Untitled, 1953 signed and dated 'Yayoi Kusama 1953' (lower left); with the artist's stamp (on the reverse) gouache, acrylic, ink and charcoal on paper 10 1/2 x 8in. (26.6 x 20.3cm)
PROVENANCE: A gift from the artist to the present owner circa 1960.
Yayoi Kusama: Works on Paper from the 1950s
from an Important Private Collection, San Francisco
Bonhams is delighted to offer a rare collection of six stunning works on paper from the 1950s and early 60s by Yayoi Kusama. Given as a gift to the present owner in the early sixties in New York, this special selection of works has been preserved in the same private hands ever since and tells an intimate story between the artist and one of her earliest confidantes.
Executed in a variety of media including gouache, pastel, ink and watercolor, these works are some of Kusama's earliest examples of her exploration into color, space and form. Kusama has been celebrated for modernizing the traditional Japanese spatial conception of yohaku (blank space) as evidently portrayed in this collection of early works. Balancing space with color and abstracted forms derived from natural phenomena, these densely worked surfaces recall microscopic or cosmological topographies and clearly reveal elements rooted in Surrealism. With these works the artists energy cannot be seen in its entirety but was meant to be experienced physically throughout the infinity of space, the artist sought spiritual attainment. Her applied shapes and meditated compositions which have come to form the basis of her reoccurring personal vocabulary are reminiscent of hieroglyphics, illustrating the nuances that would become the formula of her oeuvre: dots, eyes, networks of webs and waves, all of which are meticulously rendered in this collection of works on paper.
Kusama's formal training had been in the Japanese art of Nihonga painting, and it is claimed that her earliest successes had been realized in her intimate works in watercolor. As observed, Kusama's early experiments in watercoulor were extensive, ambitious and highly original. She evolved an intensely coloured and animated manner, with spontaneous lyrical gestures and distinctive types of patterning Kusama's trademark dots originate in these works on paper and developed a vocabulary of biomorphic and microscopic organic forms, essentially abstract but evocative of stellar, aquatic or subterranean worlds. These watercolors demonstrate how far and how fast Kusama had traveled from her early grounding in Japanese tradition (Yayoi Kusama, exh. cat., London, Tate Gallery, 2012, pp. 11-12). It is recalled that Kusama burnt most of her early works on the banks of the Susuki River that was behind her family home prior to her departure for the U.S. in 1957, in anticipation of her move abroad and therefore many of the original works executed in Japan are no longer in existence.
All of the works in the collection were originally executed in Japan in 1953-56, with the exception of Light No. 1 and No. 2 Light which were both conceived in New York in 1962 when Kusama was first embarking on her Infinity Nets series (as clearly reflected in the Light works). It is presumed that these works traveled over in the artist's suitcase to Seattle, and then to New York. Never seen in the public eye before, these works originate from Kusamas first studio in New York City at the infamous building at 53 East 19th Street. Kusama moved into the studio in September 1961 and occupied a space below the celebrated minimalist and conceptual artist Donald Judd, who was to become a close friend and early supporter of her work.
It was in 1958 when Kusama began her most highly acclaimed series, the Infinity Net paintings. The Infinity Nets were said to have emerged from an earlier series of watercolors entitled Pacific Ocean, which recall the faint patterns of the ocean waves on the surface of the distant ocean that the artist saw on her travels from Tokyo to Seattle. Similar elements are exhibited in Swamp from1956 where networks of coral figurations dominate the composition, executed in a painstaking formality reminiscent of the Japanese tradition and revealing the dedicated work ethic. The nets are further explored in Light No. 1 and No. 2 Light where they are depicted in glowing colors of gold and plum surrounded by a sea of darkness.
Kusama often remarked that her works were derived from hallucinations that she experienced as early as childhood. Images, forms and signs were delivered to her in a way that she would construct them into imagery, into her own distinct universal language translated through the medium of paint, ink or pastel. Exhibiting all the brilliant trademarks of her finest work, the series of repetitive patterns, dots, webs and elaborately constructed surfaces display the inner working methods of one of the 21st Centuries most curious and celebrated female artists that bridges the gap between East and West.
Currently the subject of a major global retrospective that traveled from the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris to Tate, London and most recently to New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, Kusama has become a key figure in the period that extends from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art.
Many of Kusama's early works on paper remain in the artist's personal collection. Other examples also reside in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, the Museum of Modern Art, New York and in the personal collection of writer and art collector Gertrude Stein.
Quotes to use:
"Two dozen small drawings from the early 1950s that follow in the next gallery are among the exhibitions highlights. Done in ink, watercolor, pastel and collage, they include references to vegetal, animal and cellular forms. At the same time, each work is abstract, the sum of repeated, labor-intensive details: fields of minute dots, clusters of radiant lines, networks of slug-shaped strokes."
The New York Times, "Vivid Hallucinations From a Fragile Life"
"In November 1957, Yayoi Kusama arrived in Seattle on a flight from Tokyo with a large sum in US dollars sewn into her dress and stuffed into the toes of her shoes, a letter from Georgia O'Keeffe tucked into her pocket, and a bundle of drawings crammed into her suitcase"