‘These pumpkins came in a huge box filled with bubble wrap,’ says specialist Victoria Gramm, discussing two iconic yellow and black spot pumpkins by Yayoi Kusama — each so small that Gramm feared she’d ‘lose them in their packaging’. Standing at just 8 and 10 centimetres tall, the miniature marvels by an artist recently declared ‘the most popular in the world’ are among the highlights of our Post-War and Contemporary Art sale on 11-12 April in Amsterdam.
‘Along with dots, the pumpkin is one of the most important motifs in Yayoi Kusama’s œuvre,’ says Gramm, noting that the black and yellow colouring of these works is also typical of the artist’s output.
Born in Japan in 1929, Kusama first began to cover surfaces with painted polka dots aged just 10, prompted, she would later explain, by a series of vivid hallucinations that transformed the world around her into a sea of ‘flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots.’
As Kusama grew older, dots took on greater significance, coming to represent the idea of infinity. She commented: ‘A polka dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world.’ By the 1960s, dots had become a tool for what the artist described as ‘self-obliteration’, extinguishing the identity of any object or person to which they were applied and, in doing so, reiterating the infinite universe. Mirrors also became a trademark, used to create psychedelic rooms of endlessly repeating dots.
It was another hallucinatory experience that led Kusama to pumpkins. In her autobiography, the artist writes: ‘The first time I ever saw a pumpkin was in elementary school… It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner.’
In the late 1940s, she spent two years in Kyoto, ‘relentlessly’ painting pumpkins, which she now views as a form of alter ego or self-portrait. Today, they are central to some of her most famous works — from her giant sculptures at the 1993 Venice Biennale, to the recent installation All the Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins. ‘These pumpkins are a fantastic way to get into her work, at a price point that’s accessible,’ says Gramm.
In 2014, following major retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and Tate Modern, Kusama became the world’s most expensive living female artist when White No. 28 sold for $7,109,000 at Christie’s. For collectors who have caught the pumpkin bug the printed pumpkin on paper, below, also featured in the sale, offers another excellent opportunity to acquire a work by the artist.
‘These are iconic pieces of art, but what’s nice about them is that you can display them anywhere — as a stand-out centrepiece or, in the case of the ceramic pumpkins, nestled among books,’ Gramm says.
For the specialist, Kusama’s return to Christies’ Amsterdam makes this sale particularly special. ‘I am always excited to offer Kusama here. She had a really strong connection to the Netherlands,’ she explains. ‘In 1962 she was the only female artist to take part in the acclaimed Zero exhibition in Amsterdam and, in many ways, it’s where her career took off.’
Today, Kusama’s global appeal is indisputable. At the beginning of 2017, a 50-year retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum attracted record numbers of visitors, with 14,000 flocking to see the show in its first week.
‘Kusama doesn’t perceive things in the way that you or I do,’ says Gramm. ‘She experiences her surrounds as a hallucinogenic landscape, composed of infinite fields of nets and dots. That’s brought out in her work and what makes her so appealing: she’s an artist who offers a new way of seeing the world.’