"These paintings leave one groping for a predecessor – there is none. Neither the compelling rhythms of Tobey, nor the intricate tracery of Pollock are precursors of the hypnotic painting of Kusama. Small forms flow into each other, grow and diminish, with an undulating rhythm so deeply tuned to nature that the viewer, as he lets himself become fully aware of the painting, experiences the same serenity and suppressed excitement that he feels in watching changing cloud formations, moving shadows of sun through leaves, water ripples and shadow patterns in the water below… There is a deep rhythm in these paintings: compelling tensions are developed, sustained, and resolved."
Intricately complex and exquisitely beautiful, Untitled is an entrancing early example of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets, the artist’s largest and most acclaimed body of work.
Fresh to market, the painting was executed in 1960, Kusama’s third year in New York city and the year after she began creating her iconic Infinity Nets. Characterized by a rippling arrangement of dexterously swirling arcs, the work is a stirring testament to Kusama’s groundbreaking achievements and captivating mastery of spatial and conceptual abstraction. The artist described the raw drive behind her remarkable abstract paintings:
“I was always standing at the centre of the obsession, over the passionate accretion and repetition inside of me"
Against the impenetrable depths of the black underpainting, Kusama’s labyrinthine web of tightly woven scarlet loops pulsates with a frenzied, obsessive energy, mimicking the expanding visual fields of color and pattern that inspire Kusama’s practice; as such, Untitled is a highly personalized expression of Kusama’s desire to “lend specificity to infinity of space.”1
Examples from the esteemed handful of early Infinity Nets are held in renowned museum collections such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among other pre-eminent institutions. A striking testament to the alluring and disorienting spatial complexity that has defined Kusama’s work for decades, Untitled offers a treasured glimpse of the conceptual and creative origins of one of the most iconic figures of contemporary art.
Kusama exhibited her first Infinity Net paintings in New York in 1959. Employing the minimal repeated gesture of a single touch of the brush, Kusama’s revolutionary paintings responded critically to the emotionally and semiotically charged brushstrokes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Albeit a relative novice to oil painting at the time, Kusama was able to at once firmly grasp and radically redefine the medium in bold defiance of gestural abstraction, meting out the ecstatic masculine gesture into dainty increments and forging a sophisticated feminine aesthetics of obsession and repetition. Replacing the expressive gesture with an exhaustive one, Kusama’s meticulous and labor-intensive methods literally pushed painting to its limits. The New York art scene was fascinated, with critics describing her work in oceanic terms: "huge" in scale and composed of "innumerable small arcs", like waves.2
"This was my epic, summing up all I was. And the spell of the dots and the mesh enfolded me in a magical curtain of mysterious, invisible power.
Beneath such a singular aesthetic of epic proportions is a profoundly personal and fragile core. Diagnosed with an obsessional neurosis, Kusama used her art to "self-obliterate" hallucinatory visions through the process of compulsive reproduction of dots and arcs. The present work, with its red palette, vividly recalls one childhood hallucination in particular – the very first, and the most significant. Kusama recounts: “One day, after gazing at a pattern of red flowers on the tablecloth, I looked up to see that the ceiling, the windows, and the columns seemed to be plastered with the same red floral pattern. I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space. This was not an illusion but reality itself. I was shocked to see to the depths of my soul."3
Kusama’s intensive artistic practice became her most effective form of self-therapy, a way of escaping her own mind by transcribing and enacting the infinite repetition which haunts her. Rendered in the same blazing red colour as the iconic hallucination, Untitled thus both emulates and transcends the artist’s very first harrowing experience of infinity, constituting a therapeutic form of resistance and igniting the genesis of her entire Infinity Nets canon.
At once pensive and electrically enthralling, meditative yet intensely alluring, Untitled is also a stirring evocation of the intense passion, hardship, and remarkable creative vision which marked the first years of the artist’s practice in the United States. When Kusama first landed 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.”4 Despite her trepidations, Kusama found herself 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 […] 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.”5
Kusama is often heralded as a harbinger of Minimalism and, in their youth, artists such as Donald Judd and Frank Stella turned towards her for aesthetic guidance. Her influence has also been keenly felt throughout much of Europe and in 1960, Kusama, together with Mark Rothko, was one of only two American-based artists to be included, alongside Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni, in a seminal exhibition of Monochrome paintings at the Städtisches Museum in Leverkusen in Germany. Although central to New York's post-Abstract Expressionist art discourse of the 1960s, Kusama did not affiliate herself to any art movement. She was, and remains, a resilient nonconformist, one who refused to be labelled and confined to any established movement or ideology and who ultimately forged a career of truly universal, cosmic proportions.
1 Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London, 2013, p. 23.
2 Mignon Nixon, "Infinity Politics", in Yayoi Kusama, Tate Publishing, London, 2012, p. 179.
3 Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London 2011, n.p.)
4 Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London 2013, p. 17)
5 “Onna Hitori Kokusai Gadan O Yuku,” A Lone Woman Goes In The International Art World, Geijutsu Shincho, May, 1961, 127-128.
Lot 6003 - Details
signed and dated 1960 on the reverse
oil on board
61 by 60.5 cm. 24 by 23⅞ in.
Private Collection (acquired directly from the artist)
Acquired from the above by the present ownerExecuted in 1960, this work is accompanied by a registration card issued by YAYOI KUSAMA Inc.
Japan, Fukuoka, MOMA Contemporary Co., Ltd., Yayoi Kusama: Phallic Girl 1967, April – May 2009, p. 3., illustrated in color
Fukuoka, Fukuoka Art Museum, Yayoi Kusama: Beyond My Illusion ‒ Selected Works 1952-1999, May - June 2013