusions of the egg-cartons, Kusama has sewn skeins of discarded upholstery stuffing, obscuring the cardboard ground of the work and intensifying the textural surface of the relief. In the center of the raised mounds, bold marks of saturated pigment further articulate the depth and tactility of the repeated forms. In these inky splatters, which evoke the traditional Nihonga practice of the artist’s youth, Kusama’s presence within her creation is emphatically expressed. Rhythmically repeating across the sculptural surface of the canvas, the projecting and receding forms of the egg carton mimic the expanding fields of color and pattern that the artist sees; as such, Untitled is a highly personalized expression of Kusama’s desire to “lend specificity to the infinity of space.” (Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London, 2013, p. 23)
Created in 1962, Untitled is a poignant evocation of the intense passion, tremendous hardship, and remarkable creative output that defined the decade in which Kusama lived and worked in New York City. When the artist first arrived in New York in June of 1958, knowing no one and speaking little English, she discovered that, “New York was in every way a fierce and violent place.” (Ibid. p. 17) Despite her precarious existence, Kusama was deeply inspired by the urban motion and energy of the city, remarking, “In the bustle of a competitive and hectic New York, at the bottom of light and shadow of a contemporary civilization that moves forward with creaking noises, in the midst of this metropolis which symbolizes American pragmatism, I keep painting uninteresting paintings. This is a form of my resistance…This infinitely repeatable rhythm and monochrome surface constitute a new painting, through an unusual ‘light’…I have long wanted to release this 'unknowable something' from me, release it from the muddy lake of emotion into the spiritual yonder of eternity.” (Yayoi Kusama quoted in: “Onna Hitori Kokusai Gadan O Yuku” (A Lone Woman Goes In The International Art World), Geijutsu Shincho, May 1961, pp. 127-128) Within her first months in New York, Kusama’s painting underwent a dramatic transformation, and she soon found the means of channeling her psychosomatic obsessions into the remarkable Infinity Nets. While her striking spatial abstractions earned her gallery shows and attention, Kusama’s early critical success did not translate to financial success. In 1962, driven by an overwhelming pressure to articulate her compulsive repetitions, but forced to shift her focus from expensive oil paint to new media, Kusama began to experiment with free-of-cost materials; in their repetitive form and ready availability, commercial egg cartons were an attractive medium. Her diaries from these years reveal a single-minded focus upon gathering the materials and means to continue her practice: “March 1962: 1st: Telephone fabric shop; 5th/10th: Get egg cartons; 9th: Borrow a sewing machine; 13th: Go to Immigration 23rd: Mother telephones; get egg cartons.” (Excerpted from Yayoi Kusama’s calendar-diaries, 1961-64, n.p.) Unable even to purchase a new canvas upon which to fix the egg-cartons, the verso of the present work reveals the spectral pattern of an earlier painting by Kusama. A dual-sided, multimedia exploration of self-perpetuating spatial infinities, Untitled is a striking testament to Kusama’s fierce dedication to her practice during the inaugural, challenging years of her career.
Although central to the New York art discourse of the 1960s, Kusama did not affiliate herself with any single artistic movement, moving instead between the various groups of her contemporaries without any discernible allegiance or affiliation. While she cultivated close friendships with artists such as Donald Judd and Frank Stella, both of whom sought her artistic guidance and purchased her early work, she did not consider herself a minimalist; instead, as Judd remarked in his exultant review of her first exhibition: “Yayoi Kusama is an original painter. The expression transcends the question of whether it is Oriental or American. Although it is something of both, certainly of such Americans as Rothko, Still and Newman, it is not at all a synthesis and is thoroughly independent.” (Donald Judd, “Reviews and Previews: New Names This Month—Yayoi Kusama,” Artnews 58, No. 6, October 1959) Indeed, Kusama’s unique blend of painterly expression and repetitive form, which largely predates similar practices in New York, forged a conceptual conduit between the disparate aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Like fellow trailblazers Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois, Kusama emphatically dismissed any attempts to categorize her work within a single movement, pursuing instead a highly personalized and internally motivated artistic practice.
A spectacular union of diverse materials, Untitled evokes the disparate conceptual and formal attributes of Kusama’s practice as both painter and sculptor. In their mesmerizing repetition of three-dimensional forms, the reliefs represent a new articulation of recurring themes within Kusama’s practice: repetition, aggregation, and accumulation. Unlike the intricately rendered uniformity of the Infinity Nets, however, the matted stuffing and dimpled cardboard of the egg-carton reliefs suggest an organic fragility and insistent imperfection. Remarking upon the power of the found-material works, Laura Hoptman comments, “Although they might conform to the literal definition of serial repetition, they are not so in spirit. The key element—the thrum of sameness that delivers the pleasure of a repeated pattern and the chilling Unheimlich possibility of an endless march of perfect simulacra, is missing…the grid is deliberately ruptured, our pleasure interrupted by the artist who reminds us of her fallible, human presence.” (Laura Hoptman, Yayoi Kusama, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 44) In further contrast to the smooth, meditative surface of the Infinity Nets, Untitled boldly asserts a physical presence with materials that suggest a tactile experience as much as a visual one. In their inventive hybridization of sculptural relief and painterly pictorial data, the egg-carton works evoke Robert Rauschenberg’s “combine-paintings” of the 1960s. Within Kusama’s own oeuvre, the multidimensionality of Untitled aligns the work with Kusama’s Accumulations, the iconic sculptural series created contemporaneously with the egg-carton works. Composed of everyday objects covered in fields of small, stuffed phallic protuberances, the Accumulations constitute a further, gender-specific embodiment of Kusama’s compulsion to fill space with a multitude of similarly patterned forms. The concurrent launch of these two series, the soft sculpture and egg-carton reliefs, holds intriguing psychosexual significance; in contrast to the phallic suggestion of the Accumulations, the egg cartons evoke feminine fertility, constituting a conceptual binary of male/female between the two series. A highly personalized expression of Kusama’s artistic identity, the egg-carton reliefs unite the spatial infinities of her paintings with the dramatic physical presence of her sculptures in a unique synthesis of the her innovative, multimedia practice.
In its tactile, labor-intensive surface, Untitled provides a powerful foil to the machine-manufactured sculptures of Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt. It was this quality of Kusama’s sculptures that, in 1966, prompted critic Lucy R. Lippard to name Kusama’s output as a clear rebuff of Minimalism and an important precursor to the richly emotive and sensual sculptures of Eva Hesse. Enacting a similar corruption of Minimalist structure, Hesse’s varied materials, like Kusama’s wads of upholstery stuffing, set up a polarity between hard and soft, conformity and disarray, uniformity and individuality. Indeed, Hesse’s artist statement for her first and only one-person show in New York at Fischbach Gallery in 1968 evokes Kusama’s own obsession with the “unknowable something” behind her work: “I would like the work to be non-work. This means that it would find its way beyond my preconceptions...It is the unknown quantity from which and where I want to go. As a thing, an object, it accedes to its non-logical self. It is something, it is nothing.” (Eva Hesse in Exh. Cat., New York, Fischbach Gallery, Eva Hesse: Chain Polymers, 1968, n.p.)
Widely considered to be Japan's greatest living artist, Kusama has continued to explore the boundlessness of spatial abstraction through a seemingly endless series of paintings, sculptures, environments, happenings and films. Despite this variety of media and form, Kusama’s practice is centered upon the same, single impulse that solidified her work of the 1960s: to express the complex interior of her own psyche. Uniting the graphic and physical force of the artist’s two most celebrated forms, Untitled is a powerful expression of Kusama’s commitment to her unique process and creative output. Offering the viewer an intimate glimpse into the early, brilliant, complex mind of Yayoi Kusama, Untitled evokes the famous words of Donald Judd come to mind: to view a painting by Kusama is to view “a result of Kusama’s work, not a work itself.” (Donald Judd, “In the Galleries,” Arts 38, no. 10, September 1964, p. 68)
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