Lot 2
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Yayoi Kusama

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
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  • Yayoi Kusama
  • Lake Michigan
  • signed, titled and dated 1960 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 25 1/2 by 31 1/2 in. 64.8 by 80 cm.


Private Collection (acquired in 1960)
Private Collection (thence by descent)
Acquired by the present owner from the above

Catalogue Note

Painted in 1960, Yayoi Kusama’s third year in New York City and the first in which she rendered her iconic Infinity Nets in red, Lake Michigan eloquently articulates the blazing passion and acute conceptual turmoil which fuels the artist’s extraordinary practice. Intricately complex and exquisitely beautiful, the present work is a superb early example of Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings, the artist’s largest and most celebrated body of work. Characterized by a remarkably rippling composition comprised of elegantly swirling undulations of Kusama's trademark dots, unlike other all-over Infinity Nets the present work is unique in its direct visual allusion to crashing waves. In her own words, the artist describes 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." (Yayoi Kusama cited in Laura Hoptman, Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 103) 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 fields of color and pattern that inspire Kusama’s practice; as such, Lake Michigan is a highly personalized expression of Kusama’s desire to “lend specificity to infinity of space.” (Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London, 2013, p. 23) Examples from the esteemed handful of early Infinity Nets executed in 1959 and 1960 are held in renowned museum collections such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of 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, Lake Michigan offers a rare glimpse of the conceptual and creative origins of one of the most iconic figures of contemporary art.

One of a small group of red Infinity Nets from 1960, the vibrant color of Lake Michigan constitutes a particularly intimate expression of the psychotropic visions which inspire and fuel Kusama’s unique abstraction. Diagnosed with obsessional neurosis, the artist has been haunted by hallucinatory visions of oscillating, kaleidoscopic patterns since her early childhood in Matsumoto City, Japan. Recounting the first of these visions, which began during her childhood, Kusama reveals: “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. And my body was caught in that terrifying Infinity Net." (Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London 2011, n.p.) Upon her arrival in New York, the artist began to translate these rare episodes of severe neurosis into her canvases: “I would cover a canvas with nets, then continue painting them on the table, on the floor, and finally on my own body. As I repeated this process over and over and over, the nets began to expand into infinity. I forgot about myself as they enveloped me, clinging to my arms and legs and clothes and filling the entire room.” (Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London 2011, n.p.) Unlike Kusama’s early white Infinity Nets, which attest to the meditative calm which the artist finds in her focused practice, Lake Michigan’s distinctive shade of fiery crimson reverberates with a feverish urgency. Rendered in the same blazing color as the patterned red flowers which consumed Kusama as a child, Lake Michigan emulates the artist’s first harrowing experience of infinity.

Painted in the third year after Kusama’s arrival in New York, Lake Michigan is a stirring evocation of the intense passion, tremendous 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.” (Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London, 2013, p. 17) 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, I keep painting uninteresting paintings. 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.” (Yayoi Kusama cited in “Onna Hitori Kokusai Gadan O Yuku” (A Lone Woman Goes In The International Art World), Geijutsu Shincho, May, 1961, 127-128) In late 1959, Kusama began to channel her psychosomatic visions and tendencies into the paintings that would form the beginning of the iconic Infinity Nets series. With a focus both obsessive and meditative, she moved across her canvas with precise, minute flicks of the wrist, carefully weaving the complex skein of overlapping loops which ripples and pulses across the surface of Lake Michigan. Her 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; of the therapeutic quality of her practice, Kusama notes, “You attempt to flee from psychic obsession by choosing to paint the very vision of fear, from which one would ordinarily avert one’s eyes. I paint them in quantity; in doing so, I try to escape.” (the artist cited in Laura Hoptman, Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 14)  While she would go on to explore the boundlessness of her spatial abstraction in a prodigious series of paintings, sculptures, environments, happenings, and films, the first of the Infinity Nets reveal the immense passion and compulsive urgency which lie at the very heart of Kusama’s visionary neurosis.

In their unique blend of painterly expression and repetitive form, which largely predates similar practices in New York, the Infinity Nets forged a conceptual conduit between the disparate aesthetics of abstract expressionism and minimalism. While she cultivated close friendships with artists such as Donald Judd and Frank Stella, both of whom sought her artistic guidance and purchased her early work, Kusama did not consider herself a minimalist; instead, as Judd remarked in his exultant review of her first exhibition: “Yayoi Kusama is an original painter. The expression transcends the question of whether it is Oriental or American. Although it is something of both, certainly of such Americans as Rothko, Still and Newman, it is not at all a synthesis and is thoroughly independent.” (Donald Judd, “Reviews and Previews: New Names This Month—Yayoi Kusama,” Artnews 58, No. 6, October 1959) Like fellow trailblazers Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois, Kusama emphatically dismissed any attempts to categorize her work within a single movement, pursuing instead a highly personalized and internally motivated artistic practice.

Within the small group of early Infinity Net paintings, Lake Michigan is distinguished as a particularly personalized and explicit reference to the origins of the iconic series.  While the scarlet color of the present work intimately alludes to the hallucinations of Kusama’s childhood, the title of Lake Michigan is an unusual revelation of the conceptual antecedents to the Infinity Nets of 1959 and 1960. Remarking upon the basis for her acclaimed oeuvre, Kusama has revealed that the origin of the Infinity Nets lies in an earlier series of watercolors titled Pacific Ocean. Painted in 1958, the suite of smaller works was inspired by the infinite expanse of “shallow space” contained within the tiny wavelets of the Pacific Ocean, which Kusama glimpsed through her airplane window as she arrived in the United States. (the artist cited in Midori Yamamura, “Kusama Yayoi’s Early Years in New York: A Critical Biography,” Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York, New Haven, 2007, p. 57) That sentiment is again referenced in the title of Lake Michigan, as Kusama’s undulating, mesmerizing pattern calls to mind the terrifying glimpse of infinity one experiences before a seemingly endless expanse of water. Indeed, standing before Lake Michigan, surrounded and absorbed by the interminable expanse of minute marks, the viewer experiences a momentary and intimate glimpse of the brilliant, complex, and tortuously infinite mind of Yayoi Kusama.