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signed, titled in Japanese and dated 'Yayoi Kusama 1987' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
15 x 17 7/8 in. (38.1 x 45.4 cm.)
Painted in 1987.
Private collection, Tokyo
Private collection, Osaka
Anon. sale; Christie's, South Kensington, 11 December 2008, lot 340
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
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Isabella Lauria
Isabella Lauria Vice President, Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

In Pumpkins (1987), a vibrant example of Yayoi Kusama’s undeniably career-defining subject, two dynamically undulating squashes sit atop a conversely flat tessellation of bright white and hot pink netting. A unique example of a lighter palette, as the artist typically demonstrates a preference for dark backgrounds, the flatness of the infinity-net background serves as the ingenious visual foil to the bulbous and brightly-rendered vegetables. Kusama’s signature yellow mingles with the otherwise-two-tone canvas, uniting color and form together to situate this work solidly in the realm of classic Kusama. Toeing the line between figuration and abstraction, the pumpkins take on a hallucinatory effect, with the dots at once hinting at the naturally mottled surface of a pumpkin, just as they unnaturally animate each pumpkin’s form to dance and swell before the viewer’s eyes. In featuring not only the pumpkin motif that has become synonymous with Kusama’s work, but also her infinity nets and all-over polka dots, this singular canvas stands as a true trifecta of Kusama’s most iconic vernacular elements.

Kusama’s family owned and operated a plant nursery in Matsumoto, a city in the mountains of Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, where the artist was born. Art-making came to Kusama early and naturally as a way to cope with severe environmental hallucinations experienced since childhood. Kusama’s earliest memories and, indeed, sketchbooks, are filled with extraordinarily detailed drawings of flowers, foliage and vegetation. Despite a disparaging lack of support from her parents, the young artist’s raw talent soon catalyzed what was once a therapeutic exercise into a full-fledged career in the arts. Following already six solo shows in Japan throughout the 1950s, Kusama moved to New York City, drawn to the excitement and freedom of the Abstract Expressionist movement already underway in the United States.

Upon her arrival in New York in 1958, Kusama absorbed the Abstract Expressionist energy and filtered it through her own practice, resulting in hypnotic yet minimal and pop-esque work that stood in bold and refreshing opposition to the grandeur of the larger movement. Referencing Kusama’s time immersed in this downtown arts scene, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote, “Sometimes I think Yayoi Kusama might be the greatest artist to come out of the 1960s and one of the few, thanks in part to her long life, still making work that feels of the moment” (R. Smith, “Yayoi Kusama and the Amazing Polka-Dotted, Selfie-Made Journey to Greatness,” The New York Times, 2017). Indeed, to be reminded that Kusama’s induction into the art world occurred decades ago, or the fact that she is now 92 years old, can be jarring considering her work feels, and has somehow always felt, so deeply contemporary. Epitomizing what it means to be avant-garde, Kusama has consistently evaded all art historical categorization throughout her more than seventy years of production – a testament to a body of work that is both entirely her own and uniquely timeless.

While pumpkins make their first appearance in the artist’s oeuvre as early as 1946, Kusama’s intense fixation on the motif bubbled to the surface of her psyche in the early 1980s, around the time she returned to Japan in ill-health after her fifteen years in New York. Kusama’s inclination to return to pumpkins as she returned to Japan is not coincidental. As Kusama fought to emerge from under the weight of mental illness, she latched on to pumpkins as a source of familiar comfort. Her “spiritual home since childhood,” pumpkins were to Kusama a benign and nurturing subject (Y. Kusama, “On Pumpkins,” 2010). Unlike her early hallucinations of dots and flowers that likewise inform her work, Kusama recalls that the pumpkin hallucinations never caused her fear. In her own words: “Giving off an aura of my sacred mental state, they embody a base for the joy of living, a living shared by all of humankind on the earth. It is for the pumpkins that I keep on going” (Y. Kusama, “On Pumpkins,” 2010). Painted in 1987, Pumpkins is simultaneously a relic from this pivotal moment in Kusama’s past, as well as a tether to her creative expression today.

Since the initial breakthrough of Kusama’s pumpkin obsession in the 1980s, from which the present lot originates, Kusama has returned to the subject time and time again. The vegetable appears in all her media, from drawing to infinity room, and at every scale, from miniature to monumental. The latter can be seen as recently as last year’s Dancing Pumpkin (2020), which debuted in her major solo exhibition at New York Botanical Garden, Cosmic Nature (ongoing through 31 October 2021). Dancing Pumpkin, in particular, speaks to the pumpkins of the present lot, as if to confirm our suspicions all along that it was no optical illusion – that the pumpkins we see now before us could likewise at any moment jump off the canvas, lifting previously concealed squash limbs joyously into the air, dancing freely before us at long last.

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