In the late 1990s, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Japan Foundation jointly organised the solo exhibition, Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968/In Full Bloom: Yayoi Kusama, Years In Japan, with generous support from the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This historic exhibition toured in both the United States and Japan, and for three years, major cultural institutions from these two nations participated in the extensive exhibition research and planning process. The result is a systematic mapping of the artistic trajectory of this legendary artist. The exhibition included over 200 works from Yayoi Kusama’s New York and Japan periods, and scholars from both nations contributed text to this massive project. In the foreword, Graham W. J. Beal, director of the Los Angeles County Museum, and Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, acknowledged Yayoi Kusama’s influence on the development of American art in the 1960s. They further expounded upon the fact Kusama’s artwork represents an amalgamation of many different artistic styles, including Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop Art. Her works opened the door to Post-Minimalism, and inspired many influential artists that came after her.
Between her return to Japan in 1975 and the exhibition’s opening, Yayoi Kusama had not been active in the international art scene. As a result, this large retrospective exhibition focused the international spotlight back onto her and her works. No. F. C. H. (Lot 39) is one of eleven Infinity Net paintings that were exhibited as part of the retrospective, and after completing the touring exhibitions in the United States and Japan, it was acquired by a private collector and has not appeared in the market since. Painted in 1960, this oil painting can be traced back to the early period of this iconic series. It is widely recognised as a milestone work that serves as the foundation of Kusama’s later artistic development – a true masterpiece.
Works in the Infinity Net series often utilise high contrast colours such as black and red, yellow and black, or green and black. The gravity of the black brings out the brilliance of the colour of the net, and as a result the relationship between the top and bottom layers is apparent. No. F. C. H. does not repeat this direct visual effect. Yayoi Kusama first painted the entire canvas a brilliant shade of burnt orange, then layered short arcs of teal blue over the top. As a colour, orange is typically used on the subject in the foreground, but Kusama’s unorthodox use of orange as a background colour heightens the tension between the orange and the blue. Both tones are equally prominent as there is no apparent power imbalance between them, and visually one cannot easily determine the dominant-subordinate relationship. The two colours criss-cross against each other as they encourage the viewer’s gaze to wander across the picture plane, and the rich visual stimulation is akin to the use of colour in pointillism (fig. 1). Complex tones may be broken down into primary colours constituents, and only upon close inspection does one realise that complex hues are made of dots of other colours. Seen at any distance, this is a painting that brims with vibrant hues. Yayoi Kusama skilfully combines two intensely contrasting colours, creating a thrillingly dramatic tension within the painted image.
The holes of the net in No. F. C. H. vary in size, and their movements change dynamically. This effect is reminiscent of the visual illusions used in op art (fig. 2). Op art uses rigid, scientific designs to combine shapes and colour into meticulously executed compositions that confound the viewer. Yet Kusama’s treatment of surface is the exact opposite. The presence of her hand as the artist is strongly felt, and every brushstroke is filled with life. Viewers are encouraged to trace them to feel the dynamism in the artist’s mark-making process. In addition, many progressive artists at the time were exploring the use of repeated elements in art. Günther Uecker from Zero art group used nails in his works (fig. 3) while Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein painted countless Ben-Day dots borrowed from the printing process in his works. In contrast, Yayoi Kusama’s brushworks are not mechanically reproduced – rather the impasto on the painted surface is rich with texture. This treatment enhances the ever-changing rhythm of the net holes. The organic abstract patterns are charged with energy from the natural world, leading viewers into a unique visual experience constructed by the artist.
Yayoi Kusama has been tormented by hallucinations from an early age. She frequently perceives illusionary patterns engulfing the world around her, and this phenomenon compelled her to create artworks that transform her illness into a visual language. Using images and brushstrokes, she stimulates the subconscious of the viewers. Kusama’s painted nets seem to be ever-expanding and multiplying like cells that threaten to breach the boundary of the picture plane. The infinite space conveys the world view of self-obliteration. By painting dots or nets, Kusama seeks to obliterate the world around her and sublimate her existence into an eternal realm. The concept of breaking through the twodimensional space is often associated with the works of Lucio Fontana. By punching holes or slashing the canvas, he was creating new space by transcending the original dimension of the painting. During the 1960s, Yayoi Kusama was in fact invited to numerous exhibitions in Europe, including group exhibitions with Zero that featured seminal artists such as Fontana and Klein.
In the Love Forever catalogue, art historian Lynn Zelevansky discusses the significance of Yayoi Kusama’s works during her New York period. She argues that Kusama’s work successfully resonated with the contemporary environment in New York at the time because she was able to skilfully alter her highly idiosyncratic visual language to fit. Zelevansky pointed out that the subjects of dots and nets made their appearances in Kusama’s watercolour works as early as her Japan period. But upon arriving in New York, the local artistic environment hastened the development of these subject matters to maturity. Infinity Net served as a preview for increasing popularity monochrome and repeated patterns when these aesthetics where still at a nascent stage. It also bridges the two opposing art movements of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Infinity Net shares the same pursuit for expressive brushwork of the former as well as the concerns for reduced visual elements of the latter. This critique not only highlighted Kusama’s position in art history, it also summarised the importance of Infinity Net in her artistic career. To this day, the works of Yayoi Kusama still possess an undeniable power over both the academic and commercial art worlds. Exhibited globally, she is one of the most preeminent female contemporary artists. Her personal museum opened in October of 2017 in Tokyo, Japan, and following the brushwork of No. F. C. H., viewers can imagine that they have returned to New York when the painting was created. It is an archetypal work that serves as the cornerstone in the artistic career of the Queen of Polka Dots.