Born in 1929 in Japan to wealthy but conservative parents, Kusama started out studying traditional Japanese Nihonga painting. She hated the stringent Japanese art curriculum, turning her studies to western avant-garde art. Though she created some works in Japan, it was her fifteen-year sojourn in America that defined her signature dot and infinity net motifs. In 1959, despite strong disapproval, she moved to New York City, which was bursting with unparalleled artistic energy. Kusama saw the rise of Abstract Expressionism, pop, feminist, conceptual, performance and minimalist art. It is apparent she embraced and even contributed to aspects of each movement but she never fully assimilated to anyone.
Performance art presented Kusama a new way to confront her fears and anxieties head on. She would cover herself in large spots and place herself in installations and performances, literally "becoming one" with her art. She also staged a series of happenings in places such as Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, where she would paint polka dots on people's naked bodies. The corporeal aspect of Kusama's performances is evocative of Gutai, the Japanese avant-garde movement that sought to "break down the barriers between art, the ordinary public, and everyday life." Often engaging the whole body, Gutai called attention to the passage of space and time through action. For example, in Challenging Mud, Kazuo Shiraga writhed about in the mud, creating sculptural shapes with his body (Fig. 3). He is most known for using his feet to paint in attempt to eliminate deliberate movements and free the subconscious, thus allowing him to connect with his shishitsu, the essence of his individuality.
At 10 meters long, this is one of the largest "infinity net" paintings by Yayoi Kusama to appear at auction. An intricate latticework of gestural loops and strokes in silver extends across an unbroken plane of black. In its abstraction and minimalism, Infinity Net - WHXOTLO (Lot 65) begins to resemble a landscape without beginning or end, not unlike those of Chinese artists Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh Chun. Against the twentieth-century backdrop of a rapidly modernising Asia, Kusama - like Zao and Chu - represents a general but distinct departure from Asian art traditions as a result of having spent much time in Europe and America. Kusama's art becomes not just an exchange but a convergence between eastern and western art practices, resulting in a style that is uniquely her own.
Infinity Net - WHXOTLO calls to mind Monet's Water Lilies (Fig. 1). The reflection of light and sky on the surface of the pond in Monet's garden is the main subject of his painting. Originally intended as a full-circle panorama, Water Lilies is an "illusion of an endless whole of water without horizon or bank," giving the viewer "refuge for peaceful meditation." Kusama's painting similarly envelopes the viewer in a shimmering, serene embrace. The monochrome Infinitely Net series not only encapsulated the seed of Kusama's signature style for the next five decades, including her celebrated Pumpkin series, but also boded crucial elements of the Minimalist movement. It has become her best-known motifs derived from the blotches that swarmed her visions of vast proliferations of dots and nets that overtook everything, including herself. "My room, my body, the entire universe was filled with [patterns], my self was eliminated, and I had returned and been reduced to the infinity of eternal time and the absolute of space. This was not an illusion but reality". Drawing is a way to express, and thereby soften, the fright of visual and aural hallucinations.
This prescient colossal piece stretching ten meters evokes infinite and transcendent space. It questions illusion and reality as their appearance changes over time in the viewer's perception. The delicate impasto conveys a sense of solidity, suggesting a net that veils a deeper void. Kusama's subtle variations in the impasto create patterns within the all-over field of dots, which unite and drift as one's eyes meander across the painting. Unlike her still-life paintings that allured to Materialism which are composed of material and confined by the physical world. This piece is deeply associated with Subjective Idealism, with the metaphysical and epistemological doctrine that ideas or thoughts construct fundamental reality. Bishop George Berkeley suggests, "To be is to be perceived or to perceive". This proliferation of nets creates the vastness of the cosmos or the infinitesimal forms of atoms. It is neither Eastern shanshui nor Western landscape painting, it is immaterial substance uniquely Kusama's mind, as she said, "By obliterating one's individual self, one returns to the infinite universe." It signifies Eastern philosophy of infinity- organically changing, constructing and creating. Its undulating lattice of grey colour encircles the viewer in a web that radiates both a meditative calm and a dizzying restlessness.
Kusama's repeating circles and dots likewise give her mental illness physical manifestation that has simultaneously come to define her. She adopted the habit of being regularly photographed in front of new works, often wearing coordinating outfits. In these photos, the artist and her art become indistinguishable. Such idiosyncrasies and a magnetic personality kept Kusama in an influential circle of friends like Donald Judd, Joseph Cornell and Eva Hesse. She experienced her fifteen minutes of fame but mostly remained an outsider as a foreign female artist in a white male-dominated art world.
In 1972, a physically, mentally and financially exhausted Kusama returned to Tokyo, where she quietly wrote fiction and developed a cult following. A few years later, she would voluntarily submit herself into Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo, where she continues to reside to this day. Kusama was mostly forgotten during the 80s and 90s until several major museum retrospectives of her work and her participation in the 1993 Venice Biennale jettisoned her back in the spotlight. With record-fetching prices, fashion collaboration with Louis Vuitton and several books under her belt, Kusama is far from self-obliteration. She has mastered a method to her madness, which in turn is immortalised in her paintings and photographs. At the ripe age of 85 and as industrious as ever, Kusama continues to produce art in her studio across the street from Seiwa Hospital.