“It was once called an ‘Interminable Net’; the brush creates a contacting network from edge to edge, and over, followed by the next Net painting. In this process, to follow the ‘self-obliteration’ narrative, the self is not articulated but is continuous in connection with the ‘body’ of the painting”.
“The expression transcends the question of whether [the art] 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. [Kusama’s Infinity Nets] are advanced in all respects; the great frontality, the relative lack of tone, the dual economy and complexity of the structure, the importance of the single stroke, whose multiplicity is so essential here, and the color and detail as surface itself. The expression is cool and tough; its vast generality is achieved through a precision and an individuality of statement.”
Donald Judd, 1959
The stark monochrome austerity of the snow-white Interminable Net #4 from 1959 evinces a singularly breath-taking visual and visceral dynamism – a quaking shudder that ripped through the New York and European art scenes six decades ago. Standing before us in the present day, the work – having been kept in a private collection for decades – glows bright with a pristine white-ness hitherto unseen in white nets from this early period of Kusama’s career and retains all of the potent immediacy and electrically elegant splendour that defines her most rarefied series of work. The piece bears stellar provenance, being originally in the collection of French-born American artist Arman, the result of an artist work exchange. Interminable Net #4 then came into the present private collection via the Fuji TV Gallery. As one of the earliest nets that the artist ever created, Interminable Net #4 is an extremely rare and sublime paradigm of the most radical, transformative and accomplished period of Kusama’s artistic development. Examples from this esteemed handful of white Infinity Nets executed at end of the 1950s and start of the 1960s belong to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Princeton University Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, among other pre-eminent institutions.
When Kusama Yayoi first arrived in New York City in June 1958, she recalls climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and looking down at the latticed city below in complete awe. At 29 years old, the young artist realized that in order to succeed in the city she would have to do something spectacular: “I aspired to grab everything that went on in the city and become a star” (the artist quoted in an interview with Akira Tatehata, Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 11). Shortly after, Kusama began work on what would become her most renowned series of white Infinity Net canvases, a prized body of early paintings that remain Kusama’s paramount achievement. Eighteen months after Kusama moved to Manhattan, in October 1959 the artist staged her New York breakthrough. Kusama organized her first solo exhibition at Brata Gallery, an important artist-run co-operative on East 10th Street – it was there that she debuted five mural-size white monochrome canvases awash in a sea of circular marks, inaugurating her Infinity Net series. The intricate fields of looping brushstrokes resembled lace or a fine mesh netting. Radically challenging Abstract Expressionism with their size and all-over gestural brushwork, Kusama’s Infinity Nets responded with a dynamic intimacy, control, and meditative contemplation that diverged with the thrashing unruliness of New York School artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
The paintings’ deliberate sameness challenged the muscularity of the gestural action painters on their own terms, reacting with an intensely ordered, repetitive structure that absorbed the emotionalism of Abstract Expressionism and displaced it with a cool, rote detachment. Laura Hoptman praised the works executed in 1959, the year of Interminable Net #4’s creation, noting, “The 1959 Nets, with their severely restricted palette and all-over repetitive pattern, were nothing like what the artist had previously produced. These Infinity Nets boldly referenced the New York School and, on its own ground, challenged its hegemony. Describing the brushstrokes she employed as ‘repeated exactly in monotone, like the gear of a machine’ Kusama remembers that the painstaking sameness of the composition was a deliberate attempt to find an antidote to the emotionalism of Abstract Expressionism” (Laura Hoptman, Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 42).
The years between 1958 and 1962 were a brief but intense period of production for the painter, whose Infinity Nets gained her serious critical recognition across America and Europe. Kusama arrived in the city carrying approximately 2000 small works on paper she produced in Japan, including watercolors and ink drawings whose Surrealist abstractions are reminiscent of French Tachisme and European Modernism. While examples from this body of work reveal the formal genesis of her interest in dots, it was not until she moved that she began her most sustained and concentrated effort toward what she referred to as ‘self-obliteration.’ Working from a studio at the corner of Broadway and 12th Street in Lower Manhattan, Kusama initiated the series by repeating one single, simple gesture endlessly across the surface of the canvas. With minute flicks of the wrist, Kusama impressed a map of arcs and swirls, recording the repetition of her brush in a complex skein of ethereal scalloped loops. Interminable Net #4 illuminates the insistently handmade nature of Kusama’s painting: while appearing upon first impression as a systematic network of gridlike perfection, close inspection reveals an irregular depth of brushstrokes that meet, spread, and overlap. The slipping, roaming, and misalignment of Kusama’s celestial moons evade a strict pattern of mechanical reproduction and celebrate subtle imperfections that divulge the concurrently obsessive and meditative nature of the artist’s stamina and dedication. Optically humming before our eyes, the expanse of Interminable Net #4 creates an oscillating sensation that is at once pensive and electrifying.
Kusama referred to her work as self-therapy, a way of escaping her mind through infinite repetition. An adolescence growing up amidst war in Matsumoto City, Japan led to hallucinations that have remained with her over the course of her life, including patterned veils before her eyes and aureoles around objects. In an attempt to release her psychosomatic anxiety, overcome her reported visions, and achieve a sense of calm, Kusama retreated to her canvas in a process she termed ‘self-obliteration’. In the serial execution of densely patterned cell-like clusters, Interminable Net #4 at once acts as a means of depersonalized self-annihilation while also re-asserting the artist’s hand in the labor-intensive monotony of the painting’s production. Connecting her body, subconscious, and spirit to the painting in the most compelling visual manner, Kusama’s Interminable Net #4 is a study in psychological complexity: “Contrary to the audacious moves of action painters, the small arcs or dots are the traces of the least and smallest possible moves to mark the canvas with paint; in Net painting, the act of painting is austerely restrained in the minimal action... it was once called an ‘Interminable Net’; the brush creates a contacting network from edge to edge, and over, followed by the next Net painting. In this process, to follow the ‘self-obliteration’ narrative, the self is not articulated but is continuous in connection with the ‘body’ of the painting” (Izumi Nakajima, “Yayoi Kusama between Abstraction and Pathology” in Griselda Pollock, ed., Psychoanalysis and the Image: Transdisciplinary Perspectives, New York, 2006, p. 147). Ceaselessly reproducing within themselves and across other Infinity Nets, Kusama's early paintings are not confined to their respective corporeal supports, but rather have no end--bristling with expansive potential, by definition her nets are interminable.
In the words of Donald Judd in 1959, Kusama’s expression “transcends the question of whether [the art] 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. [Kusama’s Infinity Nets] are advanced in all respects; the great frontality, the relative lack of tone, the dual economy and complexity of the structure, the importance of the single stroke, whose multiplicity is so essential here, and the color and detail as surface itself. The expression is cool and tough; its vast generality is achieved through a precision and an individuality of statement”. Kusama’ feverish accumulation of individual points manifest an intimate, individual contemplation while coalescing into a greater exhilarating, optically complex whole. The ideal bridge between the painterly flourish of Abstract Expressionism and the sober, reductive aesthetic of Minimalism—which in 1959 had not yet gained traction—the present work is representative of a critical moment in the trajectory of post-war abstraction. Kusama espoused that these white paintings from the start of her career would feel “like a bomb” (the artist quoted in an interview with Akira Tatehata, Op. Cit., p. 11). Explosive in originality, deliberate in intent, and thrilling in pure formal beauty, Kusama’s Interminable Net #4 is composed of a swell of radical atomic gestures that reverberates with poetic splendor at every coordinate.