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Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale
12 November 2008
New York, Rockefeller Plaza
Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929)
signed, titled and dated 'YAYOI KUSAMA 1959 No. 2' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
71¾ x 108 in. (182.9 x 274.3 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
Donald Judd, New York
Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York, The Center for International Contemporary Art, Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective, September 1989-January 1990, p. 45, no. 16 (illustrated).
The Infinity Nets of 1959 are hypnotic monochrome paintings that Yayoi Kusama created soon after her arrival in New York, the first step in a highly original artistic career that has made her the most highly renowned post-war artist from Japan. This series of paintings proved to be extremely prescient, as it not only encapsulated the seed of Kusama's signature style for the next five decades but also presaged crucial elements of the influential Minimalist movement. No. 2 of 1959, with its undulating lattice of pure white paint, is one of the very first examples of Kusama's Infinity Net series. Through the repetitive technique that she characterizes as "obsessional," Kusama's No. 2 envelops the viewer in a shimmering web that paradoxically radiates both a meditative calm and a dizzying restlessness.
Soon after arriving in New York in 1958, Kusama boasted to a Japanese magazine: "I am planning to create a revolutionary work that will stun ... the New York art world'' (Y. Kusama, quoted in "Kusama Dot Com," New York Times Style Magazine, February 24, 2008). Deeply ambitious, despite little formal artistic training, Kusama strove to create an innovative response to the Abstract Expressionist painting that still dominated the New York art scene. She chose the pure white paint and subtle patterns of the Infinity Nets in large part as a riposte to the prevailing gesturalism of much art at the time. Yet in formulating the all-over compositions such as No. 2, Kusama also strategically placed herself as an heir to the tradition of all-over abstraction exemplified by Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Like them, Kusama evokes unfathomable and transcendent space.
Kusama's own hallucinatory visions, which she had suffered from about the age of ten, absolutely inspired her Infinity Net compositions. She described being struck by haunting visions of vast proliferations of dots, nets and flowers 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" (Y. Kusama, quoted in Yayoi Kusama, New York, 2000, p. 36). Her Infinity Net paintings question the line between illusion and reality, as their appearance shifts over time in the viewer's perception. At first glance, the delicate impasto imparts a sense of solidity, but over time the grey plane that peeks through openings in the white net of paint recedes, suggesting a net that veils a deeper void. Yet the negative space that reveals the grey ground creates a powerful pattern of dots, causing one's perception of figure and ground to fluctuate. Moreover, Kusama's subtle variations in the impasto create patterns within the all-over field of dots, which coalesce and drift as one's eyes meander across the painting's wide expanse. This proliferation of dots alternately suggests the vastness of the cosmos or the infinitesimal forms of cells or atoms.
Painting obsessively, sometimes for forty or fifty hours without a break, Kusama insisted that the process of creating the Infinity Net paintings was integral to the works themselves. She recalled her early experiences in New York as being very difficult, saying that "day after day I forgot my coldness and hunger by painting" (Y. Kusama, quoted in "Kusama Dot Com"). Yet through both physical and psychological hardship, Kusama maintained a spiritual element in her painting. As she explained, "By obliterating one's individual self, one returns to the infinite universe" (Y. Kusama, quoted in G. Turner, "Yayoi Kusama" Bomb 66 Winter 1999).
Kusama's gallery debut in 1959, only a year and a half after arriving in New York, was a stunning success. She presented a group of five large white Infinity Net paintings, which were praised 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 would acquire paintings by Kusama. Judd praised her debut show, declaring the paintings "advanced in concept" with an effect "both complex and simple." Although he acknowledged Kusama's connections to Rothko, Still and Newman, he also praised her work as "thoroughly independent" (quoted in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975, Halifax, 2005, p. 2). Kusama's work impressed many who later became involved in Minimalism, and she professed to work like a machine upon her canvases, as an antidote to the expressionism of many peers. Yet she also inspired artists aligned with Post-Minimalism, such as Eva Hesse, and Kusama's works provided more sensual and organic repetition that departed from Minimalism's industrial aesthetic of Minimalism. She created her white Infinity Nets around the same time Robert Ryman began investigating the limitless painterly possibilities of white, which he had begun in the mid-1950s but did not show widely until the following decade. Kusama's work quickly gained an admiring following in Europe, as curator Udo Kultermann chose one of her white Infinity Nets of 1959 for an exhibition in West Germany titled Monochrome Painting. This was the first major show dedicated to this new tendency, where Kusama's paintings were shown alongside those by cutting-edge Europeans such as Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, as well as Mark Rothko.
The seemingly infinite field of dots that fills No. 2 would remain an important motif in Kusama's work for many decades. She applied the dot motif to many sculptures, as well as the objects in her pioneering installations, and even to the bodies of the nude performers who took part in her infamous happenings in the 1960s although this repetitive accumulation of pattern always reflected her own interior state above all. As Kusama described in 1964, "My nets grew beyond myself and beyond the canvases I was covering with them. They began to cover the walls, the ceiling, and finally the whole universe. I was always standing at the center of the obsession, over the passionate accretion and repetition inside of me" (Y. Kusama, quoted in Yayoi Kusama, p. 103). Although she subsequently produced Infinity Net paintings in a variety of different colors, the white Infinity Nets of 1959 arguably remain the most subtle in their visual effects, while also evoking the optimistic and futuristic aspirations of Kusama at the dawn of the 1960s.
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