The 1950s and 1960s was a great period when the art scene in New York boomed. The gallery cluster on the East 10th Avenue in downtown Manhattan was a unique neighbourhood. They were operated by artists and not dealers. Many talented young artists who had little exposure began their careers there. Amongst them was the internationally celebrated avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama. In October, 1959, she showed five large-scale paintings entitled Infinity Net at the Brata Gallery. The show was unanimously praised, and artist Donald Judd was very impressed with the creative language of Kusama. He collected works from the show and commented, “Yayoi Kusama is an original painter. The five white, very large paintings in this show are strong, advanced in concept and realized. The space is shallow, close to the surface and achieved by innumerable small arcs superimposed on a black ground overlain with a wash of white. The effect is both complex and simple.”
In terms of visual impact, The Sea in the Evening Glow (Facing the Imminent Death) (Lot 1) is a continuation of Infinity Net . Painted in 1988, it was a crucial period when Kusama experimented seriously with the oil painting medium. Diverge from her previous use of heavy impasto to highlight the textural qualities in the brushwork, she transitioned to using acrylic paint in order to emphasise the contrasting hues. Kusama also started painting organic imageries such as star dust, trees, the sea, and other subject matters that were inspired by nature. The works produced during this period resembled the style of the Infinity Net series. They have flat compositions that Judd would refer to as “shallow in space” and “close to the surface” (Fig. 1). On the contrary, The Sea in the Evening Glow (Facing the Imminent Death) is a work that has immense depth and multiple layers of transforming spaces. The sinuous red lines weave an enormous net that infinitely sprawls in all directions.
The overwhelming visual impact achieved in these works originated from Yayoi Kusama's own hallucinations. Without any warnings, she would start seeing herself and her surroundings engulfed by countless polka dots, nets, or other repetitive patterns. This unbelievable experience is a fact of life for Kusama. Art is her salvation: only by repeatedly painting the same pattern until the entire canvas is covered can she dispel the hallucinations. She calls this process “Self Obliteration” – it is a process in which she becomes one with the art work until she has reached the mental state of perfect harmony. Kusama spent a significant amount of mental energy in finishing The Sea in the Evening Glow (Facing the Imminent Death). The painting is woven together by countless energetic red lines that are organic in nature. Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Tobey constructed space with lines in a similar manner. Inspired by Asian calligraphy, he developed the iconic style of “white writing” (Fig. 2). The interlacing lines of Tobey are neatly spaced. In comparison, Kusama's lines are much more organic as if they are cells multiplying. The sense of infinite development is a continuation of the Infinity Net . It produces the same dizzying effect. Yet, Kusama managed to reinvent the motif and shed the rigidity of the orderly net. The lines in The Sea in the Evening Glow (Facing the Imminent Death) seems to ceaselessly expand like a bubble that is threatening to trespass the boundaries of the canvas and onto the walls. Through the extraordinary visual experience of this ever-multiplying net, Kusama is revealing to us the enormous mental power of “Self-Obliteration”.
The ocean is the cradle of life, and death is the termination of life. Kusama attempts to reconcile this dichotomy with the cascading shades of red in The Sea in the Evening Glow (Facing the Imminent Death). Red signifies danger and warnings. It is also the colour of life: it is the colour of blood that flows in the veins, and childbirth is closely associated with this colour. The regenerative power of the universe and nature fascinates Kusama. She wishes to comprehend its secrets, “We are returned to the infinite universe through the process of self-obliteration.” According to Kusama, obliteration is not the termination of life. By embracing the sea of red in her painting, she is becoming one with nature. The colour red is a thread that runs through the different periods in the oeuvre of Kusama. It can be found in a series of watercolour (Fig. 3) works that she painted before she left for the United States and in the Infinity Net (Fig. 4) series produced in the 1960s. Japanese culture venerates the sun, and the colour red symbolises the regenerative lifeforce of the sun. The Sea in the Evening Glow (Facing the Imminent Death) bears both personal and cultural significance to Kusama because of its extensive use of the colour red. The intensity of the hue perfectly describes her unique experience of self-obliteration.
“Although I cannot travel to space, I can create the universe. I wish to purify my soul with art.” Even though Kusama's aspirations are direct and innocent, her works always surge with turbulent vitality. The Sea in the Evening Glow (Facing the Imminent Death) celebrates Kusama's victory over her mental illness, and it shows us an entrance to her fascinating inner world.