In October of 1959, when Donald Judd stepped into Brata Gallery in New York, he was deeply moved by the works he saw before him. The gallery walls were hung with five massive paintings that were almost as large as the walls themselves. The surface of these black canvases were painted with dense strokes forming a white net. Judd enthusiastically praised Kusama as an “original painter” in a review that was published in the ARTnews in the same month. He remarked that Kusama’s works were “strong, advanced in concept, and realised”, and that “the expression transcends the question of whether it is Oriental or American. Although it is something of both, […] it is not at all a synthesis and is thoroughly independent.” A bright star was rising in the art world— Kusama and Mark Rothko jointly represented the United States in the Monochrome Malerei exhibition in Germany the following year. Soon after, her works were exhibited with the progressive art collective, the ZERO movement in the Netherlands. These famed works, called Infinity Nets, were painted by an artist who travelled from Japan to the other side of the world to emerge as one of the most important artists of the post-war era, even among an already crowded pantheon of greats. Even now she continues to produce work that earns her a place both of esteem in art history and relevance in the world today.
What is the purpose of creation? Be it an expression, an inspiration for reflection, or a representation of what lies in the imagination, the artist is sharing his or her worldview with the viewer. The curiously coloured world of Kusama is inspired by her personal experience. Since she was a child, she experienced hallucinations that engulfed her vision with nets, dots, and various patterns. She used creation as an outlet to release this impactful energy. And through this process, this unique experience was forged into a visual language possessing a meaningful coherence within its own self contained world. Looking back at Kusama’s works before she left for the United States, one can see that the imagery that she employs is akin to microorganisms (Fig. 1). This motif was developed into an iconic formal visual language in the work Untitled (Lot 38). Painted in the 1960s, when this milestone series was in its nascent stage, this work witnessed moments of critical metamorphosis in Kusama’s artistic career. Sinuous red lines weave an organic net that extends indefinitely. Untitled attempts to ensnare everything that comes into its way until the whole world is captured. This work was acquired directly by an American private collector from Kusama herself in the 1960s, and it remained with that collector until a family member inherited the painting. This is the first time that it has been made available for the public to see in over half a century. Other works on paper bearing the same provenance are also being offered in this season’s day sales.
Apeiron is a Greek word that means infinite. The ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander believed that this was the nature, origin, and final destiny of all matter- an ultimate reality. When the viewers gaze into Untitled, they unwittingly enter the spiritual realm of the eternal. Kusama was deeply drawn to the boundless energy of the universe, and its power is intensely expressed through the bright red colour employed in the work presented here. Although red signals danger and caution, it is also closely associated with symbols of life, such as blood and childbirth. Kusama called her ideal state of existence self-obliteration, “When I ceaselessly work, I integrate my being into these expressions. This is what I call self-obliteration- to eliminate the form of the self.” This eversprawling net blurs the boundaries between time and dimension. It envelopes us in an eternal realm that is without beginning or end. As vast as the universe, this element is a thread that runs through her artistic oeuvre for over half a century.
New York in the post-war era was the cultural and artistic epicenter of the world, and a myriad of artistic movements sprung up during this period. It was in that environment that Kusama was situated when she first arrived in New York. Untitled reveals to the viewers how Kusama stood out amongst her peers and won the favour of the art world elite. At the time, Abstract Expressionism had moved beyond its developmental stage, no longer considered to be pushing artistic boundaries, but rather was mired by the commonly held view that the movement was self-aggrandizing and formulaic. Concurrently, Minimalism was gaining popularity. Practitioners of this artistic movement demonstrated restraint that emphasised reduced expression in order to highlight the materiality of the medium. Kusama’s Infinity Net was a new artistic development that was born out these two polarising movements.
The visual elements of Untitled are succinct— painted arcs of black and red dominate the entire picture plane. Simple yet dense brushstrokes achieve an effect that is similar to the Minimalistic white-on-white paintings of Robert Ryman (Fig. 2). Ryman spent his life repeatedly experimenting with the effects of different types of white pigment on varying materials. Through this investigation into the multiplicity of painting, his works exude a contemplative atmosphere. Untitled is similarly minimalistic in nature, every brushstroke encompassing Kusama’s desire to express herself. The sinuous arcs multiply in perpetual repetition, modulated by changes in density. Thus, the entire picture is activated with a rhythm generated by holes of different sizes and tendencies as well as subtly undulating hues within the red strokes. As the brushstrokes shimmer across the canvas, the red net multiplies like cells teeming with vitality. The unbridled energy and wild emotion in this work creates a similar visual impact to Abstract Expressionist masterpieces (Fig. 3). With calm and controlled execution, Kusama gave life to a work that is surges forward with an all-enveloping emotional energy. Untitled is constructed with both rationality and sentimentality. It accomplishes what Judd referred to as an effect that is “both complex and simple”. It is for this reason that Kusama has never been definitively pigeon-holed into any particular school or framework, while at the same time provides inspiration for following generations of artists who have made their way in her wake.
Today, Kusama is one of those most internationally acclaimed artists. The Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in Shinjuku, Tokyo in October 2017. Untitled marked the beginning of the artist’s most groundbreaking series. Another noteworthy feature is that since the 1980s, Kusama switched to using acrylic paint. Executed in the 1960s, Untitled is a rare early work that was painted in oil. Other works in red that were produced in the same period are now held in museum collections (Fig. 4). Kusama’s oil paintings are rich in texture. The medium adds a sense of three-dimensionality in an otherwise planar composition. Viewers can follow these visually stimulating brushstrokes, imagining themselves travelling back in time to New York in the 1960s. As the viewers trace the movement of the artist’s hand, the red circles activate and conquer the black abyss of the canvas beneath. All form is engulfed and obliterated and through this process, all things return to eternity.