Kusama’s Eternal Soul: A Push Toward the Unknown

Kusama’s Eternal Soul: A Push Toward the Unknown

“As a master of her various media, Kusama savvily shifts between such universally joyful content and more introspective or personal subject matter. These late paintings are confidently executed, animated by mature mark-making and a regard for the entire topography of her oeuvre”
Catherine Taft

Y ayoi Kusama’s series My Eternal Soul comprises a vibrant, psychedelic group of paintings initiated in 2008 which showcases her talents as a master colourist and represents the mature practice of one of the most important contemporary artists of our generation. Rendered in richly saturated hues, these works mark a decisive shift from the monochromatic Infinity Nets for which Kusama first made her name in 1959 after her hugely successful first solo exhibition in New York, Obsessional Monochrome. Now in her ninth decade, Kusama has produced a prolific and diverse oeuvre – spanning painting, sculpture and performance art – which has continued to evolve and expand with astonishing originality for more than half a century.

Yayoi Kusama, Message from Hades , 2014. estimate: 5,500,000-7,000,000 hkd
Yayoi Kusama, An Eye, 1952
Sold at Sotheby's New York in September 2016 © YAYOI KUSAMA

An explosion of ebullient colour, Message from Hades is a brilliant example from the celebrated series, exhibited in her second solo show with David Zwirner in New York, Yayoi Kusama: Give Me Love in 2015. Demonstrative of her wit, the intriguing and often sinister titles would contrast with Kusama’s joyful colour palette and vivacious countenance of the works. Alongside the My Eternal Soul series, the exhibition also featured an array of silver coated pumpkins with multi-coloured dots, and the artist’s landmark installation The Obliteration Room from 2002.

Just before that exhibition, Kusama was named the most popular artist in the world in 2014, according to a survey by The Art Newspaper, which described her as “the poster girl for the globalisation of contemporary art”. Created and exhibited at the height of her prolific career, Message from Hades is indicative of an artist who has hit their stride, featuring her archetypal “eye” motif, executed in her signature technique of repeated, curled brushwork in the construction of a patchwork lattice. Indeed, the eye motif is a key characteristic of many of the My Eternal Soul paintings created in 2014, of which Message from Hades is an electric example.

My Eternal Soul, a body of work that represents Kusama’s largest series of paintings to date, explores the artist’s past themes and formal innovations in a strikingly exuberant colour palette. Frances Morris described the way Kusama’s My Eternal Soul paintings “feature a visual language that recalls many of her iconographic innovations and formal inventions from her earlier years: repeating motifs include flowers, eyes, the artist’s hieroglyphic self-portrait in profile, and, as ever, dots and nets.” Roberta Smith, in a 2017 review, also commented on the artist’s use of past motifs: “The patterns in these brightly coloured works include passages of Net-painting, but also numerous mutations: ellipses, eyes, dots, and daubed lines whose patterns resemble enlarged fingerprints. There are faces, flowers and face-flowers, cell-like bubbles and amoeboid caterpillars. Again, space moves.”

Yayoi Kusama in her studio painting another work from the My Eternal Soul series, Amidst the Agony of Flowers, The Past..., 2014

Kusama’s imagery and iconography stem from her hallucinations that she has had since her childhood, using art as a form of self-therapy, a release from her psychosomatic anxiety. Her nets and dots became her escape, self-obliteration through obsession-driven seriality which places emphasis on the process of making, rendering her paintings almost performative.

Yayoi Kusama, Fear of Death, 2008
Sold at Sotheby's London in March 2016 © YAYOI KUSAMA

The eye motif can be traced back to the start of Kusama’s career, with works such as An Eye revealing her preoccupation with the image of an eye as early as 1952 when the artist was experimenting with the Nihonga style of painting, a distinct form of traditional Japanese painting that focuses on the natural in the search of beauty and refinement. The incorporation of eyes continues throughout Kusama’s lengthy career to her My Eternal Soul works, as seen in early paintings from the series including Fear of Death (2008), in which a sea of orange eyes stare out from a vivid yellow background. In Message from Hades, Kusama commences with a base colour of blistering orange, which she covers with a rainbow of chromatic patches.

A signature aspect of Kusama’s My Eternal Soul paintings is Kusama’s envelopment of the canvas with a single, saturated base colour, which she later covers with her intricate imagery. Applying her vibrant array of pigments through tight, curled brushstrokes recalling those of her signature net paintings, the artist creates the forms of almond-shaped eyes, consolidating the eye motif by dotting the centre of each of her hundreds of small staring eyes. However, the seed-like forms of the central black area are left without pupils, evoking natural forms of plants such as the heart of a sunflower, absorbing the viewer into its porous centre.

While bursting with an array of imagery and colours, Kusama produces these acrylic paintings by working on a flat, horizontal surface, moving around the border of the canvas to complete her compositions. As exemplified by Message from Hades, the centre of her My Eternal Soul works is a key compositional element, drawing the viewer into the heart of the paintings. The critic Catherine Taft observes that these works radiate outward with “centripetal energy” obviating any absolute orientation of the canvas.

“The focus on centre is a dynamic and deliberate choice that points towards the more existential philosophies underpinning all of Kusama’s work, an acceptance of a driving push toward the unknown that lies at the end of life.”
Catherine Taft

In Message from Hades the black, central quadrilateral form captures the gaze, absorbing it into the radiant orange eyes or seed-like structures. The eye motif then proceeds into patchworks of different colours, extending beyond the boundaries of the canvas. In works such as this, Kusama presents a cosmic infinity, capturing the vastness of the universe by evoking the interplay of the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, engaging with the notion of what lies beyond our physical existence.

Yayoi Kusama, Message from Hades , 2014. estimate: 5,500,000-7,000,000 hkd

One of the most popular artists working today, Kusama holds an important place in the canon of art history, forging her own artistic path and visual language throughout her long, prolific career. After moving back to Japan from New York in the 1970s, Kusama’s work became decidedly more colourful and youthful, as seen decades later with works such as Message from Hades. The body of works that make up the series My Eternal Soul may be regarded as a culmination of artist’s earlier themes and innovations in an exuberant life-affirming colour palette.

Contemporary Art

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