YAYOI KUSAMA (B. 1929) Untitled 1952

This lot has been removed from the website, please contact customer services for more information

Lot 5
(B. 1929)

Sold for US$ 400,312 inc. premium

signed, dated 1952 and numbered 6 on the reverse
oil, gouache and pastel on paper

14 1/4 x 17 1/4 in.
36 x 43.8 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 circa 1965)
    Thence by descent to the present owner

    The Works on Paper
    "Deep in the mountains of Nagano, working with letter-size sheets of white paper, I had found my own unique method of expression" – Yayoi Kusama

    Kusama's works on paper, executed before her emigration to the United States, are cornerstones of the artist's practice, laying the aesthetic groundwork for her career to follow. The works illustrate gauzy, organic, captivating forms floating in rich blacks and sumptuous blues. Painted when Kusama was in only her twenties, the works show the genesis of the decades long career that would follow in which she would become one of the most recognized contemporary artists in the world.

    All but one of the works on paper were executed prior to Kusama leaving Japan. These works, largely executed between 1952 and 1954, show a remarkable clarity of style and vision. After several years of trying to convince her mother, who wholly rejected her goal to become an artist, Kusama convinced her family to allow her to study art in Kyoto. Whilst the move to Kyoto was a rebellious act, the art taught there was not. Kusama was perturbed by the rigid teacher student structure as well as the adherence to Nihonga traditions. Before her move to the United States, she would destroy much of the work created during her studies, showing her confidence in the remaining works such as the works in Dr Hirose's collection.

    The works also facilitated her move to the United States. By sending packets of works on paper to Georgia O'Keeffe and Zoe Dusanne in Seattle, she would establish initial gallery contacts who were enthralled by these surreal works. She would also use them as a form of in-kind currency. Limited in the quantity of Yen she could legally transfer to Dollars, she brought a suitcase full of works on paper, including these, which she could use to barter upon arrival in the US. She was astute in her decision to bring these works as they would ultimately be exchanged with Dr Hirose for medical care and remain in the Hirose collection for decades since.

    In the present works, we see tiny dots, nets and cells – the proto-Infinity Nets, flowers and polka dots for which she would become so well known. Here, hazy clouds of blue, purple and pink move across the paper, pin-pointed with dazzling dots of sparkling color. At an initial glance, these works are abstract washes of color in rich oceans of blue and black, but on closer inspection, these forms hold minute details – tiny polka dots in Oceans of Love (lot 6) or Ever Inward No. 2 (lot 7) and dashes of red radiating from Sun (lot 11). These works suggest those of Wassily Kandinsky three decades prior, including Several Circles from 1926, now in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. It is unlikely that Kusama ever knew of Kandinsky's work prior to arriving in New York but the artists' abilities to bring dazzling colors from the depths of a dark background show striking parallels.

    As with the River paintings, these works also speak to Kusama's upbringing and earliest hallucinations. Here, organic forms, suggesting seeds, plants and cells, stem from Kusama's life in rural Japan where her family were seed manufacturers in Matsumoto prefecture. She described studying the seeds and flowers at the harvesting grounds and one of her earliest hallucinations included a field of violets coming to life around her. In Flower 52 (lot 1) and Flower Petal (lot 2) she balances abstraction and figuration with remarkable confidence suggesting the pods and seeds for which she would be so familiar in her singular style, already recognizable from a young age.

    Experimentation is also evident. In TREES from 1953 (lot 10) the tenets of Abstract Expressionism run through the work, as does the suggestion of Japanese Kanji, but this was five years prior to even leaving Japan and long before she would befriend so many artists from the New York School. No. 5.B. from 1958 (lot 9) is the only work on paper executed after her arrival in New York. In the work the scale immediately changes, this is not a work that would fit in a suitcase, and her approach to texture changes as well. Here, the nestled waves, the confident melding of color, and the organic movement of the forms across the page clearly suggests both her Infinity Nets – which she was just beginning to execute – as well as the rolling movement of both Mississippi River (lot 3) and Hudson River (lot 4), which she would create two years later.

    As with so many works in the collection, these works on paper show the earliest moments which would lead to Kusama's contemporary works. In Oceans of Love, the swirling pinks, dotted with flashes of colorful polka dots show the start of a decades long arc that would culminate in Kusama's Infinity Rooms. These rooms, including her largest, Infinity Mirrored Room - Filled with the Brilliance of Life, now in the collection of the Tate Modern, allow the viewer to step fully into her world, as if stepping into a fully realized, career-long vision of these works on paper.

    These works on paper are significant and highly important examples of her practice at the time. Other examples of these works are in public collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam and the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas. They have been featured heavily in her major exhibitions with a section dedicated to them in her 1998 and 2012 retrospectives. In the introduction to the Tate retrospective exhibition catalogue, the curator Frances Morris wrote: "These watercolours demonstrate how far and how fast Kusama had travelled from her early grounding in Japanese tradition" (Frances Morris Ed., Yayoi Kusama, London 2012, p. 11).

    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.
Auction information

This auction is now finished. If you are interested in consigning in future auctions, please contact the specialist department. If you have queries about lots purchased in this auction, please contact customer services.

Buyers' Obligations


If you have any complaints or questions about the Conditions of Sale, please contact your nearest customer services team.

Buyers' Premium and Charges

For all Sales categories excluding Arms & Armor, Coins and Medals, Motor Cars, Motorcycles, Wine & Whisky

27.5% on the first $12,500 of the hammer price;
25% of the hammer price of amounts in excess of $12,500 up to and including $600,000;
20% of the hammer price of amounts in excess of $600,000 up to and including $6,000,000;
and 14.5% of the hammer price of any amounts in excess of $6,000,000.

Payment Notices

Payment for purchases may be made in or by (a) cash, (b) cashier's check or money order, (c) personal check with approved credit drawn on a U.S. bank, (d) wire transfer or other immediate bank transfer, or (e) Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Discover credit, charge or debit card for returning clients only. Please note that the amount of cash notes and cash equivalents that can be accepted from a given purchaser may be limited.

Shipping Notices

For information and estimates on domestic and international shipping as well as export licenses please contact Bonhams Shipping Department.