Painted in 1967, Untitled weaves streams of white over black paint in an entrancing pattern of delicate loops and curves. One of the celebrated Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s seminal series of paintings called Infinity Nets, the undulating paintwork summons volume and light from the flat surface plane. Although from a distance the canvas appears to be comprised of a single color, close-to an intricate network is revealed. A steady, almost meditative lattice of hand-painted scallops swathes the entire canvas, veiling it like a dense, but still ethereal, net. Each tirelessly applied brush-stroke has its own individual qualities, but unites with the others to form a swelling wave of shadows and texture. Reflecting the Eastern philosophy of infinity, the net appears to be ceaselessly expanding, repeating and creating: it could go on forever. “By obliterating one’s individual self,” Kusama has said, “one returns to the infinite universe” (Y. Kusama, quoted in G. Turner, Yayoi Kusama, Bomb, v. 66, Winter 1999).
The Infinity Nets are of paramount importance to Kusama’s illustrious career, and are to be found in many private and public collections across the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Despite little formal training, she arrived in New York in 1958 from Seattle, where she held her first solo show since leaving her native Japan in 1958. She was deeply ambitious and armed with nearly 2000 drawings and a letter from Georgia O’Keefe, with whom she had begun to correspond for advice on coming to the United States. The Infinity Nets were the first paintings that she made upon arrival. Their profound simplicity resonated in a city enthralled by abstract expressionism and action painting, and in October 1959 she secured her first solo show in at the Brata Gallery, barely a year after she had first set foot in the city. “I debuted in New York with just five works - monochromatic and simple, yet complex, subconscious accumulations of microcosmic lights, in which the spatial universe unfolds as far as the eye can see. Yet at first glance the canvases, which were up to 14ft in length, looked like nothing at all - just plain white surfaces” (Y. Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, Tate 2011).
The paintings were lauded by influential critics such as Dore Ashton and Lucy Lippard, and admired by fellow artists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd, both of whom were among the first collectors of her work. Judd praised her debut show, saying: “Yayoi Kusama is an original painter. The five white, very large paintings in this show are strong, advanced in concept and realized. The effect is both complex and simple” Although he acknowledged Kusama’s connections to Mark Rothko, Clifford Still and Barnett Newman, he also praised her work as “thoroughly independent” (D. Judd, quoted in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975, 2005, p. 2).
In contrast to the expressionist work of her peers, Kusama emphasized the machine-like process with which she worked, even managing to find the money to hire professional photographers to document her diligently making the net paintings in her studio. Commonly working with the canvas laid out on a table in front of her, she painted at such close quarters that it was almost impossible for her to see the whole picture while she worked. By doing this, Kusama rendered herself unable to respond to or alter the composition of the work while it was being made. The work therefore emerges organically over time, constructed as a complete object. Of her process, she has said “In these paintings, a single passive, undivided planar space is fixed on the canvas (naturally using an approach that is the opposite of the emotional space of Action painting, a central, major trend that emerged in New York), so each microscopic particle is given concrete structure as much as possible, and it reveals the congealing of a strange, gigantic mass. Through repetition of the act of making each touch over time, the layers of dry, white pigment give an infinite concreteness to the space in the middle of the actually visible field...In addition, these paintings entirely abandon having a single fixed focal point or center” (Y. Kusama, quoted in Yayoi Kusama, Tokyo, 2004).
The paintings convey the focus of attention that Kusama brings to all her works, and many were created in mammoth painting sessions of 40 or 50 hours without break for sleep or sustenance. The process of making the Infinity Nets was therapeutic to Kusama, who has suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder since childhood. They were also a visual expression of the hallucinations she has experienced from the age of 10, where her surroundings appear to become overrun with a repeated pattern, such as dots. She has recalled, “When I was a child, one day I was walking in the field, then all of a sudden, the sky became bright over the mountains, and I saw clearly the very image I was about to paint appear in the sky. I also saw violets, which I was painting, multiply to cover the doors, windows and even my body”. She was inspired to capture the experience in art. “I immediately transferred the idea onto a canvas. It was a hallucination only the mentally ill can experience” (Y. Kusama, quoted in “Damien Hirst Questions Yayoi Kusama, Across the Water, May, 1998,” Kusama: Now, exh. cat., Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1998, p. 15).
Kusama’s oeuvre is extraordinarily diverse - traversing the mediums of fashion, painting, sculpture, printmaking, installation, film and performance – but it is marked by focus, and an obsessive desire to immerse the viewer in her psychological experiences, and to explore the idea of the infinite. In placing minute repetitions in the service of larger, universal questions, the infinity nets have remained a touchstone for her work over the nine decades of Kusama’s life. “My desire was to predict and measure the infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots – an accumulation of particles forming the negative spaces in the net. How deep was the mystery? Did infinities exist beyond our universe? In exploring these questions I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life” (Y. Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, Tate 2011, p. 23).