YAYOI KUSAMA (B. 1929) Mississippi River 1960

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Lot 3
(B. 1929)
Mississippi River

Sold for US$ 3,630,312 inc. premium
Mississippi River

signed, titled and dated 1960 on the reverse
oil on canvas

23 3/4 x 28 1/4 in.
60.3 x 71.7 cm.


  • This work is accompanied by a registration card issued by Yayoi Kusama Inc., Tokyo.

    Collection of the Artist, New York
    Collection of Dr Teruo Hirose, New York (acquired directly from the artist in October 1960)
    Thence by descent to the present owner

    The River Paintings
    "the riverbed behind our house, [...] became the miraculous source of a vision"– Yayoi Kusama

    Mississippi River (lot 3) and Hudson River (lot 4), both from 1960, are singular examples from the artist's six decades of art making. Deeply rare, quintessential examples of one of the most important motifs in Kusama's career, here the Infinity Net technique is at its best: the nets expand and contract, swirling and falling in waves across the canvas. Each tiny net is hypnotic and mesmerizing, demonstrating the sheer power of Kusama's work. These works are deeply personal, connecting memories from Kusama's isolated childhood in Japan, to her new life in New York. This is underscored by their provenance, having been treasured paintings hanging proudly in Dr Hirose's home for the last six decades.

    Hudson River and Mississippi River were executed in the early days of Kusama's New York career; they were given to Dr Hirose in October of 1960. Initially, Kusama's Infinity Net paintings were painted in white on black ground, with a white over wash, and typically on a monumental scale designed to take over gallery and exhibition spaces. The early white Infinity Nets are what brought initial attention – Donald Judd, working as a critic at the time, purchased one of these works for $200, paying in installments.

    The present works are also some of the artist's earliest works in red, moving away from her initial white works. The red is a powerful statement, providing an energy and motion, which was harder to capture in the subtle layers of her initial white canvases. The red is reminiscent of some of the most celebrated works by Mark Rothko, a friend of Kusama's once she arrived in the city. His work, Four Darks in Red (1958), executed the year Kusama moved to New York and now in the collection of The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, shows the same layering of reds and blacks that Kusama employs in the present canvases. The reds and blacks in both paintings merge and meld, though both entirely abstract, there is a clear connection to landscape and nature between them. These red works hold a deep power to them, drawing the viewer to them. Red works from this period are rare for Kusama. Two examples are in public collections: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo and No. I.Z. (1960), from the same year as Hudson River and Mississippi River, in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

    The Infinity Net imagery is intertwined with Kusama's biography and the psychosis which has followed her since childhood. Kusama wrote about a river which flowed behind her childhood home, where she would often go to escape her difficult upbringing: "During the dark days of the War, the scenery of the riverbed behind our house, where I spent much of my disconsolate childhood, became the miraculous source of a vision: the hundreds of millions of white pebbles..." (Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London 2011, p. 26). The present works are the only known examples from this period to describe rivers, amongst rarefied examples that nod to other bodies of water, such as the Pacific Ocean or Lake Michigan.

    The works, especially these River paintings, are autobiographical in a deeper way, connecting Kusama's past to her present and the new life that she was embarking on in America – depicting the Hudson River for which she would be so familiar in New York as well as the Mississippi River which she crossed on her first flight to the city from Seattle in 1958 – winding waterways that deeply define the American landscape. This connection from life in Japan to life in America, made them a fitting gift to Teruo and Shigeko Hirose, immigrants themselves, navigating the new world in New York.

    These river paintings also draw close parallels to contemporaneous works of Kusama's mentor, Georgia O'Keeffe. Just as Dr Hirose had his great uncle and fellow mentors in the medical field who supported and encouraged him to come to the States, O'Keeffe was, in Kusama's words "[her] first and greatest benefactor." (Ibid, p. 157). Kusama famously discovered O'Keeffe's work in a book near Kusama's home in rural Japan. Immediately taken with it, Kusama took a train six hours to Tokyo where, through something of a miracle, there was a book at the United States Embassy that included O'Keeffe's address. Kusama wrote to her of her desire to move to America and become an artist, sending a selection of her works on paper with her. O'Keeffe generously returned the correspondence, made introductions and offered advice to the young artist at the time. They would eventually meet in New York, around the same time that the present works were executed.

    O'Keeffe created her own series emulating rivers in the same period. As with so many of her works, she took inspiration from air travel that was becoming increasingly mainstream and allowed her to see much of the American landscape, which so fascinated her, from a new vantage point. These paintings, including It Was Yellow and Pink III (1960), now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, stemmed from sketches taken in the air throughout O'Keeffe's travels in 1959-1960. The fresh vantage provided by air travel, as well as O'Keeffe's influence, was on Kusama's mind on her own harrowing journey from Seattle to New York in 1958, in her autobiography, Kusama writes: "As the plane bounced and shuddered, I reflected that somewhere down below was New Mexico and the quiet ranch Georgia O'Keeffe had invited me to visit." (Ibid, p. 17).

    It is fascinating to see two artists who would become two of the most influential and recognizable artistic voices of their generation approach the same subject matter in the same year. For Kusama, it was as her career was ascending, having only recently turned thirty. Whereas O'Keeffe was in her sixties, planning her forty-year career retrospective, already a grande dame of the artworld. Despite these differences, both artists capture the winding, meandering nature of rivers and water with the suggestions of an infinite horizon that come with them. They both take separate, though decidedly abstract, approaches to color; in the present works the color red is an eerie but powerful choice for bodies of water, suggesting a pulsating, powerful energy that evokes the vivid inner turbulence of Kusama's visions. By contrast, O'Keeffe's shimmering desert-scape divided by golden tributaries is all the more lucid and sparse.

    Two of the most important paintings to ever come to market, Hudson River and Mississippi River are seminal examples from the start of Kusama's most important decade. Capturing moments from her childhood and earliest days in America, they remain fresh, captivating paintings sixty years since their execution.

    Dr Teruo Hirose
    Dr Teruo Hirose was a Japanese cardiothoracic surgeon who worked in New York City from 1959 until his passing in 2019. Encouraged by his great uncle, a member of Japan's diplomatic corps, to come to the United States, Dr Hirose and his young family would settle in New York's nascent Japanese expatriate community in 1959. Coming to New York only fifteen years after V-J Day meant that there was only a small Japanese community in the city. It is believed that there were two Japanese speaking doctors in the five boroughs at the time.

    Working as a heart surgeon by day, Dr Hirose would host visiting hours at his in-house office in the evening to offer care to a then underserved community. He was generous with his time and care, often accepting small payments or gifts in exchange for treatment. Via his friend, artist Gen Ichiro Inokuma, word began to spread that he would offer medical assistance to artists in exchange for works of art. It was through these means, that he would be introduced to, and develop a years long friendship with, Yayoi Kusama.

    Kusama arrived in New York only a year before the Hirose family. Having hustled together the cash, artworks, kimonos, and connections to try to find success in America, she still found the city difficult to navigate and expensive. The stress of these circumstances, combined with the existing mental and physical challenges she had since childhood, meant that she turned to Dr Hirose often. What care she received is unknown, but in her autobiography, Kusama wrote about the physical manifestations of her visions writing: "Arrhythmia doesn't play fair / Tachycardia is a sea of fire" suggesting that the aid of a cardiologist of Dr Hirose's caliber was of great need (Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, London 2011, p. 88).

    Not only did Dr Hirose care for her physical well-being but Dr Hirose's wife, Shigeko, became a dear friend and confidant of Kusama. An artist in her own right, Shigeko, connected with both Kusama's artistic sensibilities as well as the difficulties of being an expatriate in a strange new city. Shigeko was said to only allow a select few to cross the threshold between Dr Hirose's medical office and the house – Kusama, and her fellow artists were the exception. Kusama's gifts of Mississippi River (lot 3), Hudson River (lot 4), Untitled (lot 8) and the various early works on paper which she brought with her from Japan, demonstrate both the regular nature of Dr Hirose's care, as well as the deep bond between her and the Hirose family.

    Though on the surface Dr Hirose, a serious cardiovascular surgeon, and Yayoi Kusama, an avant-garde artist, do not seem like natural friends, the two had a deep, decades long friendship that identified much common ground between them. They both worked tirelessly to leave Japan in the late 1950s, feeling disoriented and frustrated by the war effort and the country's conservative cultural mores. They also came from important Japanese families: Dr Hirose having a samurai line in his family tree and Kusama hailed from a high-ranking family in Japan. Dr Hirose chose medicine as a way of studying rather than conscription, whereas Kusama worked endlessly to establish connections which would one day offer sponsorship for her to leave her remote province in Japan. Both Dr Hirose and Kusama faced backlash from their families in wanting to leave the country. It was these connections which would foster a deep friendship that endured from Kusama's earliest days in New York through to the most recent years of her global celebrity.

    The friendship crossed generations, Dr Hirose's son recalls visiting Kusama's studio at 404 E 14th Street and being enthralled by her Hair Coat, mirrored bed and bohemian lifestyle that so differed from his family's more traditional Japanese-American home. Kusama confided in the Hirose family ahead of some of her major New York retrospectives, speaking of her nervousness ahead of these large exhibitions. The family remained loyal to the artist over decades, attending her exhibitions and staying in touch. The artworks presented here held pride of place in their home for over sixty years.

    Dr Hirose practiced medicine for decades, serving as the corporate doctor for Canon and other major businesses. He regularly appeared on Japanese television and published over forty books on medicine and was a celebrated and respected member of the medical community. He was on the pioneering team that developed new techniques in heart bypass surgery, radically changing the field in the process, and also developed a lifesaving method of surgery which saved time and allowed patients to circumvent the need for blood transfusions. He passed away in November of 2019. Following his death, Kusama wrote a highly personal letter of condolence to his family.

    Yayoi Kusama
    Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto Prefecture, Nagano, Japan in 1929. The youngest child of four children, she had a difficult relationship with both her mother and father. Despite a fairly wealthy upbringing, she was conscripted to work in a local silk factory as was common during World War II. Though exhausting physical labor, she pursued her obsession with art and painting when not working, using whatever materials she could identify in wartime Japan.

    From an early age, she writes of wanting to leave Japan. Displaying a startling amount of confidence, she wrote to the President of France but eventually turned her sights to America. After beginning her correspondence with Georgia O'Keeffe, she began to lobby tirelessly to secure an emigration sponsor, eventually finding her way to Seattle where she had her first exhibition in the United States at the Zoe Dusanne Gallery.

    The draw of New York City was strong, and she settled in the city in 1958 where she shared studio space with Larry Rivers, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, On Kawara and Donald Judd over the years. She proved an influential figure in the New York art scene, facilitating introductions to Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and others. She inspired Oldenburg to pursue his soft sculpture for which he would become famous. Judd writes about her work in his Specific Objects manifesto in 1965. She held happenings across the city and struck up a deep, but platonic, relationship with the infamously allusive artist Joseph Cornell.

    She also pursued a career and exhibition opportunities in Europe where she would engage with many of the ZERO group artists and their contemporaries such as Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Enrico Castellani, Piero Manzoni and others. She would 'exhibit' at the 1966 Venice Biennale where her narcissus garden would rock the crowds for its price of only 2 lire.

    Her work was garnering international attention when in the early 1970s she traveled back to Japan for the first time, returning permanently in 1973. In a need to address her mental health, she ultimately moved into a hospital where she has lived to this day. Taking a hiatus for some of the late 1970s, she would return to her highly prolific output in the 1980s. Largely leaving the spotlight, she had her first US exhibition since her departure in 1989 at the Center for International Contemporary Arts, New York. From there, her acknowledgement as one of the most seminal artists of the last century was cemented.

    Retrospectives in 1998 and 2012 paved the way for a slew of exhibitions where hordes of admirers would wait for entry. Almost half a million visitors attended her retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC. Her works are in the permanent collections of every major museum in the world. Decades after breaking the mold at the 1966 Venice Biennale she would represent Japan at the 1993 Venice Biennale. She is undoubtedly one of the most important living artists active today and certainly one of the most recognizable artists globally. With her now eponymous museum in Tokyo, she continues to work and produce work into her nineties.

    Bonhams thanks Lee Broom for the usage of his apartment, furniture, and lighting for the photoshoot illustrated here.
YAYOI KUSAMA (B. 1929) Mississippi River 1960
YAYOI KUSAMA (B. 1929) Mississippi River 1960
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