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Yayoi Kusama White Infinity Nets


Yayoi Kusama White Infinity Nets

Victoria Miro


Eternal Recurrence: Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets Rachel Taylor … the spell of the dots and the mesh enfolded me in a magical curtain of mysterious, invisible power.1

From a distance these delicate paintings read as monochromes, but up close their intricate surfaces become visible: small arched semi-circles of white paint almost completely covering the ground of the canvases. On each painting the underlay, a wash of black or grey, is obscured by an intricate network of gestural scallops of paint that combine to form a net. The paintings are characterised by an all-over surface that suggests detailed latticework. The nets appear to extend beyond the picture planes, suggesting the potential to expand indefinitely. These distinctive, visually stunning works have been rhapsodised since Yayoi Kusama began the series she would call the Infinity Net paintings more than half a century ago. She first experimented with all-over net paintings in the late 1950s, after her move from Japan to the United States. She was living in New York, unknown and impoverished but with an insatiable desire to make her mark on the art world. She had had modest success as an artist in her native country with intricate paintings and works on paper in which she experimented with a range of imagery drawn from natural forms and a variety of media and painterly techniques. In New York – then the undisputed centre of the Western art world – she was intent on forging a new way of working, developing a painting practice that would compete with, and surpass, the Abstract Expressionist work that dominated the cultural landscape. Kusama’s radical artistic leap was to combine the almost ascetic rigour of serial abstraction with meticulous craft and evidence of the artist’s hand. Despite their apparent formal consistency, the paintings are dramatically varied. Like snowflakes, each Infinity Net is unique. Their surfaces are varied, producing a range of visual effects. Areas of thick impasto are offset by thinner washes of paint. The nets appear to rise and fall, to tighten and slacken. Sections of more regular patterning are broken by passages with contrasting density and translucency.2 The paintings openly display the process of their construction, making evident the obsessive diligence with which they were made. From their earliest iterations, these works have been produced in intense, protracted bursts of energy. In her early experiments with the form in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Kusama compulsively painted nets for hours on end without eating or sleeping. Even today when working on new Infinity Net paintings her focus is single-minded and relentless.


This is in part because the paintings have such an important position in Kusama’s history and personal mythology. The artist has described her Infinity Net paintings as visualisations of hallucinations that have recurred since her childhood. During these episodes her visual field is obscured by an overlay of nets or dots that appear to cover her surroundings. These hallucinations are just one manifestation of the psychological ill health that has plagued the artist for most of her life. She describes her primary symptom as a sense of depersonalisation, of feeling removed from reality. The nets in her paintings can be read as obscuring screens that allow only a partial view of what lies behind or beyond. The ground beneath the nets is visible only as specks, or, more accurately in Kusama’s terms, dots. Kusama’s practice is one of theme and variation. Throughout her long and varied career there have been aesthetic touchstones, a visual vocabulary that she has developed and enriched. Saturated colour, light, reflection, allusions to the microscopic and the astronomical, an engagement with the body, the natural world and the domestic space: these concerns have surfaced and resurfaced in her work over the decades since she first began drawing and painting as a child in Matsumoto.3 The motifs that have remained closest to her heart, however, and are most crucial to her unique artistic vision, are the interrelated forms of the net and its negative inverse, the dot. It was the development of the Infinity Net paintings that enabled Kusama to conceptualise and articulate these concerns. In her autobiography the artist describes the conceptual genesis of the paintings: My desire was to predict and measure the infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots – an accumulation of particles forming the negative spaces in the net. How deep was the mystery? Did infinite infinities exist beyond our universe? In exploring these questions I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life. One polka dot: a single particle among billions. I issued a manifesto stating that everything – myself, others, the universe – would be obliterated by white nets of nothingness connecting astronomical accumulations of dots. White nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against a pitch-dark background of nothingness.4

The selection of new works for the inaugural exhibition at Victoria Miro Mayfair harks back to Kusama’s very first Infinity Net paintings. For this new series of works the artist uses a limited monochromatic palette, painting white nets over black or grey grounds. These paintings are in a direct lineage from the group of works Kusama exhibited in her first solo exhibition in New York in October 1959 at the Brata Gallery, one of the cooperative galleries then active on Tenth Street.5 She describes this exhibition: I debuted in New York with just five works – monochromatic and simple, yet complex, subconscious accumulations of microcosmic lights, in which the spatial universe unfolds as far as the eye can see. Yet at first glance the canvases, which were up to 14ft in length, looked like nothing at all – just plain white surfaces.6


These works immediately gained critical recognition and were instrumental in making the artist’s name. Donald Judd, one of Kusama’s earliest and best friends in New York, was the first collector of Infinity Net paintings, acquiring work from the Brata Gallery show.7 At the time Judd was better known as an art critic than the key figure of the Minimal art movement he was to become. He described her work in glowing terms in a review for Art News: Yayoi Kusama is an original painter. The five white, very large paintings in this show are strong, advanced in concept and realised. 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 […] There is a remarkable variety of configuration and expression from point to point across the surface; the small curves coalesce into longer arcs, swell or shift slightly, or form amorphous patterns or partial vertical bands […] The total quality suggests an analogy to a large, fragile, but vigorously carved grill or to a massive, solid lace.8

Following the Brata Gallery exhibition Kusama showed Infinity Nets in solo shows at Nova Gallery, Boston (November–December 1959) and Gres Gallery, Washington DC (April–May 1960). In May 1961 in a solo show at the Stephen Radich Gallery, New York, she exhibited her largest work to date, a white Infinity Net painting measuring ten metres wide.9 Like Judd, reviewers of these exhibitions were complimentary, marvelling at how ‘each single and minute thread of paint count[s] in an overall composition, which must rely for its interest on infinite variety within a single unity’.10 They remarked that ‘[t]he patience that has gone into the confection of this texture is astonishing and the concentrated pattern titillates the eye’11 producing ‘the effect somewhat of a net floating on the ocean, a veil shimmering across reality’.12 Since the early 1960s the Infinity Net paintings have been shown and discussed in a number of contexts. Their visual dynamism and formal rigour ally them with Op painting and Minimal art. Their gestural surfaces make it possible to contextualise them with the work of artists affiliated with Post-Minimalism. However, the art scene that initially and most wholeheartedly embraced Kusama’s painting included artists and curators associated with movements falling under the umbrella of European New Tendencies. This association began in March 1960 when Kusama’s white Infinity Net Composition, 1959, was included in the exhibition Monochrome Malerei at the Städtisches Museum, Leverkusen, curated by Udo Kultermann. Over the next decade Kusama was included in almost two dozen exhibitions in European museums and galleries, often showing alongside members of the Dutch Nul, German Zero, Italian Azimuth and French Nouveau Réaliste groups.13 After an intense period of three years, during which Kusama focussed almost exclusively on making Infinity Nets, her practice extended into three-dimensional forms. Her obsessively detailed Accumulation sculptures – in which recognisable household objects are rendered uncanny with a covering of stuffed fabric phallic forms – amplify and enhance some of the concerns of the net paintings. Like the Infinity Nets, the first iterations of Kusama’s sculptures are white and feature obsessively hand-made repetitions of a simple form with powerful psychological associations.14


Kusama has gone on to develop her practice in a dizzying sequence of artistic endeavours, exploring collage, performance, film, printmaking, literature, installation and environmental art and fashion and product design. In taking on each new form or discipline, however, she has never completely put aside her previous areas of focus. Instead, various types of artistic expression have been added gradually to her artistic arsenal. Kusama returned from New York to Tokyo in 1973 and for nearly two decades thereafter she worked in relative obscurity before being ‘re-discovered’. Her current levels of cultural importance and popular recognition arguably date from the period between her solo presentation in the Japanese Pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale and 1998–99, when major retrospectives took place focussing on her period in New York and her preceding and subsequent career in Japan.15 Long before then, however, Kusama was able to pick and choose from artistic forms she had made her own, confidently expanding and reimagining motifs from different periods of her career with the confidence and creativity of a modern master. Kusama has always worked serially, but her periodic return to the Infinity Nets is something else: it is as if from time to time she is compelled to re-immerse herself in this body of work, representing as it does the purest expression of her artistic manifesto. In so doing, Kusama creates some of the most compelling and beautiful works of her extraordinary oeuvre.

1.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, trans. Ralph McCarthy, London: Tate Publishing, 2011, p. 23. 2. For more on the textural variety of the Infinity Nets see Mignon Nixon, ‘Infinity Politics’, Yayoi Kusama, exhibition catalogue, London: Tate Modern, 2012, pp. 179–80. 3. Kusama was born on 22 March 1929 in Matsumoto, a provincial city in Japan’s Nagano prefecture. Her earliest extant works, pencil drawings of her mother and of a vase of flowers, date from 1939. 4. Yayoi Kusama, ibid., note 1, p. 23. 5. Kusama’s Large White Net, 1958, was included in a group exhibition at Nova Gallery in Boston in June 1959. However her solo show at the Brata Gallery in October of that year was the first time a group of Infinity Nets was exhibited as a body of work. 6. Yayoi Kusama, ibid., note 1, p. 29. 7. Judd owned two Infinity Net paintings dating from 1959, No.D and No.2. Frank Stella was also an early fan of Kusama’s work, acquiring Infinity Nets Yellow, 1960, soon after it was made. 8. Donald Judd, ‘Reviews and Previews: New Names This Month – Yayoi Kusama’, Art News, 58, no.6 (October 1959), p.17. 9. This work is no longer extant, however Kusama kept an off-cut of the painting and this fragment features in scenes in her 1968 film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration.

10. Leslie Judd Ahlander, ‘Two Oriental Shows Outstanding’, Washington Post, 1 May 1960. 11. Stuart Preston, ‘Twentieth Century Sense and Sensibility’, New York Times, 7 May 1961. 12. Robert Taylor, ‘Events in Art’, Boston Sunday Herald, sec. 6, 6 December 1959. 13. For more information see Laura Hoptman, ‘Down to Zero: Yayoi Kusama and the European “New Tendency”’, Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958–1968, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1998, pp. 42–59. 14. In a psycho-biographical sense, if the nets express Kusama’s hallucinatory experience of depersonalisation, the phalluses represent her obsessive anxiety and fear of sex. 15. Kusama’s exhibition at the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993 was curated by Akira Tatehata and marked the first time a solo artist was invited to present works in the Japanese Pavilion. Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958–1968, was organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Japan Foundation in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1998. Following presentations at LACMA and MoMA the exhibition toured to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. At its final venue, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, it was shown alongside the complementary exhibition In Full Bloom: Yayoi Kusama, Years in Japan.


INFINITY NETS [NBB], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 100 x 100 cm 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in detail previous page


INFINITY NETS [BCO], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 130.3 x 194 cm 51 1/4 x 76 3/8 in


INFINITY NETS [CCT], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 130.3 x 162 cm 51 1/4 x 63 3/4 in detail page 1


INFINITY NETS [DAB], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 130.3 x 162 cm 51 1/4 x 63 3/4 in


INFINITY NETS [FBB], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 97 x 130.3 cm 38 1/4 x 51 1/4 in


INFINITY NETS [AIG], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 194 x 259 cm 76 3/8 x 102 in


INFINITY NETS [GBC], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 194 x 194 cm 76 3/8 x 76 3/8 in


INFINITY NETS [PCT], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 100 x 100 cm 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in


INFINITY NETS [HAI], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 162 x 162 cm 63 3/4 x 63 3/4 in


INFINITY NETS [IAA], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 162 x 162 cm 63 3/4 x 63 3/4 in


INFINITY NETS [OAC], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 100 x 100 cm 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in


INFINITY NETS [LBO], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 130.3 x 130.3 cm 51 1/4 x 51 1/4 in detail page 2


INFINITY NETS [JAB], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 162 x 162 cm 63 3/4 x 63 3/4 in


INFINITY NETS [KAO], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 145.5 x 145.5 cm 57 1/4 x 57 1/4 in


INFINITY NETS [MAE], 2013 Acrylic on canvas 130.3 x 130.3 cm 51 1/4 x 51 1/4 in detail following page


Published on the occasion of the exhibition Yayoi Kusama | White Infinity Nets 1 October – 9 November 2013 at Victoria Miro, 14 St George Street, London W1S 1FE

Text by Rachel Taylor Design by Martin Lovelock Portraits by Gautier Deblonde Photography of works and installation by Stephen White Kusama archival image: Kusama with Infinity Net (1958-60), New York, 1961 Printed and bound by PUSH All images courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc., Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore and Victoria Miro, London All works © Yayoi Kusama 2013 Published by Victoria Miro Gallery 2013 ISBN 978 0 9568566 7 8

Copyright © The Victoria Miro Gallery All rights reserved. No part of this book should be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording or information storage or retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher


Victoria Miro 14 St George Street London W1S 1FE

Profile for Victoria  Miro

Yayoi Kusama | White Infinity Nets  

Victoria Miro is delighted to inaugurate its new Mayfair gallery with a presentation of recent white Infinity Net paintings by Yayoi Kusama....

Yayoi Kusama | White Infinity Nets  

Victoria Miro is delighted to inaugurate its new Mayfair gallery with a presentation of recent white Infinity Net paintings by Yayoi Kusama....

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