Contemporary Art

5 Insights from an Early Work by Yayoi Kusama

By Sotheby's

Created in the years directly following the artist's move to New York, Untitled is one of a mere handful of the artist's 'egg carton' reliefs from the early 1960s, and articulates the raw drive and acute conceptual tension that Kusama experienced during that period. Embodying the elegiac beauty and disorienting spatial complexity that would define Kusama's work for years to come, Untitled offers an intimate glimpse of the conceptual and creative origins of one of the most iconic figures of contemporary art.  


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, Kusama¹s 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 one¹s eyes. I paint them in quantity; in doing so, I try to escape."


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." Despite her precarious existence, Kusama was deeply inspired by the urban energy of the city, and within her first months in New York, her painting underwent a dramatic transformation. She soon found the means of channeling her psychomatic obsessions into the remarkable Infinity Nets, and later the egg carton reliefs.  While her striking spatial abstractions earned her gallery shows and attention, Kusama¹s 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. 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. Untitled is a striking testament to Kusama¹s fierce dedication to her practice during the early 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. 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. 


'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 in 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 ³a result of Kusama's work, not a work itself."  

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's