YAYOI KUSAMA (B. 1929) Untitled 1965

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Lot 8
(B. 1929)

Sold for US$ 4,590,312 inc. premium

oil on canvas

43 3/4 x 51 1/2 in.
111 x 130.8 cm.

This work was executed circa 1965.


  • 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

    Untitled, circa 1965
    "My desire was to predict and measure the infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots [...] How deep was the mystery?" – Yayoi Kusama

    Untitled (lot 8), executed in the mid-1960s, shows Kusama exploring a brighter, braver palette, foreshadowing the dizzying displays of color and light that define much of her current work. It also shows the various influences and friendships within the artistic community that she would forge upon moving to New York and entering the international artistic fray for the first time in her career.

    The present work reflects the increased interaction she experienced with many of her European contemporaries throughout the 1960s. Kusama's work made its European debut in the Monochrome Malerei exhibition at the Städtisches Museum, Leverkusen, West Germany, in 1960. Whilst she did not travel to Europe for that exhibition, it did introduce her to many of the most influential artists of the period including: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Günther Uecker, Otto Piene and many others. In 1965 she would travel to Europe for various exhibitions including at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, where she would interact with artists from the ZERO and Nul groups as well as fellow Japanese émigrés from the Gutai group.

    The mutual influence between Kusama and these many European artists and groups cannot be understated. These artists were exploring concepts that Kusama had also been developing in her own practice and which define much of her oeuvre. Ideas of the void and infinity (often one and the same), accumulations and artistic happenings; these new conceptual underpinnings were becoming pivotal ideas across the Atlantic. Kusama was one of the driving forces of this newfound creative energy, and it is during this time that Uecker begins to pound nails into canvases, radiating out from the center of the canvas, just as Kusama's tiny nets do in the present work. These artists also worked beyond the canvas, with Uecker covering chairs with nails, just as Kusama did with her accumulations onto chairs, beds and boats.

    Unusually, the center of the canvas in the present work is devoid of nets, leaving a hazy wash of yellow. This makes Untitled reminiscent of the Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concepts) works that Lucio Fontana, one of the leading artistic voices in Europe, developed after World War II. Fontana's Concetto Spaziale would see him slashing and gouging his canvases to reach a fresh, new starting point in artistic creation. His series Concetto Spaziale, La fine di Dio, including the example from 1963, now in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, was the final stage of this concept. In Fontana's La Fine di Dio, the violent punctures radiate from the center of the egg-shaped canvas, creating a galaxy of clusters and holes, falling away into the largest of these voids. In Kusama's painting, this same delicate webbing of organic threads migrates rhythmically towards its vacant center. The effect is a vivid composition of unsettling depth that combines the intricacy of Kusama's virtuoso hand with her deft ability to produce psychic landscapes that connect deeply with the spectator.

    The clear connections to the European artists and movements are balanced by a distinctly American approach to color. Whilst the Europeans largely tended toward monochrome work, including in the title of the first European show in which Kusama's work was included, at this time American Kenneth Noland and German-American Josef Albers were juxtaposing bands of color in their works. The present work is one of Kusama's earliest known examples to show concentric bands of infinity circles, suggesting Josef Albers' Homage to the Square: Apparition (1959).

    Just as Albers uses contrasting blocks of color, here Kusama pairs yellow, black, green and red. Her Infinity Net technique allows these blocks of color to meld and blend together; we see flashes of yellow peek through the layers of nets allowing the red to soften to a dusty pink as the color moves from the center of the canvas.

    Looking ahead in Kusama's career, these growing bands of nets and color, bursting from the center of the canvas, presage her Infinity Rooms and mirror installations. Those works, which now make her exhibitions some of the most popular in the world, allow viewers to step into Kusama's infinite world. In the present painting, the largest in the collection, we experience one of the earliest examples of Kusama's work that allow us to immerse ourselves into Kusama's colorful and expansive vision.

    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) Untitled 1965
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