After Yayoi Kusama arrived in New York in 1958, the polka dot and mesh motifs of her Infinity Net paintings quickly brought her fame. Her sensationalist antics were underscored by deep friendships with artists like Joseph Cornell and Donald Judd. After 1961, she experimented with different media in a quest to express the notion of infinity.
The autobiographical, surreal, and psychedelic quality of Kusama’s work is linked to her earliest childhood experience. They are re-creations of her overwhelming visual hallucinations as a child, providing a glimpse into her eccentric and profound world vision. As Kusama recalled, “When I was a child, one day I was walking the field, then all of a sudden, the sky became bright over the mountains, and I saw clearly the very image I was about to paint appear in the sky. I also saw violets which I was painting multiply to cover the doors, windows and even my body. It was then when I learned the idea of self-obliteration. I immediately transferred the idea onto a canvas. It was hallucination only the mentally ill can experience.”
The late-1960s seems to have been a time of transition for Kusama. She was under tremendous pressure from “over-exposure of over-exposure” that lead to her wavering health. It was during this time that she concentrated more on other interests. In Untitled (Lot 165), a woman is wearing a necklace and pearl earrings; these elements of fashion suggest inspiration taken from the clothing boutique she owned in New York. Painted in marker pen on canvas, rich visual optics are achieved by the construction of a Cubist sense of spatial depth that is evocative of Pablo Picasso’s portraits, while the uncanny sensibility of the piece lends it an other-worldly quality.
Returning to Japan in 1977, Kusama’s paintings in late 1980s pay tribute to the hometown where she grew up. Born to a family that managed wholesale seed nurseries, Kusama spent much time drawing at the seed-harvesting ground when she was a child. Her love of pumpkins stretches far back to when she first encountered the gourd growing on its vine—from then on it began to speak to her in the most animated manner. Since then she has found pumpkins to be such “tender things to touch, so appealing in colour and form,” explaining that “they embody a base for the joy of living.” This hearty vegetable of earth has been fascinatingly paired with her signature black dots to become one of Kusama’s most cherished and iconic motifs. Against an intense black background, Pumpkin (Lot 163) is stippled with hypnotic yellow dots, while Pumpkin (Lot 168) is painted in contrasting white dots. Festooned with myriad glistening dots and crystallizations, the works approach a near hallucinatory eminence.
Captivated by the notion of infinite, Kusama transforms the stellar into dots. As she recalls, ‘A polka dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon which is calm. Round, soft, colourful, senseless and unknowing. Polka dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity’. In Net in Blue (Lot 164), the geometrical shapes of the rigorous composition depicts interlaces forms in vibrant red, green and blue hues, recalling aquatic of subterranean worlds. In Big River (Lot 167), tiny black dots float against a vivid yellow background, in line with the vocabulary of biomorphic and microscopic organic form. They are fluid, highly intuitive and improvisatory. The expressive and brilliantly hued polka dots and nets display a strong sense of life. They echo the admiration and humility towards Mother Nature promoted in Mohism. The pictorial depth and hypnotic poeticism of both works evoke an unfathomable and transcendent space, inviting viewer to the vastness of the cosmos, the infinitesimal forms of cells or atoms.
Through her reverential attention to detail, each part of her canvases is meticulously painted with devotion, integrating thousands of tiny painted dots, juxtaposed against crystallised formations and psychedelic colours. The resulting work is playful and innocent yet mesmerising in its rhythmic pattern. The aesthetic sublimation of Kusama’s art is the transmigration of the soul, the ciphers for the dimensions of infinity. It is emancipatory.