INFINITY-NETS (QRTWE) is an exceptional example from Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s celebrated oeuvre that continues the legacy of her most iconic Infinity Nets series, of which the artist has developed and enriched for more than half a century, cementing her place as an iconic figure at the centre of contemporary art worldwide.
Immersed in Nature
Composed of a breath-taking crochet of circular forms that create an ‘unsystematic pattern as varied as those found in nature and as personal as a signature’ i, one cannot help but feel as if they are soaring high up over a frosted forest when presented with the INFINITY-NETS (QRTWE), gazing down upon shimmering, snow-covered treetops that gently sway to and fro in a winter’s breeze. Or caught in a stormy tornado, disorientated amongst an array of dizzying dots that collide across the canvas surface with an almost three-dimensionality, rising, falling, and whirling around as the lattice interweaves between foreground and background.
Though entirely abstract, Kusama’s endlessly repeating trademark dots are evocative of interstellar, aquatic, and underground worlds that appear to extend beyond the constraints of the canvas and into the room, enveloping both the viewer and the artist in the hypnotic concept of the infinite. Indeed, as affirmed by Kusama herself, ‘with just one polka dot, nothing can be achieved’ ii. Yet ‘in the universe, there is the sun, the moon, the each, and hundreds of millions of stars’ ii, and ‘all of us live in the unfathomable mystery’ ii of our world.
Born in 1929 in wartime Nagano, Japan, Kusama’s lifelong fascination with polka-dots and the organic forms that fill her oeuvre stems from her childhood spent in the greenhouses and fields of her family’s seed nursery. Her family life was disturbed and problematic, and at the tender age of ten, Kusama began to experience vivid visions which the artist has claimed have haunted her ever since. Her hallucinations were fuelled by flowers and plants that would speak to her, and fields of dots that would engulf everything around her, including herself, in a process Kusama has since coined ‘Self Obliteration’. To cope with her fears, the young artist sought relief in painting the innumerable dots that populated these disturbing dreams, finding therapeutic comfort in the labour-intensive challenge this task of obsessive repetition presented.
"Deep in the mountains of Nagano, working with letter-size sheets of white paper, I had found my own unique method of expression: ink paintings featuring accumulations of tiny dots and pen drawings of endless and unbroken chains of graded cellular forms or peculiar structures that resembled magnified sections of plant stalks." —Yayoi Kusama
A Star in the Making
Seeking to escape her troubled family life and as encouraged by the renowned American artist Georgia O’Keefe, of whom Kusama was in communication with at the time, Kusama travelled to New York in June 1958. Standing atop the Empire State Building and looking out over the gridded metropolis, Kusama recalls aspiring to ‘grab everything that went on in the city and become a star’ iii. Undeterred by her limited formal training, she strove with great ambition to form an innovative response to the painterly flourish of Abstract Expressionist painting that dominated the art scene of her new home.
A year later, Kusama launched her career in New York at the Brata Gallery ‘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 […] looked like nothing at all – just plain white surfaces’ iv. Representing a radical shift from the works on paper she had brought with her from Japan, her controlled structures of lustrous white paint challenged the trashing vibrant muscularity of Abstract Expressionism. Her momentous canvases boldly referenced the New York School painters, sharing the same heroic scale of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, however the ‘painstaking sameness of the composition was a deliberate attempt to find an antidote to the emotionalism of [the genre]’ i.
Her debut solo exhibition garnered significant critical acclaim, paving the way for the Minimalist aesthetics of Robert Ryman and other emerging artists of the time. The first to purchase an Infinity Net painting was Donald Judd who in his glowing review published in Art News v, wrote:
"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. […] The total quality suggests an analogy to a large, fragile, but vigorously carved grill or to a massive, solid lace. The expression transcends the question of whether it is Oriental or American. Although it is something of both, certainly of such Americans as Rothko, Still and Newman, it is not at all a synthesis and is thoroughly independent." —Donald Judd
As concurred by his son Flavin, this indeed was high praise as ‘originality was Don’s goal and [Kusama] already had it – he was very impressed’ vi. In her survey of Kusama’s oeuvre, art historian and curator Laura Hoptman expands on this, suggesting that ‘while it is not difficult to see why Kusama’s Infinity Nets might have attracted the interest of American Minimalists like Judd and Stella, Kusama’s work is utterly different from her Minimalist counterparts in its execution and in its mode d'emploi. Despite her descriptions of her brushstrokes as 'mechanical', and of the paintings themselves as 'empty' one does not have to believe that the Infinity Nets are [as with other Kusama works] direct transcriptions of hallucinations in order to understand them as highly personalised expressions of the artist's persona' vii.
Though there is an inextricable relationship between the artist’s signature style and the hallucinatory visions and psychological struggles that pervade her life, the nets in Kusama’s paintings moreover intrigue as obscuring veils that only offer viewers a partial view of what lies ahead, as they become lost in both the visual and psychosocial intensity of Kusama’s conceptual vision.
Soon after her Brata Gallery show, Kusama was just one of two artists practising in the United States, alongside Mark Rothko, to be included in Monochrome Malerei (1960), a seminal exhibition of monochrome paintings at the Städtisches Museum in Leverkusen, Germany. Celebrated for her Infinity Net paintings that were ‘without beginning, end or centre’ x, unbroken by figuration of abstract compositional device, Kusama was catapulted onto the European scene, becoming one of the few non-Western artists to achieve international recognition so rapidly in the post-war climate.
INFINITY-NETS (QRTWE) was first unveiled at the artist’s two-part exhibition at Victoria Miro in London in 2007, hung next to other monochromatic Infinity Net paintings created that same year. The works recall the artist’s earliest white net paintings that were presented at the Brata Gallery in New York and propelled her to artistic stardom, confirming the formal continuity evident in her body of work that complements the consistent obsessions that have defined her subject matter. At the same time, INFINITY-NETS (QRTWE) is equally unique in its sophisticated restaging of Kusama’s iconic motif, which has since become immediately recognisable beyond the confines of the art world.
Executed in the mature period of the artist’s career, the present painting is rendered in acrylic rather than oil, a water-soluble medium that the artist transitioned to in the 1980s, harkening back to her early experimentations in traditional Japanese Nihonga painting. As thinly applied wash-like paint juxtaposes innumerable dabs of thicker impasto, a kaleidoscopic textural surface is created that showcases the artist’s punctilious devotion to the act of mark-making. Further, in switching to a medium with a faster drying time, this technical development speaks to the artist’s relentless endurance to enact her artistic vision with a remarkable ferocity and efficiency, reflecting the emotional investment Kusama has in her ongoing journey of self-obliteration.
With a highly influential oeuvre guided by unparalleled creativity, works by Kusama make part of collections of prestigious museums throughout the world. This includes the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Tate Modern, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Having been honoured with extensive solo exhibitions throughout her career, including a large retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2012, Kusama continues to affirm her position as a leading contemporary artist with an upcoming retrospective at Gropius Bau, Berlin (September 2020, postponed to March 2021); as well as upcoming exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. (2020, to be rescheduled); the New York Botanical Garden (2020, postponed to 2021); and the Tate Modern, London (Spring 2021 – Spring 2022).
i Laura Hopton, ‘Yayoi Kusama: A Reckoning’, in Yayoi Kusama, New York, 2000, p. 42
ii Yayoi Kusama quoted in Nadine Daher, ‘Celebrating the Eternal Legacy of artist Yayoi Kusama’, Smithsonian Magazine, 14 January 2020, online
iii Yayoi Kusama quoted in Akira Tatehata, Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 11
iv Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autiobiography of Yayoi Kusama, Ralph McCarthy, London, 2011, p. 29
v Donald Judd, ‘Reviews and Previews: New Names This Month – Yayoi Kusama’, Art News, 58, no.6, October 1959, p. 17
vi Flavin Judd quoted in Javier Pes, ‘Yayoi Kusama’s critical friend, Donald Judd’, The Art Newspaper, 30 August 2017, online vii Laura Hopton, ‘Yayoi Kusama: A Reckoning’, in Yayoi Kusama, New York, 2000, p. 43 x Laura Hopton, ‘Yayoi Kusama: A Reckoning’, in Yayoi Kusama, New York, 2000, p. 103