New York Rose
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. – Kusama Yayoi
Intricately complex and exquisite, manifesting elusive undulating allusions to a delicate red rosebud, Red-Nets No. 2.A.3 is a rare and entrancing early example of Kusama Yayoi’s Infinity Nets – one that harkens back simultaneously to the artist’s well-documented childhood hallucination of red flowers as well as her Japanese Nihonga paintings from the 1940s and 1950s. The painting was executed in 1960, Kusama’s third year in New York city and the first in which she rendered her iconic Infinity Nets in red. Characterized by a rippling arrangement of dexterously swirling arcs, unlike other all-over abstract Infinity Nets the present work is unique in its subtly figurative impression of a rosebud woven into the net – a highly personalized expression of Kusama’s desire to “lend specificity to infinity of space” (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, Red-Nets 2.A.3 offers a treasured glimpse of the conceptual and creative origins of one of the most iconic figures of contemporary art.
Kusama exhibited her first Infinity Net paintings in New York in 1959. Employing the minimal repeated gesture of a single touch of the brush, Kusama’s revolutionary paintings responded critically to the emotionally and semiotically charged brushstrokes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Albeit a relative novice to oil painting at the time, Kusama was able to at once firmly grasp and radically redefine the medium in bold defiance of gestural abstraction, meting out the ecstatic masculine gesture into dainty increments and forging a sophisticated feminine aesthetics of obsession and repetition. Replacing the expressive gesture with an exhaustive one, Kusama’s meticulous and labor-intensive methods literally pushed painting to its limits. The New York art scene was fascinated, with critics describing her work in oceanic terms: "huge" in scale and composed of "innumerable small arcs", like waves (Mignon Nixon, "Infinity Politics", in Kusama Yayoi, Tate Publishing, London, 2012, p. 179). "This was my epic, summing up all I was", Kusama once remarked. "And the spell of the dots and the mesh enfolded me in a magical curtain of mysterious, invisible power" (Kusama Yayoi, Infinity Net, London, 2011, p. 23).
Beneath such a singular aesthetic of epic proportions is a profoundly personal and fragile core. Diagnosed with an obsessional neurosis, Kusama used her art to "self-obliterate" hallucinatory visions through the process of compulsive reproduction of dots and arcs. The present work, with its red palette and floral intimation, vividly recalls one childhood hallucination in particular – the very first, and the most significant. Kusama recounts: “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" (Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London 2011, n.p.). Kusama’s 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. Rendered in the same blazing red colour as the iconic hallucination, Red 2.A.3 thus both emulates and transcends the artist’s very first harrowing experience of infinity, constituting a therapeutic form of resistance and igniting the genesis of her entire Infinity Nets canon.
At once pensive and electrically enthralling, meditative yet intensely alluring, Red-Nets 2.A.3 is also a stirring evocation of the intense passion, 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” (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 […] 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” (cited in “Onna Hitori Kokusai Gadan O Yuku” (A Lone Woman Goes In The International Art World), Geijutsu Shincho, May, 1961, 127-128).
Kusama is often heralded as a harbinger of Minimalism and, in their youth, artists such as Donald Judd and Frank Stella turned towards her for aesthetic guidance. Her influence has also been keenly felt throughout much of Europe and in 1960, Kusama, together with Mark Rothko, was one of only two American-based artists to be included, alongside Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni, in a seminal exhibition of Monochrome paintings at the Städtisches Museum in Leverkusen in Germany. Although central to New York's post-Abstract Expressionist art discourse of the 1960s, Kusama did not affiliate herself to any art movement. She was, and remains, a resilient nonconformist, one who refused to be labelled and confined to any established movement or ideology and who ultimately forged a career of truly universal, cosmic proportions.