Shirley MacLaine, Caged
Untitled is one of the most important works of contemporary art history to have appeared in the auction market in recent years—a portrait of Hollywood grand dame Shirley MacLaine, painted by Kusama Yayoi, herself the grand dame of the Japanese and international avant-garde. Executed in 1970, this portrait was one of only three multi-colored ‘caged paintings’ exhibited at her solo exhibition “Yayoi Kusama Portrait Paintings” at the Internationale Galerij Orez, The Hague, Holland, in that year—the rest of the portraits contained only dual colours. The present work was also exhibited at MOMA Contemporary in Fukuoka, Japan in 1998; up until that point, the location of these extremely scarce ‘caged paintings’ were unknown for many years. The series includes less than ten portraits, depicting famous female icons such as Sharon Tate, Juliette Greco, Raquel Welch, Jacqueline Onassis, Mata Hari and Elizabeth Taylor, etc. It is extremely rare for Kusama to paint portraits of other people, with this series being the sole exception; and the portraits are ‘caged’, meaning that Kusama constructed a layer of wire netting over the canvas. The wire netting creates a specific effect, with the shadows of the wire netting intertwining with the multi-coloured painted net patterns on the canvas. Rare, unique and historically significant, the current lot thus constitutes an echo of Kusama’s iconic infinity net motif as well as a powerful metaphor of personal and artistic struggle.
To understand the full personal and historical significance of the present lot, which was created at the turn of the decade in 1970, a closer examination of Kusama’s prior epoch-defining era in the 1960s is warranted. After arriving in the city, penniless and unknown, in 1958, by 1960 Kusama was already represented by uptown gallerist Stephen Radich as well as Beatrice Perry of Gres Gallery in Washington D.C. Around that time she attracted the attention of German curator Udo Kultermann, which led to Kusama’s participation in the exhibition Monochrome Malerei at the Städtisches Museum Leverkusen and her ensuing eminence in Europe. During the first half of the decade Kusama was swiftly embraced by the most pivotal artists of the era such as Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin; these were all male artists, with Kusama alone the one sole female icon. Adept at being her own publicist, Kusama commissioned professional photographers to shoot her and her work; these included Rudolph Burckhardt, Hal Reiff, and Peter Moore.
Determined to continue to thrive amongst her male cohorts, Kusama’s preoccupations with fame manifested not just in self-publicity but also in her works, most overtly in her phallic sculptures. Lynn Zelevansky observes that such works embody Kusama’s “reaction to the male-dominated New York art world [and] express the way she understood her situation: surrounded, threatened, and almost overtaken by men as she attempted to fight her way to the top in the New York art world” (cited in ‘Driving Image: Yayoi Kusama in New York’, Exh. Cat. Yayoi Kusama, 1958—1968, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 25). Such a complex, single-mindedly ambitious yet paranoiac and guarded mindset underpinned Kusama’s activities throughout the decade, which by the end of the 1960s had evolved towards radical performances and public events such as Body Festivals, Happenings, naked demonstrations, orgies, as well as Wall Street and Vietnam War protests. From 1967-1970, whilst Kusama gained considerable prominence in Europe as well as New York, she orchestrated as many as 75 Happenings which garnered her an abundance of media attention along with overwhelming support from youth for her liberal advocation of sex and the body.
Upon a temporary two-month return to Japan in 1970, the year the present lot was created, Kusama was dismayed by the drastically different, more conservative views of the Japanese public. The Japanese press distorted her success into malicious gossip, describing her as a harenchi (‘shameless and infamous woman’). Albeit succeeding in pulling off a Nude Happening, Kusama soon left, writing of the experience: “When all was said and done, my pro-sex and anti-war ideas, and the Happenings that expressed them, went down like lead balloons in Japan. The mass media, the journalists, and the intellectuals all exhibited absolutely no comprehension of what I was about” (Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Kusama Yayoi, Tate Publishing, 2011, p. 153). Kusama also commented, more directly: “This country was too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women. My art needed a more unlimited freedom and a wider world”.
The present lot was created precisely at this juncture when Kusama turned back to the West for empowerment. Her choices of subjects—all strong, iconic and controversial Western women, such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley MacLaine—reveal her unrelenting ambition and inexorable fixations with fame. Speaking about the ‘caged’ series, Kusama called her subjects ‘bad girls’, paralleling a section in her autobiography in which she refers to herself as “both a gifted child and a ‘bad girl’, burdened with layer upon layer of problems”. It is noteworthy that this is the only time in her career that Kusama painted portraits of other women; she did not do so both before and after this series. Thus, the current portrait of Shirley MacLaine embodies multiple meanings key to Kusama’s extraordinary oeuvre, while encapsulating the stories of two of the greatest living female legends still living today.