o coincide with the largest retrospective of Yayoi Kusama’s work in Asia to date, held at M+, Sotheby’s Hong Kong is offering several classic pieces by the revered Japanese artist in its Contemporary Art Spring Sales. This microcosm of her artistic career, spanning her early struggles in New York and her years of quiet self-cultivation in Japan in the 2000s, includes a rare work on paper from 1955, and pieces from her Infinity Nets and Pumpkin series. Through this selection of artworks, we will take you on a journey through Yayoi Kusama’s amazing achievements.
The year before, Kusama held her first solo exhibition at the First Community Centre in Matsumoto, Japan, showing her paintings in the traditional Japanese style. At the age of just 24, she was accepted to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, though she turned down the opportunity. Kusama’s early works often featured flowers, still lifes, and landscapes, but in contrast to others in her generation, she never precisely captured a form. Instead, her work always had a surrealist aspect. “D” Flower shows early hints of her fascination with polka dots and nets.
Of Kusama’s early work, the poet Akira Tatehata wrote: "Her paintings are built on a solid foundation, and the chaotic coexistence between expressive functionality and organic proliferation in the image reflect a contradictory obsession that has continued to drive Kusama’s work.” Using A Gill as an example, he concluded: “Like Kusama’s other paintings from that era, A Gill embodies the mystical and poetic qualities of abstract painting. Through abstraction, she offers a metaphor for this breathing organ.”
A Gill is an important early work by Kusama with an impressive international exhibition history, including major retrospectives at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Tokyo, 1999), the Centre Pompidou (Paris, 2011), and the Tate Modern (London, 2012). The significance of this work lies in its rarity; Kusama destroyed many of her early works in 1956 before she left Japan for the United States. However, she borrowed two mixed media works from her friend Shuzo Takiguchi to show at her impending solo presentation at Zoe Dusanne Gallery in Seattle, her first in the United States. In the end, A Gill was the only one of the two to be exhibited. This work has been passed down through Takiguchi’s family.
Important Moments in Chaotic Times
At age 29, Kusama held her first solo show at Zoe Dusanne Gallery. Soon thereafter, she moved to New York, taking with her nearly 2,000 watercolours and drawings of nets and polka dots.
In 1961, she started making her iconic soft sculptures. The next year, she met Joseph Cornell, an American artist known for his intricate assemblages of found objects in shadow boxes. The pair developed a platonic relationship, and box elements began to appear in Kusama’s work.
“Before the concept of feminist art was invented, Kusama’s art had already provided an Asian reference point for a feminist stance against patriarchal society.”
Without an official invitation, Kusama placed an installation outside of the Italian Pavilion during the 33rd Venice Biennale, covering the lawn with 1,500 mass-produced mirrored plastic balls. She sold the mirrored balls to interested passers-by for US$2 apiece.
Kusama briefly returned to Japan, exhausted and dispirited, but hoping to find acceptance and a place to express herself in her home country. Instead, her work was attacked by the Japanese media, and she was arrested after a semi-nude happening in Tokyo’s Iwaibashi Park. After just one month, Kusama indignantly left Japan.
Kusama returned to Japan in 1973 and her father passed away the following year. While originally planning to stay only briefly, she ended up living in Japan long-term.
Kusama checked herself into a psychiatric institution.
“When I was studying Japanese-style painting in Kyoto, I braved the rain and headed outside to meditate wearing only a T-shirt. In the driving rain, I meditated in the mud. When the sun came out, I returned home and dumped a basin of cold water on my head. Otherwise, I would have been unable to work. To an extent, it was no different in New York.”
A Glorious Return to the International Stage
During her time in hospital, Kusama continued to make art. In addition to painting obsessively, she became enamoured by writing, and she published numerous novels. As Kusama approached her sixties, Alexandra Munroe curated Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York. The exhibition was extremely well-received, ushering in a resurgence for the “queen of polka dots”.
The joy of recognition came through in Kusama’s later work. In addition to using bright colours, she engaged with a broader array of subjects. Perhaps influenced by her immersion in writing a few years prior, scenes and narratives gradually appeared in her paintings. That same year, she became the first Japanese artist to have her work grace the cover of Art in America.
In the 1980s, Kusama began to paint a series of iconic pumpkin works. This motif also started to appear in her sculpture in a range of sizes and materials. In 1991, the Hara Museum ARC in Japan’s Gunma Prefecture presented her installation Mirror Room (Pumpkin). She installed her spotted pumpkin sculptures in a room lined with mirrors, creating an endless space filled with reflected pumpkins.
Two years later, Kusama became the first Japanese artist to participate in the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale and the first woman artist to represent Japan at the exhibition. At the show, she presented Mirror Room (Pumpkin), a stunning piece that attracted a lot of attention. The installation became an instant classic and established the pumpkin as an overarching motif in Kusama’s art.
Pumpkins have always offered solace or served as a second self for Kusama. The same year she painted this work, Kusama again checked herself into a psychiatric hospital to tend to her mental health. Her firm commitment to art and life permeates Pumpkin. The full fruit – embodying vitality – is covered in dense lines of dots and set against a netted background. The resulting dotted hallucinations seem to suggest growth despite hardship. The year she painted this piece, Kusama’s work graced the cover of ARTFORUM.
Damien Hirst: Do you think that you are more of a colourist, an oil painter, an artist, or a sculptor?
Yayoi Kusama: I think that I am more of a sculptor.
Just before she turned 70, Yayoi Kusama held Now at Robert Miller Gallery in New York. This piece is part of her 1998 Venus series, which can be divided into two parts. One part of the series involves 13 large sculptures, each paired with a work on canvas. Ten editions were shown at Now, and one work in the series appeared at the Sotheby’s Hong Kong Autumn 2020 Contemporary Art Evening Sale. Another piece in the series is a Venus sculpture covered in infinity nets on a similar scale to this work, which is reminiscent of Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes. Three of this type were also shown as part of Now, with Venus sculptures in slightly different sizes placed in box-like structures.
“Yayoi Kusama broke barriers, and she has had a profound influence on art today. No other post-war Japanese artist can be mentioned in the same breath.”
In 1998, Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968 opened and travelled from LACMA to MoMA in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. In Kusama’s career, 1999 could be considered a peak year for exhibitions; she held 13 solo shows and 10 group exhibitions in that year alone. Kusama’s early novels were also translated into Chinese for the first time.
Kusama received the 50th Minister of Education’s Art Encouragement Prize and the Foreign Minister’s Commendation. For more than half a century, Kusama worked in the international scene, but she finally found affirmation, respect, admiration, and honour in her own country.
Pumpkin (L) is part of a series that Kusama spent two years completing. This series represents the first time she had worked with large-scale bronze sculpture. First presented at Victoria Miro Gallery in London in 2014, the series sparked heated debate. The other editions of this work have been collected by numerous private individuals and museums around the world, including the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park at the Des Moines Art Center and the Donum Estate in northern California. This work is the largest of Kusama’s pumpkin sculptures to be offered at auction to date.
I Want to Fly to the Universe is a magnificent extension of Kusama’s Mirror Room (Pumpkin) (1991). I Want to Fly to the Universe is just the second large-scale mirror room to appear at auction, making it particularly rare. The neon lights inside this two-metre-high installation blink and change colour at specific intervals, presenting Kusama’s unique hallucinatory perspective to collectors and immersing them in her endlessly repeating world. Since 2014, Kusama’s mirror rooms have been collected by numerous international institutions, including the Broad in Los Angeles, the Tate Modern in London, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, and the Rubell Museum in Miami.