Time is finally turning a kind eye on me. But it barely matters, for I am dashing into the future.
Surreal and fantastical, Kusama Yayoi’s Dress Hanger (1981) and Imagined Scenery Dotted With Pumpkins (2009) are two singular Kusama works that cogently demonstrate the artist’s persistent obsession with the obliteration of the self through infinite repetition, and clearly illustrate the prolific artist’s continued accomplished aesthetic evolution throughout the years. Deeply personal and indexical, both paintings represent distinct extensions of Kusama’s most iconic Infinity Net legacy: Dress Hanger depicts a rare clothes hanger motif, created using a combination of her signature polka dots, jagged forms and nets in a symphony of figuration and abstraction; while in Imagined Scenery Dotted With Pumpkins, abstract and figurative elements metamorphose into an organically spontaneous composition, immersing viewers in a hallucinatory, pumpkin-filled fantasy world. Characterized by Kusama’s signature spectacularly hyper-obsessive visual language and infused with the artist’s near-magical, near-otherworldly touch, the two works are sublime specimens of the legendary artist’s expansive oeuvre – works that stand as testament to nearly eight decades of dedication to art and creation.
The early 1980s, the period during which Dress Hanger was created, was a pivotal and exceptionally defining era in Kusama’s artistic production. After an explosive rise to global superstardom in New York in the 1960s, Kusama moved back to Tokyo permanently in 1973 and underwent a creative renaissance while re-assimilating into Japanese society. The artist retreated into a psychiatric hospital in 1977 and commenced a diligent studio practice – one which involved not just painting but various other modes of creative production, even publishing her first novel Manhattan Suicide Addict in 1978. During this time, Kusama wrote prolifically, creating both fiction and poems. In 1982, a solo exhibition at Fuji Television Gallery in Tokyo showed 30 works by Kusama – the first in Japan to show Kusama’s paintings and sculptures from the 1950s and 1960s. The following year, in 1983, the Galerie Ornis at The Hague organized the solo exhibition Yayoi Kusama: 1950-1970, while the artist’s work was also included in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s inaugural exhibition; in the same year Kusama’s second novel The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street won the Yasei Jidai magazine’s Tenth Literary Award for New Writers.
It was against such a distinctive context, both in terms of Kusama’s personal life and her career, that Dress Hanger was created. Executed in 1981 at the beginning of the decade, the work features the outline of a clothes hanger which also uncannily resembles that of a pumpkin. The origins of the clothes hanger motif can be traced back to the 1960s when Kusama created her Yayoi Kusama Fashion Company, where she served as President and brought life to her immensely popular fashion designs. It is notable that Kusama was particularly proud of the success of her fashion venture. She explains: “The mass media reported about us big time. We did fashion shows and had a Kusama corner at department stores. Buyers from big department stores came and selected 100 of this, 200 of that …” (the artist cited in Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 23). A remarkable painting, Dress Hanger harnesses the visual and symbolic power of multiple iconic Kusama motifs: there are the hallucinatory polka dots in the body of the hanger and the border; there is the web-like tessellated background net pattern most often found accompanying her pumpkin canvases; and finally there is the pumpkin itself, as the outline of the hanger is cheekily crafted to resemble the figure of a pumpkin. The exceptional work can even be read as something of a self-portrait; just as she often posed in front of her nets or pumpkins dressed in clothes that mimic their colors or intricate patterns, by painting a dress hanger that represented a personal significance, Kusama asserts the inextricable connection between her physical self and her artistic creation.
In 2009, Kusama began a new series of acrylic-on-canvas paintings that she titled collectively My Eternal Soul. An evolution from her signature style of nets and dots, the new series introduced new emblems – cell-like, amoeba-like biomorphic shapes that repeat, cluster, pulsate and explode in colour and form. Catherine Taft observes: “The paintings are surreal, semi-figurative, folksy explosions of colour and line that pulsate with complementary hues and biomorphic shapes. Some offer intricate, hieroglyphic-like patterns of eyes, faces in profile, flowers, phallic shapes, or amoebas” (Catherine Taft, in “Dashing into the Future: Kusama’s Twenty-First Century”, in Yayoi Kusama, Phaidon, p. 175). This progression from the artist’s earlier ‘traditional’ Infinity Net motif offers decidedly more narrative elements, harkening back to some of Kusama’s lesser known works from her hitherto discussed 1970s-1980s period, as well as to the artist’s pre-New York period in the 1950s. Whereas her New York period Infinity Net paintings, created in the wake of Minimalism, featured severely monochromatic and strictly austere minimal patterns, Kusama’s pre- and post-New York works were distinctly more literary and richly narrative – characteristics that resurface in her latest series.
Imagined Scenery Dotted With Pumpkins hails from precisely this special sequence of paintings and is furthermore a rare work within the prolific series. When Kusama first started, she used a variety of canvas sizes, including the size of the present lot. Soon afterwards Kusama began using the uniform size of 194 by 194 cm, rendering the current painting a rare work from the series of the 100F size. The present painting is quintessential of the series in terms of composition: a border of sharp, teeth-like points decorate the border of the canvas, which demarcates clearly the inner and outer spaces of the composition. The center features sublimely floating abstract biomorphic forms of vivid striking colours; only after the eye gradually adjusts to the boisterous patterns does one notice the cheerful pumpkins and animals towards the bottom left corner. There is even a pair of spectacles and an open book, a clear reference to Kusama’s passion and talent in literature and writing, and testament to the multifaceted sources of inspiration that underpin all of Kusama’s work. Dress Hanger and Imagined Scenery Dotted With Pumpkins are both decidedly cheerful and joyful; as Taft observes: “As a master of her various media, Kusama savvily shifts between such universally joyful content and more introspective or personal subject matter” (Ibid., p. 187). With regards to Kusama’s later works, in particular, Taft asserts: “These late paintings are confidently executed, animated by mature mark-making and a regard for the entire topography of her oeuvre”.