Contemporary Art

The Genesis of Yayoi Kusama

By Ori Hashmonay
Yayoi Kusama's The Pacific Ocean, 1959 is a highlight of the upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction (16 May 2019, New York).

C omposed in 1959 – the year following Kusama’s emigration from Japan to New York – the striking artwork The Pacific Ocean marks the genesis of the Infinity Nets, the artist's largest and most celebrated body of work. The Pacific Ocean presents an intricate network of undulating, scarlet patterns, alluding to the conceptual origin of the series – the infinite expanse of the Pacific Ocean – a view that the artist first witnessed through her airplane window upon her arrival to the United States.

Yayoi Kusama, THE PACIFIC OCEAN, 1959. Estimate $2,000,000–3,000,000.

When Kusama landed in New York in June of 1958, without the acquaintance of a single person and knowing only a few words of English, she soon discovered that:

“New York was in every way a fierce and violent place.”
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London, 2013, p. 17.

Kusama strove to make her way in New York, despite the obstacles that she faced; the artist slowly began to forge connections and garner recognition within the burgeoning downtown art scene.

The artist in her studio, New York, c. 1961. Courtesy YAYOI KUSAMA Inc.

One of her earliest patrons was art dealer Beatrice Perry, co-owner of Gres Gallery in Washington, D.C. and sole owner of The Pacific Ocean. Directly following its execution, the canvas was acquired by Perry; the dealer was a key advocate for Kusama during those critical early years – even petitioning for the artist’s immigration visa. Perry played a pivotal role in nurturing Kusama’s revolutionary artistic practice.

Letter from Yayoi Kusama to Beatrice Perry, January 1962. Photo courtesy Perry Family Collection.

Among the first individuals to recognize the raw brilliance of Kusama’s practice, Perry goes on to describe the artist’s abstraction, "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."

Letter from Yayoi Kusama to Beatrice Perry, January 1962. Photo courtesy Perry Family Collection.

Diagnosed with obsessional neurosis, Kusama struggled with hallucinatory visions of infinitely oscillating, kaleidoscopic patterns throughout her childhood; in her own words, the artist describes:

“I was always standing at the centre of the obsession, over the passionate accretion and repetition inside of me.”
The artist cited in Laura Hoptman, Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 103.

Yayoi Kusama standing with her work against a background of Manhattan, NY in 1961. Courtesy YAYOI KUSAMA Inc.

It was not until her arrival in the United States, however, that Kusama channeled her psychosomatic visions into the paintings that would form the beginning of the remarkable Infinity Nets series. The shimmering crimson surface of The Pacific Ocean is among the only examples to embody this intimate experience in both composition and title, representing an unprecedented revelation into the conceptual and creative origins of one of the most iconic figures of contemporary art.

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