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Veiled in a delicate lattice of small loops and curls, Yayoi Kusama’s White No. 28 enthralls with its ethereal atmosphere of poetic splendor. Soft white swoops and coils blanket the canvas in a shimmering, gauzelike web that is at once engulfing and mesmerizing, and the painting’s intricacy of detail beckons us closer. Across the painting’s surface, thick crests of impasto peak and then give way to smooth circlets, rising and falling in rhythmic swells and creating the impression of lace floating in calming ocean waves. Mirroring the quiet repetition that went into its making, White No. 28 stimulates introspection and transcendence, and lulls its viewers into a meditative state.
Painted in 1960, White No. 28 is an early work in Kusama’s groundbreaking series of Infinity Nets, and dates to a formative period in the artist’s career when she first developed the motifs and themes that would come to define her oeuvre. Kusama moved to New York two years earlier, in the summer of 1958. She arrived with a collection of small drawings and gouaches, produced in Japan, that largely consisted of still lifes, flowers, portraits, polka dots and patterns, and which hinted at her academic training in Japanese nihonga painting. As she began working in New York, however, in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and alongside emerging artists like Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg and Eva Hesse, the format of Kusama’s paintings grew in size and started to combine the principal of all-over composition with repeated marks and patterns. Undoubtedly influenced by the move from her small Japanese town to the pulsating metropolis of New York City, her new surroundings fired Kusama’s creative passions and inspired her to create a body of work that responded to her new home.
Kusama traces the roots of her celebrated style back to her childhood, when she first noticed the signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder and began experiencing hallucinations. Starting with the onset of her illness at age 10, she created many works over the following several years, demonstrating the fanatical work ethic that she would continue to display as an adult. She was also inspired at this time to transcribe her startling visions in her art. As Kusama recalled, “When I was a child, one day I was walking in 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….I immediately transferred the idea onto a canvas. It was hallucination only the mentally ill can experience” (Y. Kusama, quoted in “Damien Hirst Questions Yayoi Kusama, Across the Water, May, 1998,” Kusama: Now, exh. cat., Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1998, p. 15).
When Kusama moved to New York, these demons led her to paint fixedly for up to 40 or 50 hours at a time without breaking for sleep or meals. With her Infinity Nets such as White No. 28, the signs of Kusama’s meticulous obsessive-compulsive behavior are evident in the “infinitely” repeated loops she lays down, one at a time, across the entire canvas. After applying a semi-transparent layer of white pigment over an under layer of black, Kusama adds small strokes of paint—in this case, white paint, or the first and historically most significant color of her Infinity Nets—until the surface is covered in loops. In contrast to the gestural and at times explosive practices of the Action painters, Kusama fixes a single, undivided space on the canvas in order to ensure that each individual element of the work is given as much physical structure as possible. Kusama customarily works with the canvas placed flat on a table top or other surface, making it impossible to see the whole of the composition while she is painting. In so doing, she is unable to respond to or alter the composition of the work as it is being created, with the result that she is forced to abandon any attempt to try and control the whole of the picture plane or construct it out of parts.
Kusama has always insisted that the process of creating the Infinity Nets is integral to the significance of the works. Although she had little financial means during her first years in New York—she later confessed that “day after day, I forgot my coldness and hunger by painting” (Y. Kusama, quoted in G. Turner, “Yayoi Kusama,” Bomb, vol. 66, Winter 1999)—she managed to find the money to hire professional photographers to document her with the net paintings in her studio, underscoring her belief that these works are inextricably bound up with the labor of making them. The process of painting is also a highly therapeutic activity for Kusama, and through such works as White No. 28 she was able to alleviate her anxiety and find some spiritual stability. Kusama named this method of stepping outside of herself through art “self-obliteration.” 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” (Y. Kusama, quoted in Yayoi Kusama, New York, 2000, p. 36). In this way, the infinite patterns of Kusama’s art also represent the artist’s destruction of self in favor of universal wholeness, and psychosomatic peace.
With White No. 28, Kusama both departed from Abstract Expressionism and created a body of work that proved prophetic for many of her contemporaries. While her feverish application of paint to the canvas and interest in mental states clearly has its roots in Abstract Expressionism, Kusama’s strokes are small, obsessive and repetitive rather than expansive, bold and passionate, and the machine-like repetition and orientation toward process of White No. 28 invites comparison with Minimalists Donald Judd and Agnes Martin. Kusama also inspired artists who belonged to the post-Minimalist movement, such as Eva Hesse, as she provided a more sensual and organic repetition that departed from the industrial aesthetic of Minimalism, and her painstaking development of her surfaces can be likened to the work of Vija Celmins. In addition, Kusama created her white Infinity Nets around the same time that Robert Ryman began investigating the painterly possibilities of the color white, which he began in the mid-1950s, but did not begin showing widely until the following decade.
With scalloped curves that spread across the canvas in rippling arcs, White No. 28 is emblematic of Kusama’s iconic Infinity Nets paintings, and as a part of her psychological and “feminine”-coded practice it foreshadows many of the developments that would follow shortly thereafter in feminist, performance and post-Minimalist art. Although Kusama returned to Japan after spending 10 years in New York and has remained there since, her time in New York was one of the most defining periods in her career, which, while brief, saw her create a highly influential body of work that would change the course of art forever.