"Just as Bodhidharma spent ten years facing a stone wall, I spent as much as a month facing a single pumpkin. I regretted even having to take time to sleep."
Feisty and iconic, I Carry on Living with the Pumpkins manifests Kusama Yayoi's paradigmatic pumpkin motif in an exceptional form that straddles two-dimensional painting and three-dimensional sculpture. Multi-sized striated black dots slither over the bulging electric yellow skin of the pumpkin, exhibiting extraordinary precision in skill and execution. Rendered in yellow and black, the most classic palette of Kusama’s corpus of pumpkin sculptures, the sculpture’s intense colour juxtaposition and dynamic patterns induce a rhythmic and enthralling optical sensation. Kusama’s pumpkins are one of the most loved and recognized images in contemporary art today; classic and universally adored, they are an embodiment of optimism, serenity and joy – an artistic and symbolic motif which the artist repeatedly returned to for “spiritual balance”, inspiration and motivation (Yayoi Kusama, trans. Ralph McCarthy, Infinity Net, Tate Publishing, London, 2011, p.76).
Ksuama’s profound connection with the pumpkin motif traces back to her formative years. In 1948, three years after the war ended, a 19-year-old Kusama enrolled in a four-year course at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. “During my time in Kyoto I diligently painted pumpkins”, wrote the artist, “which in later years would become an important theme in my art” (Kusama Yayoi, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, trans. Ralph McCarthy, Tate Publishing, 2011, p. 75). Kusama recalls having consumed the vegetable endlessly to the point of nausea in her childhood years during and after the war; in spite of this, she retains a fond attachment to its organic bulbous form, describing it as embodying a “generous unpretentiousness” and “solid spiritual balance” (Ibid., p. 76). Already experiencing hallucinations at the time, involving pumpkins that spoke to her in a most animated manner, Kusama seemed to find the gourd a benign and nurturing subject – as opposed to the more traumatic and menacing feelings she associates with flowers, plants and objects that plagued her throughout her life.
Kusama’s early pumpkins were painted with traditional Nihonga materials, which she left behind after her move from Matsumoto to New York in 1958. Within only eighteen months of her arrival, Kusama stunned the New York art scene with her radical Infinity Nets in 1959, executed in the Western medium of oil, as well as her Accumulation soft sculptures in 1961. In 1965 Kusama infused explosions of colour into her sculptures through the use of dotted and striped fabrics; by this time, the sheer breadth, scale and ambition of her diverse cross-media oeuvre had taken over the city like an epidemic. Her ubiquitous polka-dot and net motifs, manifested in mesmeric paintings, immersive rooms, hypnotic installations, body art and participatory performances, forged a wholly unique aesthetic that articulated a rigorous, overwhelming language of obsession and obliteration – a language that enabled the artist to combat her hallucinatory mental illness. The artist reflects: “I use my complexes and fears as subjects. I make them and make them and then keep on making them, until I bury myself in the process. I call this ‘obliteration’” (Kusama Yayoi, cited in Mignon Nixon, ‘Infinity Politics’, in Francis Morris (ed.), Yayoi Kusama, Tate Publishing, 2012, p. 180).
After an explosive rise to fame in New York in the 1960s, Kusama retreated into a psychiatric hospital in Japan in 1975, withdrawing into a period of semi-obscurity whilst quietly amassing a prolific body of work. It was during this time that Kusama revisited her earlier pumpkin motif, combining her signature all-over Nets and obliterating polka-dot aesthetic with the theme of her favourite gourd. During the 1980s Kusama explored colourful variations of her pumpkin-pattern in two-dimensional paintings, drawings and prints; over the years her rendering of pumpkin ‘skin’ grew ever more deft and accomplished, with the flowing lines of dots advancing and receding rhythmically in a fastidiously precise yet dynamically organic manner. Even the seemingly blank or ‘undotted’ yellow segments are overlaid with miniscule black specks, contributing to a complex and intensely laborious configuration that pulsates and disorients with energy akin to that of Op art paintings.
Towards the latter half of the 1980s, Kusama began exhibiting more frequently at exhibitions around the world. Appreciation for Kusama’s work grew steadily, and in 1993, her international revival was made official when she was invited as the first solo artist and first woman ever to grace the Japanese pavilion at the 45th Venice Biennale. For the occasion, Kusama constructed Mirror Room (Pumpkin), consuming the entire interior of the pavilion in a floor-to-ceiling extravaganza of black-on-yellow polka dots. At its centre was a dazzling mirrored room filled with pumpkin sculptures, echoing her seminal 1966 Infinity Mirror Room—Love Forever whilst introducing the theme of the pumpkin. Tatehata Akira, the commissioner of the Japanese Pavilion, also organized a mini-retrospective of Kusama’s career to accompany the newly commissioned installation. Five years later in 1998, coinciding with the creation of the present two lots, another major milestone was reached when Kusama became subject of the defining solo exhibition “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958-1968” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1998, which subsequently travelled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I Carry on Living with the Pumpkins, a particularly distinctive creation straddling the realms of painting and sculpture, was created in 2013, twenty years after Kusama’s triumphant comeback at the 1993 Venice Biennale. It was to pumpkins that Kusama turned for solace during her period of reclusion, and it was with pumpkins in mind that she set about creating a work for her Venice Biennale solo exhibition. I Carry on Living with Pumpkins thus represents not only a mediation of the artist’s psychiatric illness but also as a symbol of victory for the artist’s personal rebirth and international resurgence – the pumpkin motif functioning as a kind of talisman that protects and motivates the artist to ‘carry on’ and live triumphantly. As Alexandra Munroe writes, Kusama’s art requires her “not only to surrender to madness but also to triumph over it; trauma must be substantially transformed before it can communicate to others as beauty and meaning” (Alexandra Munroe, ‘Between Heaven and earth: The Literary Art of Yayoi Kusama’, in Exh. Cat. Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958-1968, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1998, p. 81).