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signed, titled in Japanese and dated 'Yayoi Kusama 1993' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
28 3/4 x 35 3/4 in. (73 x 90.8 cm.)
Painted in 1993.
Private collection, Japan
gallery a-cube, Tokyo
Private collection, Paris, 2006
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Special notice
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Brought to you by

Isabella Lauria
Isabella Lauria Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

The luxurious curves of Yayoi Kusama’s yellow Pumpkin are subtle, tactile, and evocative. Its vibrant colors resemble the sun and the earth, somewhere peaceful and introspective. This desire for generating reflection in the viewer, especially through unexpected objects and images, has always been Kusama’s practice. Painted almost life size, Pumpkin surges with the artist’s perennial vitality even as it mirrors a natural scale. As Laura Hoptman, executive director of the Drawing Center, New York, writes, “Her vision—peculiar, personal, mesmeric—has proven, after all, to be indelible” (L. Hoptman, “The Return of Yayoi Kusama,” MoMA Magazine, July/August 1998, p. 8). In Pumpkin, Kusama extends that vision through evocative relationships to art history, placing her among the most introspective artists of all time.

Pumpkin centers its subject within a field of the signature interlocking loops and swirls that have come to characterize Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings. As she noted in a 1999 interview, “I have been trying to give my work a structured look by combining various forms,” which is especially apparent in the present example (G.T. Turner and Y. Kasuma, “Yayoi Kusama by Grady T. Turner,” BOMB, January 1, 1999, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/yayoi-kusama/). Her minimalist background united with the exquisite lines of the yellow pumpkin mirror the structure of the human body, which is by nature both unique and universal, structured and unpredictable. The pumpkin connects corporeal forms to cosmic ones as it evokes the twinkling of a distant star. Yet the subject of Pumpkin, with its intentionally intimate scale, feels so close to us, something that we could reach out and touch. It occupies our space by crossing through the net, a boundary between our earthly plane and the future.
Painted in 1993, Pumpkin was executed at a pivotal time for the artist. She was chosen as the first single artist to represent Japan in her country’s pavilion at the Giardini, and the centerpiece of her exhibit was a large yellow pumpkin installed in one of her signature mirrored Infinity Rooms. It also marked her reemergence onto the international art scene after a period of relative isolation. She experienced renewed interest in her work, which resulted in new gallery representation (Ota Fine Art in 1994), and a slew of new installations including a monumental yellow pumpkin installed on the remote Japanese island of Naoshima in 1994, her first outdoor art installation since her iconic “happenings” of the 1960s.

The color yellow has occupied a central place within art history, celebrated for both its visceral and spiritual qualities. The most famous modern example might be Paul Gauguin’s The Yellow Christ (1889), which, like Pumpkin, uses color to ends both surreal and true to life. Given its contemplative, almost spiritual nature, Pumpkin might evoke Mark Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) or Helen Frankenthaler’s Yellow Crater (1963-1964). What these disparate works have in common, if viewed alongside Kusama’s Pumpkin, is a shared optimism, even a utopian quality. For to approach the color of the sun is itself a massive statement that brings art closer to life, which has been Kusama’s goal. Vincent van Gogh would agree with her, “The sun dazzles me and goes to my head, a sun, a light that I can only call yellow, sulphur yellow, lemon yellow, golden yellow. How lovely yellow is!” (V. van Gogh, quoted in P.D. Smith, “Yellow: The History of a Color review,” The Guardian, December 24, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/dec/24/yellow-the-history-of-a-colour-by-michel-pastoureau-review#:~:text=Yellow%20pigments%20derived%20from%20clay,of%20the%20sun%20and%20gold.). In this way, Yellow Pumpkin combines a personal experience with a universal one. Kusama says, “My love for humanity and for the world has always been the driving force and energy behind all that I do” (R. Greenstreet and Y. Kusama, “Yayoi Kusama: A letter from Georgia O’Keefe gave me the courage to leave home,” The Guardian, May 21, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/21/yayoi-kusama-interview-artist).

Equally interesting are the natural and plant-based art histories evoked by Pumpkin that amplify Kusama’s vision for community and care across the world. With all the quiet empathy of the present work, Qi Baishi’s Pumpkin and Bees and Pumpkins evoke a peaceful world. More generally, we might consider the still lifes of Johannes Vermeer, especially the otherworldly hues of his The Procuress (1656) or Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c. 1662-1665). Pumpkin, with its centralized composition, also recalls Jean Siméon Chardin’s paintings like A mallard and a bitter orange, whose orange pop of color is also a memento mori. The most important interlocutor in terms of naturalism might be Georgia O’Keefe, with whom Kusama corresponded and developed a relationship. O’Keefe’s vibrant, yellow Hibiscus (1939) is a colorful study of abstraction within figuration, a technique that has likewise inspired Kusama. For both artists, nature can exist both as a universal form and as the embodiment of individual experience.

Furthermore, Kusama sought to distinguish herself from the unbridled emotionality of Abstract Expressionism and the ironic object-based work of the Pop artists. The unique pattern of Pumpkin that could only have come from Kusama’s mind does “not suggest an external organizational code or a structural system, but still demonstrates a powerful physical presence,” (M. Matsui, “Beyond Oedipus: Desiring Production of Yayoi Kusama,” Parkett, 2000, p. 92). In this way, her yellow Pumpkin moves beyond the limits of line and shape, while still maintaining a sculptural presence, as with the formally ambitious objects of Louise Bourgeois.

Kusama’s work is sunny indeed, and within that lust for life is an entire history of emotion in art through the centuries. Pumpkin is a generator of passion. It does not present nets meant to capture; they conversely encourage us to feel the deepest emotions without allowing them to be lost to the demands of everyday life. A striking example of Kusama’s sought-after paintings of the 1990s, just as her career was reach the height Western critical acclaim. Each motif, such as the pumpkin and the accompanying Infinity Nets, have their own inimitable presence that speaks both to their skilled making and the emotions they elicit. Pumpkin is a painting that shows light in relief, in three dimensions. It gives us an illuminated path forward into a heretofore unknown and joyful space.

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