Yayoi Kusama has gained essential status in the predominantly male art world, positioned at the heart of the unfolding of art history. Kusama’s career, spanning from post-World War II up to the present day, is characterised by a ferocious élan vital that leaves no medium untouched. Adjacent to prevalent artistic trends such as Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop, but subscribing to none, she favours her reputation as a nonconformist who follows only her inner psyche. Her oeuvre has been as strongly informed by radicalising political engagement, and aesthetic concerns as by the anguishes of essence.
Born in 1929 in Matsumoto City in the mountainous region in Japan, Kusama is the last of four children in a conservative and prosperous family. By the mid 1950s, she was determined to leave Japan in search of a bigger world, as in her own words, Japan “was too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women”. Arriving in America in 1957, Kusama quickly integrated new influences. Trained in Nihonga painting, combined with American psychedelia and Pop culture, her art is of convergence between East and West, of dialogue and estrangement.
Kusama traced the origins of her rich artistic world, a psalm to life, and repetitive theme to obsessions and noetic energy. She began experiencing hallucinations since childhood, which have plagued her throughout her life, in which she feels herself being obliterated. Painting has been therapeutic for her to overcome the illness. In this process, she explained, “my self was eliminated, and I had returned and been reduced to the infinity of eternal time and the absolute of space. This was not an allusion but reality”. Her strong sense of illusion was not created methodologically, rather it radiates from her outsider vision.
Painted in 1987, Beyond the End of the Century (Lot 57) suggested microscopic or macroscopic worlds, with whimsical biomorphic patterns. Tadpole-like forms that suggest spermatozoa cover the work, strewn at random in equiluminant blobs of psychedelic red hues floating against a white background. In spontaneous lyrical rhythm, neurotically expansive and passionate repetitious-seeming forms create seductive glimpses in a pictorial space, calling to mind Bridget Riley and Carlos Cruz-Diez’s hallucinatory painting (Fig. 1). The interplay of colour and lines provokes a powerful illusionary sense of movement, that is at once hypnotic and enchanting. The sensual and organic forms unite, float, and shapeshift as one's eyes meander across the work, and the convolution of detail beckons us closer. It encloses a mystical poeticism aspect of abstract paintings, but recalling stellar, aquatic or subterranean worlds that can be read in the context of surrealism. Painted in acrylic with a consistency approaching seriality, the flat and smooth finish gives the almost mass produced touch with industrial aesthetic, disclosing Kusama’s testament to consumer culture and Japanese commercial art with its embrace of pop culture and spectacle. While decalcomania technique from Surrealism can be traced, Kusama makes them her own.
Kusama’s art is not indifferent to truth; it is essentially the pursuit of truth. The forms that fill her canvas in engaging profusion propose both cosmic and microscopic realms. For her, art is a fertile bleed, something which moves beyond the confines of canvas, spreads on to the walls, out into the room, all over the self. Like Yves Klein (Fig. 2), Kusama evokes meditative silence, the enlightening realisation of the void, and transcendent space. The present work arouses fecundity and growth, as if her polka-dots are sprouting, or hatching into tadpoles. The red swarms divulging life into a microscopic image of abstract vivacity by connecting to the greater pulses of universal space and time, in which a concentrated functionalism concurs with a chaotic imprint of organic proliferation. It suggests notion of the infinite, as well as a string of interlocking biological cells or atoms with their mitochondrial capacity to accumulate and spread. Kusama’s art is never two-dimensional, and neither is it traced on the canvas; they are solids, and we get at them through the canvas. It melts into nothing, and we go through it. Whether filling the surface of a canvas with nets, dots, or figurative motifs, she has persuasively collapsed the peculiarity between her own consciousness and external realities- building a world, as Martin Heidegger suggested. By virtue of its form, Kusama’s art reveals an archetypal transcendentalism. An outsider, she personifies a dynamic dialectical development in art history.