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each: signed, titled, titled in Japanese, numbered and dated '1992 YAYOI KUSAMA FLAME' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas, in three parts
overall: 57 ¼ x 114 ¾in. (145.5 x 291.5cm.)
Painted in 1992
Robert Miller Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2006.
L. Hoptman, A. Tatehata and U. Kultermann, Yayoi Kusama, London 2003 (illustrated in colour with incorrect dimensions, p. 73).
L. Neri and T. Goto (eds.), Yayoi Kusama, New York 2012 (illustrated in colour with incorrect arrangement and dimensions, pp. 86-87 and 279).
Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Yayoi Kusama, 2011-2012, p. 205, no. 93 (illustrated in colour with incorrect dimensions, p. 142). This exhibition later travelled to Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou; London, Tate Modern and New York, Whitney Museum of American Art.
Further details
This work is accompanied by a registration card issued by Yayoi Kusama Inc.

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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Spanning almost three metres in width, Flame (1992) is a monumental triptych by Yayoi Kusama. Across its three panels, fluorescent pink tadpole-like shapes cavort and swim before a radiant white backdrop. Relating closely to the dots and webs of her famed ‘Infinity Net’ paintings, these organic forms emerged in Kusama’s works around 1988, during a time of increasing confidence for the artist. The present work’s vast, multi-panel composition is typical of this ambitious period. Suggestive equally of microscopic, cellular activity and a cosmic canopy of stars, the mesmerising surface pulsates with life, and suggests an endless expanse beyond the picture plane. In 1992, the year that Flame was painted, Kusama was honoured with a retrospective at Sogetsu Art Museum, Tokyo; the following year saw her seminal representation of Japan at the 45th Venice Biennale. Almost two decades later, Flame was included in the artist’s international touring retrospective of 2011-2012, which opened at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. It has been held in the same private collection since 2006.

Kusama left her native Japan for New York in 1958, and made her name there in the 1960s heyday of Pop Art, Minimalism and the counterculture generation. Her ‘Infinity Net’ paintings, sculptural installations and radical ‘Happenings’—which saw her polka-dots cover rooms, costumes, and even the nude bodies of performers—won her early admirers among American artists and critics alike. Upon her return to Japan in 1973, she found a country very different to the one she had left, and—regarded as a ‘Western’ artist—had little foothold in the local art scene. Suffering from periods of mental instability, she largely withdrew from her studio practice, focusing on small-scale ceramics, collage and writing. During the 1980s, set on remaining in Japan and established in the hospital that she maintains as her base to this day, she made a triumphant return to painting. She worked with renewed vigour, creating diptychs, triptychs and other multi-panel works of ever more impressive scale. Where her early ‘Infinity Nets’ had been painted in lacy, impasto webs of oil paint, she now used smooth acrylic, creating dazzling, seamless surfaces of optical sensation.

It was during this buoyant period that the germinal motifs seen in Flame burst into life. Bhupendra Karia compared them to ‘a sperm-like form sprouting polka dots, or eggs hatching into tadpoles’ (B. Karia, ‘Biographical Notes’, in Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective, exh. cat. Center for International Contemporary Arts, New York 1989, p. 87). These generative, fertile images speak to the creative outpouring in Kusama’s practice at the time, and also to the increasingly figurative character of her paintings. Where the ‘Infinity Nets’ were resolutely abstract—and were admired in those terms by Minimalists such as Donald Judd—her works now exhibited a heightened biomorphism, evoking tentacles, blossoms and cells in psychedelic profusions of activity and growth.

Kusama’s polka-dots were rooted in hallucinations that she suffered during her early childhood. Traumatised by a distressing emotional environment at home, she was struck by apparitions of proliferating dots, nets and flowers that threatened to swallow her whole world. In the repetitious forms and techniques of her mature practice, Kusama retooled these overwhelming patterns as a means of release: losing herself in the ‘Infinity Nets’, she found a form of obsessive dissolution. Works like Flame speak to the evolution of this process towards a more serene, outward-looking vitality, embracing the forms of the natural world. The closely related canvas Flame of Life – Dedicated to Tu Fu (1988) honours the famed Tang Dynasty poet-sage Tu Fu, renowned for his seemingly effortless mastery of highly stylised forms. His poem ‘Day’s End’ concludes: ‘Springs trickle down dark cliffs, and autumn / Dew fills ridgeline grasses. My hair seems / Whiter in lamplight. The flame flickers / Good fortune over and over—and for what?’. Kusama’s Flame flickers in harmony with this vivid and mysterious verse, filled with wonder at the daily gift that is life on earth.

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