A stirring testament to Yayoi Kusama’s captivating mastery of spatial abstraction, The Pacific Ocean is unquestionably a pivotal exemplar of the artist’s revered oeuvre, one of the first red Infinity Nets - if not the very first. Executed in 1959—the year following Kusama’s emigration from Japan to New York—this painting represents the groundbreaking genesis of the Infinity Nets, Kusama’s largest and most celebrated body of work. Displaying an intricately complex pattern of delicately undulating scarlet forms, The Pacific Ocean directly alludes to the conceptual origin of the series, which Kusama has revealed lies in the infinite expanse of the Pacific Ocean, glimpsed through her airplane window upon her arrival in the United States. Amongst the only examples to embody this intimate experience in both composition and title, the shimmering crimson surface of The Pacific Ocean represents an entirely unprecedented revelation into the conceptual and creative origins of one of the most iconic figures of Contemporary art. Further testifying to the significance of the present work, The Pacific Ocean was acquired by Beatrice Perry, Kusama’s first and most formative art dealer, directly following its execution; a key advocate for Kusama during those critical early years—even petitioning for the artist’s immigration visa—Perry played a pivotal role in nurturing and encouraging the genesis of Kusama’s groundbreaking artistic practice. While examples from the esteemed handful of early Infinity Nets executed in 1959 and 1960 are held in such renowned museum collections 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, The Pacific Ocean has remained unseen by the public since entering the esteemed Perry family collection almost six decades ago. Exemplifying both the exquisite beauty and mesmerizing complexity which characterize the very best of the artist’s oeuvre, the present work marks a milestone moment within the legendary practice and celebrated output of Yayoi Kusama.
Below a translucent wash of iridescent crimson hue, Kusama’s labyrinthine web of undulating loops pulsates with irrepressible force, drawing the viewer irresistibly towards the shimmering spaces contained within the tightly woven skeins of inky pigment. Painted in the year following the artist’s arrival in New York, the crimson depths of The Pacific Ocean serve as stirring evocation of the intense passion, tremendous hardship, and remarkable creative vision which marked the first years of her 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 the challenges and obstacles which faced the artist, Kusama strove to make her way in her harrowing new environs, slowly forging connections and garnering recognition within the burgeoning downtown art scene of New York City. One of her earliest patrons was art dealer Beatrice Perry, co-owner of Gres Gallery in Washington, D.C. and only owner of the present work, who organized a show of the artist’s early Infinity Nets in 1960; illustrating Perry’s staunch support for her artist, the press release for that exhibitions opens: “Yayoi Kusama is one of the most original painters to appear on the art scene in America in a long time.” (Beatrice Perry, “Yayoi Kusama: The Paintings” (Press Release), Gres Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1960, n.p.) Amongst the first to recognize the raw brilliance of Kusama’s practice, Perry goes on to describe her abstraction in terms highly reminiscent of the present work: “These paintings leave one groping for a predecessor – there is none. Neither the compelling rhythms of Tobey, nor the intricate tracery of Pollock are precursors of the hypnotic painting of Kusama. Small forms flow into each other, grow and diminish, with an undulating rhythm so deeply tuned to nature that the viewer, as he lets himself become fully aware of the painting, experiences the same serenity and suppressed excitement that he feels in watching changing cloud formations, moving shadows of sun through leaves, water ripples and shadow patterns in the water below… There is a deep rhythm in these paintings: compelling tensions are developed, sustained, and resolved.” (Ibid., n.p.)
Within the rarified group of early Infinity Net paintings, The Pacific Ocean is distinguished as amongst the most personalized and explicit revelations of the origin of the iconic series. 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, like the present work, Pacific Ocean. Painted in 1958, the suite of smaller works was inspired by the infinite volumes of “shallow space” contained within the tiny wavelets of the Pacific Ocean, which Kusama glimpsed through her airplane window upon her emigration into 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) Diagnosed with obsessional neurosis, Kusama struggled with hallucinatory visions of infinitely oscillating, kaleidoscopic patterns throughout her childhood in Japan; in her own words, the artist describes: “I was always standing at the centre of the obsession, over the passionate accretion and repetition inside of me." (The artist cited in Laura Hoptman, Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 103) It was not until her arrival in the United States, however, that Kusama found the means of channeling her psychosomatic visions and tendencies into the paintings that would form the beginning of the iconic Infinity Nets series. Working with a focus both obsessive and meditative, Kusama would move her brush across the canvas with precise, minute flicks of the wrist, carefully weaving the complex skein of overlapping loops to create an undulating pattern that calls to mind the simultaneously mesmerizing and terrifying glimpse of infinity one experiences before a seemingly endless expanse of shimmering water. Although the rippling composition of The Pacific Ocean signals towards the artist’s trademark dots, the elegantly swirling crimson fields of Kusama’s abstraction more directly allude to the constant ebb and flow of wavelets upon the ocean surface, serving as 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) 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 Pacific Ocean, amongst the very first of the Infinity Nets, offers the viewer a momentary and intimate glimpse of Kusama’s own, definitive experience of infinity.
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