Yayoi Kusama was born in the city of Matsumoto, Japan in 1929. Her yearning for the freedoms offered by western art led her to travel to the United States in the 1950s to continue her artistic career. At the time, Japan was a conservative society that was dominated by men. It was considered extremely progressive for Kusama to travel by herself as a woman to participate in the western art scene. Fellow contemporaries who left Japan during the same period include Yoko Ono and On Kawara; they all achieved remarkable personal success, and their contributions to the post-war art scene in the United States cannot be overstated.
In 1958, Yayoi Kusama moved from Seattle to New York. The following year, her solo exhibition featuring large-scale white paintings from her Infinity Net series catapulted her to international stardom. The repeated brushwork in these paintings demonstrate her unparalleled skill and determination. Although they bear resemblance to minimalistic works on the surface, the unmistakable sense of human craftsmanship fills these pieces with a unique allure. She explained the creative process of Infinity Net: “It has no composition. It has no beginning, no end, and no centre”. Considered individually, the dots look like a microcosm under the glass of a microscope. Yet, when they are viewed together as a whole, they create a majestic macro-universe.
Yayoi Kusama is a seminal figure in the post-war contemporary art scene in the United States. She was a good friend of minimalist master Donald Judd, had a platonic relationship with Surrealist artist Joseph Cornell, and was a creative competitor of Andy Warhol. Between 1958 and 1968, Kusama was actively engaged in many disciplines such as painting, soft sculpture, installation, performance art, and even fashion. In 1962, the progressive art group Zero held an important exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in which Kusama joined forces with many preeminent European artists such as Lucio Fontana, despite being the only female artist in the group.
Kusama returned to Japan in 1973, and she admitted herself into a psychiatric hospital in 1977. She spent the 1980s executing large-scale paintings that emphasised the flatness of picture plane. These works responded to the visual elements and commercial graphics that were popular in Japan at the time. It was during this period that she switched from oil paints to acrylic. Kusama represented Japan in the 1993 Venice Biennale, and from then on, solidified her position as one of the most venerated contemporary artists in Japan.
Other than purely abstract works such as the ones from the Infinity Net series, Kusama also painted representational subject matters such as still-lifes, landscapes, and figures. Although pumpkins are among her most iconic subjects, the lemon squash is also one of her favorite objects to depict. Lemon Squash (Lot 38) offered in this auction is one of the rare works that belongs in this beloved series.
The academic consensus amongst art historians is that still-life painting as an independent genre began in the 16th century. Before this period, still-lifes were considered inferior, peripheral works. Positioned on the lowest rung of the painting hierarchy, they were merely complementary to religious paintings and portraitures. Still-life paintings only began to gain popularity in Northern Europe in the 17th century. In particular, the Netherlands embraced this genre enthusiastically because of their flourishing economy, and the Dutch purchased still-life paintings as displays of wealth. Following the decline of Neoclassicism in the 19th century, more expressions of sentimentality were being infused into still life paintings. One of the prime examples of this transformation is Van Gogh's Sunflower. Cézanne, the father of modernism, depicted objects in his still-life paintings as geometric shapes (fig. 1). By distorting perspective and space, he opened the doorway to abstract art. Still-life painting was no longer an objective representation of reality - it was a subject for the exploration of innovative visual experience. Matisse further flattened the space in his still-life paintings and filled the picture plane with symbolic elements. This flattening of foreground and background in still life painting would be further developed by the Cubists (fig. 2). These visual features would once again undergo transformation in Lemon Squash through Kusama’s idiosyncratic treatments.
Lemon Squash is the result of a still-life transformed by abstraction and flattening of space. The monochrome palette unifies the tone of the picture. Akin to advertisement printing, Kusama painted unmodulated black lines and planes that completely eliminated the sense of three-dimensionality in the still-life. The overall flatness and design arrangement of the piece are emphasised here. The glass, straw, and lemon slice are divided into geometric shapes of varying sizes. Then, each surface is painted with Kusama’s signature dots. The arrangement of these dots differ from surface to surface. Compounded by the fact that highly saturated tones are used, these patterns produce a strong rhythmic effect. This visual phenomenon is reminiscent of the works by the central figure of the Op Art movement, English painter Bridget Riley. Her monochrome paintings produced in the early 1960s have a similar dazzling effect (fig. 3). However, the patterns in Lemon Squash are not merely decorative elements. Viewers must reference the artist’s long-standing practice of using dots to perform self-obliteration in order to read the work properly. For this reason, Lemon Squash can be discussed in a formalist manner, yet at its core, the focus is still the vast void that is Kusama’s polka dot universe.
After the first world war, some modernist artists advocated for a restoration movement (fig. 4) that returned to the emphasis on classical modelling aesthetics. In Kusama’s artistic career, Lemon Squash represents a return to traditionl threedimensional modelling as well. By painting glasses of lemon squash, pumpkins, flowers, birds, and other representational objects, she was making an effort to appeal to the public taste without compromising her artistic spirit. Other than being a medium for personal expression, art can also be used to satisfy the viewers’ visual pleasure. The reason Yayoi Kusama’s works are so universally appreciated by collectors is because she achieves a delicate balance that successfully links these two very different worlds.