Sublimating the Sublime: The Nascent Psychological Curtain
No. Red B (Lot 1062) is the most important, largest and earliest iterations of the red Infinity Nets series still in private hands to come to auction in over twenty years. The present lot stands at over 1.7 metres, and is larger and taller than a comparable 1961 No. H. Red collected by the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. Kusama’s No. Red B was painted in the crucial year of 1960, which marked the second year the artist arrived in New York, and according to existing literature records, the first year that she rendered Infinity Nets works in red. Presented in the landmark exhibition Yayoi Kusama at the Gres Gallery (the artist’s first solo exhibition in Washington D.C. and the fourth in the U.S.) (Fig. 6), No. Red B charts the birth of what is undoubtedly one of the most important pieces from Kusama’s most recognisable series, the Infinity Nets, and is also emblematic of her artistic creations in the late forties to fifties. It is an historically vital painting that documented a nascent psychological curtain that captured her emotions from the first three decades of her life, simultaneously foreshadowing the successful career she would achieve in present day.
As one of the earliest Japanese artists to reach New York in the Post-war and Post-occupation era, Kusama Yayoi’s significance in the history of art was recognised as early as in the sixties in both the United States and in Europe. She was a combatant who braved and conquered many ceilings that were forced onto her against her volition—gender, nationality, tradition—and emerged victorious and celebrated. She was, and remains, a resilient nonconformist, one who refused to be labelled and confined to any established art group, movement or ideology. Instead, she created a style that was solely her own, and influenced generations of other artists, both from the East and West. Central to her oeuvre are her ceaseless psychological torments—at times painful and uncontrollable—and powerful hallucinations that tortured the artist. Rather than succumbing to this pain, these afflictions blessed Kusama with the license to be unique; “newer and more original”,1 as described by Donald Judd, than her contemporaries in New York. The artist deftly transferred and organised her psychological anguish onto her canvases: while allowing herself to be engulfed by it, she rose above it, and conveyed it through dedicated, repetitive brush work: through sublimating the sublime, Kusama distilled her soul and preserved its essence. Among the many identities that she possesses: an innovator, a risk-taker, a dreamer; above all is her identity as an artist, which has remained at the forefront of her pursuit for freedom and self-expression. With this in hand, the artist would create one of her most recognisable series, the Infinity Nets, which were responsible for launching her career to cosmic proportions.
Infinity Net – An Art-Historical Milestone
Kusama first stunned the international art world in 1959 with the debut of her gargantuan Infinity Net canvases. The series renounced all notions of composition: in each work there is no beginning, no ending, and no focal point. In their eschewal of composition lies an obsessive and frenzied repetition, that is different from the mechanical repetition of the New York school of minimalism. In spite of their monochromatic palette and outwardly systematic executions, Kusama’s repetitive motion on her canvases is stylistically different from works by, for example, Frank Stella or his peers. Her Infinity Net series display painterly preoccupations and impasto-driven textures, which sheds light on her unique timing and position in a Post-Abstract Expressionistic New York. Given their eccentric mélange of all such influences, it is no surprise that these works were admired and even collected by American minimalists themselves, such as Stella and Judd. In such a way, Infinity Nets evade all formal associations with established schools, and are rather faithful reproductions of what Kusama physically “sees” when she experiences her hallucinations. Although her early abstract works can be seen alongside Kusama’s contemporaries, they are fully-formed departures that are intrinsically and uniquely the artist’s. Kusama’s ability to organise and utilise her emotional conflicts and hallucinations to her advantage, as well as her art historic awareness and renewal of contemporary ideologies, are the main factors as to why she is so uniquely placed in the post-war and contemporary history of art.
The Red that Inspired Infinity
Kusama’ s famous Infinity Nets might be recognised as mainly painted in white; or the white version, in its ubiquity, might even be deemed as the most crucial of all. However, if one studies the works created by the artist prior to the Infinity Nets series on canvas, it is evident that red is a recurring theme that takes centre stage in Kusama’s art.
“One day, when I was a little girl…I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realised it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers.” 2
This extremely early memory highlights the importance of the colour red to Kusama. The morbidity of red can be seen in an early work, Flower Spirit (Fig. 2), painted in 1948. Resembling flayed meat, the sanguineous flower is cupped by wave upon wave of nets. Even more potently can Kusama’s consternation for the colour be glimpsed in Lingering Dream (1949) (Fig. 3), where an almost dystopic desert is depicted in varying shades of crimson; a scene of complete dereliction. Furthermore, in a 1950 work, Accumulation of the Corpses (Prisoner Surrounded by the Curtain of Depersonalisation) (Fig. 4), one can see an early iteration of the artist’s use of a repetitive unit, which would later morph into the Infinity Net series. At the time, aside from feeling a descending curtain of colour barring her from the world, the artist experienced deep sensations of horror and anxiety, feeling separated from reality and other people. The distant tree and light at the end of a spiralling tunnel of red doom represent this very real fear, as if Kusama’s world has been obliterated by a red sea of repetition. This work can absolutely be considered an ancestor to No. Red B.
“I had this hallucination where I woke up one morning and found the windows blazing red, and my hands and feet and the floor was [were] all covered up with bright red nets, and when I got near and touched them, the red nets stuck on my hands …That’s how I came up with the white net painting. “ 3
It is thus evident that red has assumed a sentimental and central position in both Kusama’s heart and oeuvre; not only is it the source for a lifetime of creativity, it also formed the basis upon which Kusama built her empire of white Infinity Nets—thus bringing the art historical world one name it would not be able to live without: Kusama Yayoi.
1 Alexandra Munroe and Reiko Tomii in an interview with Donald Judd, December 8, 1988
2 Kusama, “Struggle and Wandering of My Soul”, 1975, p. 2
3 “Artist Talk: Yayoi Kusama talks about YAYOI KUSAMA”, October 20, 2012 at Matsumoto City Museum of Art
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