Between Hallucination and Reality
Yayoi Kusama is arguably the most important Japanese female artist living today. When she moved to New York in June 1958, the artist was determined to rise to the forefront of New York’s art world. Around a year later, despite her outsider status as a Japanese woman, she had her first solo exhibition at Brata Gallery in New York, followed by numerous group shows alongside Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and George Segal. Today, the artist has surpassed her initial goal on all fronts, marking a notable influence on the rise of Pop Art and Minimalism, and achieving immeasurable success across the globe. Both Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets (R) from 1998 and Pumpkin from 2000 represent a crucial stage in Kusama’s dynamic oeuvre.
Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets (R) (Lot 815) belongs to one of thirteen works from the Venus series produced by the artist in 1998. In the work, the statue of Venus de Milo is seen fully immersed under Kusama’s famous Infinity Nets as if submerging itself into the identically patterned canvas in the background. While ten editions were first shown in “Yayoi Kusama Now” at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York the same year, the present lot is one of the three alternate editions and had been collected by Komagane Kogen Art Museum in Japan. The exemplary series brings together a number of notable elements from the artist’s psychedelic practice during mid 1960’s to the present. The pairing of red and black colour in this edition especially highlights one of Kusama’s most popular colour palettes.
On another spectrum, the painting Pumpkin (Lot 814) salutes to one of the most ubiquitous and iconic motifs in Kusama’s works: the bulbous pumpkin. While the pumpkin’s first appearance can be dated back to as early as the artist’s nihonga practice at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts, it later reappeared in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the already matured organic polka dot form as seen in this piece. The polka dot pattern suggesting proliferating growth and vegetation, can be regarded to closely compliment the repetitive style characterized in the Infinity Nets. The yellow and black colour in this work are also frequently seen in the many cross-medium works from Kusama’s artistic practice. Pumpkin from 2000 is no doubt one of the most fundamental works that successfully feature Kusama’s obsessive interest in representing the un-canniness and strangeness of nature.
The endless Infinity Nets associated with these two works is one of the most important and distinctive visual codes within contemporary art discourse. It is also a main motif the artist would revisit throughout her later career. As she once declared, “painting, which is powerful enough to wrap up the whole universe, not to mention the earth, is Kusama’s Infinity Nets. I will probably continue to paint this endless wed, which I have worked on for the past 40 years. Yayoi Kusama is unchangeable.”1 Its initial appearance can be traced back to an early series of watercolor works entitled Pacific Ocean from 1959. Created with a simple movement of the wrist, the organic pattern was a meditative channel for the artist to transcend the plague of ongoing hallucinations to the real world. The repetitive stream of minute painted arcs, first caught the eyes of then art critic Donald Judd, who wrote in his 1959 essay, “the effect [of Kusama's Infinity Nets] is both complex and simple. Essentially it is produced by the interaction of the two close somewhat parallel planes… at points merging at the surface plane and at others diverging slightly but powerfully.”2 Reaffirming Judd’s view, the overall reception to the early Infinity Nets paintings along with the soft sculptural Accumulation series was positive. While some critics have praised Kusama’s bold ambition to overturn the popular Abstract Expressionism ideal at the time, others have later associated the repetitive and monotonous aesthetics of her works to giving rise to Andy Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper and Minimalism.
As she further developed the Infinity Nets, the repetitive scheme can be seen in the form of mirrored installation, soft sculptures, and notorious performance works, endlessly covering ready-made objects and performers under a “net” of notable symbols such as: phalluses, macaroni, and polka dots. This series of extension can clearly be seen in both Pumpkin and the Venus series. Kusama has coined this process ‘obliteration’, which is further seen in the title of Venus series. She once explained on its origin, “artists do not usually express their own psychological complexes directly, but I use my complexes and fears as subjects. I am terrified by just the thought of something long and ugly like a phallus entering me, and that is why I make so many of them. The thought of continually eating something like macaroni, spat out by machinery, fills me with fear and revulsion, so I make macaroni sculptures. I make them and make them and then keep on making them, until I bury myself in the process. I call this ‘obliteration’.”3 In an interview with Damien Hirst during the exhibition at Robert Miller Gallery, Kusama also elaborated on the first time she experienced the effect of self-obliteration, “when I was a child, one day I was walking the field, then all of a sudden, the sky became bright over the mountains, and I saw clearly the very image I was about to paint appear in the sky. I also saw violets which I was painting multiply to cover the doors, windows and even my body. It was then I learned the idea of self-obliteration. I immediately transferred the idea onto a canvas. It was hallucination only the mentally ill can experience.”4
The obliterated figure of Venus de Milo in a way also resembles the image of Kusama in her pioneering self-obliterating collages and happenings from the 1960’s. Riding the wave from the burgeoning hippie culture, Kusama began to explore and stage live public performances across New York City. Most of them involved the artist painting groups of dancing young and nude performers under a visual spell of polka dots. Around the same time she also began photographing herself wearing polka dots outfits and standing with her works, an act that at once surrendered herself to her art. In the Venus series, the permanent and self-manifesting power of the Infinity Nets and polka dots can be considered to finally conquest Greek’s timeless icon of love, where the residual image of obliterated performers and the selfobliterated Kusama forever remains.
1 Yayoi Kusama Recent Oil Paintings, Ota Fine Art, 1998
2 James Romaine, Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Nets: Sublime or Spectacle?, Cardus, 2009
3 Yayoi Kusama, Tate Modern, 2012
4 Yayoi Kusama: Now, Robert Miller Gallery, 1998