Painted in 1960, No. G.A. White is a striking example of Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Nets, in which she combines lace-like painting with swathes of impasto to produce a work of touching delicacy.
The painting was acquired in 1960 by Mrs. Mary Louise Freeman. She was friends with Eleanor Biddle Lloyd, known to all as Lallie Lloyd, a founder of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art and longtime chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Mrs. Lloyd was already a collector of Kusama's work, having owned the artist's stunning green work No. F. In the spring of 1960, they visited one of Kusama's first U.S. solo shows at the Gres Gallery in Washington D.C. The show received rave reviews, with The Washington Post describing it as "outstanding", and, on Mrs. Lloyd's recommendation, Mrs. Freeman acquired the present lot, No. G.A. White, which has since held pride of place in the family home for almost fifty years.
Having already developed a reputation as a leading promoter of international contemporary art by helping to launch the careers of Fernando Botero and Antonio Tàpies, the gallery's owner, Beatrice Perry, went on to play an important role in establishing Kusama's career in the United States. A central figure in the city's art and social scene, she had developed a reputation as a discoverer of new talent. 'I knew her work was something that had not been seen before,' Perry said, 'One way or another, you look at European, American and Japanese art;...her art was completely original because what she sees and how she sees it is totally different' (B. Perry, interviewed in "International Bonds," ArtAsiaPacific, Spring 2006, no. 48, New York, p. 36). The strength of the relationship grew over the next few years, as Kusama recalled, 'After Perry moved to New York, she continued to assist me financially. She also helped me obtain permanent residency. The paintings I did then are in the Museum of Modern Art and other major collections...I think of Mrs. Perry as my mother' (Y. Kusama, Ibid, pp. 36-37).
As an early example of her Infinity Nets series, the defining quality of this work is Kusama's painstaking approach to applying paint to the canvas. The meticulous and repetitive circles of paint are characteristic of the artist at this point in her career, but the present lot stands out due to her inclusion of a band of heavy impasto that moves across the center of the canvas. These dramatic swoops and swirls of thick, white paint crash onto the canvas like waves on a beach, giving the work an energy and vitality which makes this piece such a notable work in Kusama's extensive career.
Kusama's characteristic lace-like patterning continues to shift throughout the canvas with the upper sections dominated by large swoops and swirls which then transform themselves into smaller, more intense areas as the eye tumbles down towards the lower sections of the canvas. By shifting the composition of her painting in this way, Kusama draws the eye across the canvas, sending it in a frenetic journey of discovery that twists and turns with every stroke of the brush.
Kusama traces the roots of her unique style back to her traumatic childhood when she began to experience a specific series of hallucinations when she was ten years old. As she recounted in 1975, 'One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on the table, and when I was looking up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe' (Y. Kusama, quoted in Yayoi Kusama, London, 2000, p. 35). To achieve this affect, she applies a semi-transparent layer of white pigment over an under layer of black and then adds strokes of more white paint over the top, repeating the act over and over again. Kusama normally works with the canvas placed flat on a table top or other surface, making it impossible to see the whole of the composition while she is working, and, therefore, also impossible to change or alter the composition in response to the work being done. By working in this way, she is forced to abandon any attempt to try and control the whole of the picture plane or construct it out of parts.
'In these paintings, a single passive, undivided planar space is fixed on the canvas (naturally using an approach that is the opposite of the emotional space of Action painting, a central, major trend that emerged in New York), so each microscopic particle is given concrete structure as much as possible, and it reveals the congealing of a strange, gigantic mass. Through repetition of the act of making each touch over time, the layers of dry, white pigment give an infinite concreteness to the space in the middle of the actually visible field...In addition, these paintings entirely abandon having a single fixed focal point or center' (Y.Kusama, quoted in Yayoi Kusama, Tokyo, 2004).
The purity of her work and the predominant use of white aligned her for a time with the Zero Group, a collection of avant-garde artists based in Europe. She was involved in many of their groundbreaking exhibitions, including the 1962 Amsterdam "Nul" show and the "Group Zero" exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in 1964. She met with many leading members of the group including the Dutch artist Jan Schoonhoven, who went on participate in some of her performance events.
No. G.A. White is a supreme example of the work Kusama began producing in response to her move to New York. When she first set up home in the city in the summer of 1958, she arrived with small drawings and gouaches that she had produced in Japan. Soon the format of her paintings began to grow in size and started to include the principal of all over composition and the repetition of more or less identical motifs. Undoubtedly influenced by the move from her small Japanese town to the pulsating metropolis of New York City, her new surroundings fired her creative passions and inspired her to create this new body of work that responded to her new home.
Abstract Expressionism was at the height of its dominance and many artists and critics were already searching for a new direction. By the time she painted the present lot, not only had Kusama found that new direction, she was well down the road to producing a body of work that would prove to be prophetic for many of her contemporaries. Her enthusiastic and energetic application of paint to the canvas clearly has its roots in Abstract Expressionism, but No. G.A. White's machine like repetition also appealed to many of the artists, like Donald Judd and Frank Stella, who became involved in minimalism. She also inspired artists who belonged to the Post-Minimalist movement, such as Eva Hesse, as she provided a more sensual and organic repetition that departed from the industrial aesthetic of minimalism. In addition, she created her white Infinity Nets around the same time that Robert Ryman began investigating the painterly possibilities of the color white, which he began in the mid-1950s, but did not begin showing widely until the following decade.
'My consistent avant-garde approach to art, I think, has exerted a great influence on the art work of American and European artists, as well as other artists...I have been in Pop art, Minimal art, Happenings, Environments, Avante-garde films and others, as well as Zero in Europe...I believe my aspirations will not fade away after I am gone and I want to leave it to those interested in my art as a message from Yayoi Kusama...' (quoted in Yayoi Kusama: Mirrored Years, Wellington, 2009, p. 5).