THE MAKING OF AN ARTIST
Yayoi Kusama is one of the most important Japanese post-war artists who has achieved a celebrated international career. In 1957, in order to escape the feudalism, servility, and hackneyed tradition in Japan, Kusama fled to the U.S. with a large sum of U.S. dollars sewn in her dress and stuffed in her shoes. She started a number of seminal visual idioms, including infinity nets, polka dots, and protruding forms, which have unfolded into her later work (Fig. 1). Kusama constantly defies tradition, gender division, and existing conventions and regimentation in the art world. In 1973, after spending 16 years in New York, she moved back to Tokyo and checked herself in a psychiatric hospital close to her studio from where she continues to live today. Her work is fraught with the notions of repetition, proliferation, accumulation, and obliteration.
CLUSTERS OVERPOWER INDIVIDUALS
Sex-Obsession C from 1992 (Lot 3010) features intertwining protuberance-like structure covered with yellow polka dots. The swirly and elongated snake-like entities altogether form a web of infinity. They are variation of her early accumulation sculpture and encapsulate a salient evocation of male sexuality, at the same time reference to the fetishism of excess and consumerism in post-war industrialized society. In Kusama’s simultaneously microcosmic and macrocosmic world, clusters of individual subjects are always considered more significant than the singulars. In a review on Kusama’s Driving Image Show at Castellane Gallery in 1964, Donald Judd commented, ‘Kusama varies the protuberances, but they are seen collectively, as she intends, before they are seen individually. The collective impression is the more important anyway; the point is obsessive repetition…The effort to embody an interest such as obsessive repletion is mainly new. In most art the chief interests of the artist have been subordinate – those things he thinks about most, the strongest and clearest attitudes, the psychological preoccupations. Kusama is dealing directly with her interests, developing them, making a clear and obvious form.’ 1 (Fig. 2)
MORE IS LESS; ADDING IS MINUS
As Judd astutely observed, Kusama finds a way to turn the usually subordinate concerns of an artist into something domineering and overpowering. This extrovert introversion is almost revolutionary in a way and it becomes Kusama’s distinct formal vocabulary of aesthetic abstraction. Ever since a young age, Kusama has been suffering from hallucinatory visions and she resorts to the repetitive processes of imagery making as a way to overcome and to cure her excess of psychic disorder, ‘I make them and make them and keep on making them, until I bury myself in this process. I call this ‘obliteration’ … ‘Like being carried on a conveyor belt without ending to my death.’ In Kusama’s work, one can feel strong psychic automatism, characterized by the hauntingly powerful psychological undercurrents embedded in each piece and the innate dependence of the artist on her own creation.
CELEBRATORY AND SUBVERSIVE OF MALE MYTHOLOGY
Kusama’s idol was Georgia O’Keeffe, an American artist who was well-known for her symbolic depiction of female organs in the form of flowers (Fig. 3). Before and shortly after Kusama’s arrival in the U.S., she sought encouragement and inspiration from O’Keeffe. Like O’Keeffe, Kusama created her sexual imagery that is at once abstract in form and comic and defiant of masculine mythology. Sex-Obsession C combines some of the most identifiable idioms of Kusama – an infinite constellation of extruding forms, and covered by polka dots in her signature pumpkin yellow colour. The painting is a celebration and overt embrace of sexual symbols and a candid declaration of the artist’s obsession. In fact, Kusama has never been married in her life. She and Joseph Cornell who was twenty-six years her senior had a decade-long romantic yet platonic relationship. Cornell passed away in 1972 and Kusama felt a deep loss since. The intertwining composition in the current lot might represent the mutual infatuation and longing.
POLKA DOTS AS ENVIRONMENT
Polka dots are indispensable elements in Kusama’s visual vocabulary. Speaking of this, Kusama once said, ‘polka dots can’t stay alone…the communicative life of people’ in which ‘two or three and more polka dots become movement.’ When we ‘obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots,’ Kusama concluded, ‘we become part of the unity of our environments.’ 2 Similar to her Pop Art contemporaries, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein who used silk screening technique to regenerate commercial imagery, Kusama’s delicately hand-painted polka dots have the same effect of posing a dazzlingly visual bonanza and effacing the matter-of-factness and the singularity.
Painted in 1992, one year before Kusama was selected to represent Japan at the Venice Biannale in 1993, Sex-Obsession C came out in a career-defining moment of the artist’s creative trajectory. It combines Kusama’s staple symbols, her life legacy, and her deepest emotion and suffering on one canvas.
1 Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975, New York University Press, 2005, p. 134.
2 Laura Hoptman et. al., Yayoi Kusama: A Comprehensive Overview of the Visionary Work of the Japanese artist, Phaidon, 2000, p. 119.