A vibrant fixture in the thriving 1960s New York art world, Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) was all but forgotten by the West on her return to Japan in 1973. An important retrospective in 1989 at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York reintroduced her and initiated a decade of growing international attention that culminated in “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968,” a 1998 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art that solidified Kusama’s reputation as one of the most important artists of that decade. Both of these key exhibitions focused on Kusama’s prodigious output during the 1960s, which included paintings and sculpture, drawings and collages, kinetic installation, Happenings and even a film. However, Kusama enjoyed significant success in Japan both before and after her New York sojourn, and Sotheby’s is pleased to offer a range of works that span this prolific artist’s long, varied and still-vibrant career.
Kusama’s vast oeuvre is unified and defined by her signature motifs: the net, the polka dot and the phallus. Her artistic longevity may be attributed to a profound ability to intuitively adapt her signature patterns to reflect and sometimes predict the most pressing aesthetic concerns of a particular time and place. The famous Infinity Net paintings she completed shortly after her arrival in New York in 1958 enlarged and abstracted her personal and intimate motifs to challenge the grand scale and gestures of Abstract Expressionism’s ‘all-over’ aesthetic. The muted palette, repetition and seriality of these works puts them in relation to a then nascent Minimalism, although the subjective source of these strategies in Kusama’s imagination challenged that movement’s objective bent.
Arguably, Kusama’s paintings of the 1980s and 1990s, of which Infinity Nets (1990, Lot 239) and Dots (1990, Lot 238) are excellent representatives, reflect the distinct artistic and social milieu of their creation. The identifiable presence of the artist’s hand in the thick brushstrokes of the 1960s paintings has been minimized in the pulsating black on yellow crystalline skein of Infinity Nets, which possesses instead a smooth, almost shiny surface and a strong graphic quality. Similarly, although the levitating pale dots on a blue-gray background in Dots vary in size, they have the regularity of shapes produced by a stencil or a machine. Although still entirely abstract, they reflect a shift in Kusama’s work away from a pure abstraction of subjective marks towards an exploration of the allusive and illustrative possibilities of pattern. The third related work on offer, Pumpkin (1990, Lot 241), clearly demonstrates this tendency as the polka dot becomes a type of raster dot a la Roy Lichtenstein, its size and placement manipulated to articulate the modeled form of her pumpkin, one of the artist’s signature motifs.
While Kusama’s interest in the illustrative potential of pattern and in slick, smooth surfaces could be attributed to Kusama’s exposure to Pop art in New York, it might equally derive from the increasingly commodity- and marketing-driven culture of Japan in the 1980s and 1990s and the concurrent emergence of manga and kawaisa (cuteness) as important pop cultural styles. Work from these decades posits Kusama as a counterpart to if not a predecessor of Takashi Murakami and his Superflat aesthetic, a relationship emphasized by both artists’ recent use of biomorphic inflatables and cute, cartoony imagery.
Kusama traces the origin of her signature motifs to hallucinations she has lived with since adolescence, in which she and her surroundings are ‘obliterated’ through ever expanding veils of these repetitive patterns. It was only a matter of time before Kusama felt compelled to abandon the relative safety of two dimensions and began to cover objects with her signature patterns, recreating her hallucinations for the world to experience. For her 1964 installation/environment the Driving Image Show, at the Castellane gallery in New York, Kusama created a surreal domestic interior populated with sculptures from the Accumulation series in which furniture, clothes, mannequins and variety of objects were covered with a profusion of phallic, stuffed tubers – inversions in three dimensions of her Infinity Nets. This phallic eruption was a humorous proto-feminist critique of the oppressive and overwhelming dominance of patriarchy as manifested in the objects and spaces of (feminine) domesticity. Also included were works from the related Food Obsession series, where food replaced sex as pasta took the place of the phallus. Macaroni was spread across the floor and crunched as people walked through the installation.
The Golden Macaroni Jacket (1965, Lot 236) is an important early work from the historic Food Obsession series; Macaroni Shirt (2001, Lot 240) is a more recent work from the same series. The 1965 work features a men’s jacket covered with different types of pasta, the assemblage then visually unified through an application of golden paint. The wheel-shaped macaroni provided Kusama with a readily available food product that mimicked her signature net and dots patterns. This particular work was presented by the artist to Yuko Ikewada, wife of the famous Austrian architect Frederick Hundertwasser, as an expression of gratitude for hosting Kusama at their home in Venice while she worked on an installation, probably Narcisscus Garden, her notorious exhibition for the 1966 Venice Biennale. The piece was most likely part of Kusama’s second iteration of the Driving Image Show, held in 1966 at the Galleria d’Arte del Naviglio in Milan, whose owner put Kusama in touch with Ikewada. This exhibition also included mannequins and objects meticulously covered in intricately painted infinity nets in a variety of colors. Self-Obliteration (2005, Lot 237) is a recent work from the same series.
Since the 1960s Kusama has described her ongoing obsession with her signature motifs – the net, the dot and the phallus – as a means of erasing or fragmenting the physical self through pattern, a somewhat abstract concept that is succinctly materialized in a sculpture like Self-Obliteration. Paradoxically, however, by obsessively restating her signature patterns, the obliterated self is repeatedly reasserted. Through an act of artistic transubstantiation these interchangeable motifs become Kusama, serving as “her alter ego, her logo, her franchise and her weapon of incursion into the world at large.”1
- Murtaza Vali
1Laura Hoptman, “Yayoi Kusama: A Reckoning,” Yayoi Kusama (New York: Phaidon, 2000), p. 34.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale