Fear of Death

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  • Provenance

    David Zwirner, New York
    Private Collection, South America

  • Exhibited

    New York, Gagosian Gallery, Yayoi Kusama, April 16 - June 27, 2009

  • Literature

    Yayoi Kusama, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2009, n.p. (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    "Every day I am creating a new world by making artworks. I wake up early in the morning and stay up late at night, sometimes until 3am, just to make art. I am fighting for my life and don’t take any rest."
    Yayoi Kusama, 2014

    Throughout Yayoi Kusama’s prolific career, she has dedicated herself to artistic innovation and the re-invention of her style. Undoubtedly influenced by – and influential in – the New York art scene of the 60s, Kusama’s oeuvre is wholly unique. Rather than pulling from pre-existing artistic forms, Kusama’s work is a manifestation of the artist’s persistent hallucinations that began to color her world when she was just a child. The two most frequently utilized motifs of Kusama’s career – the net-like design that colonized her earliest canvases, and the polka dots that pattern both room-sized environments and, often, the artist’s body – are said to replicate the forms that monopolize her own sight. Celebrated for these repetitive patterns, her artistic output encompasses an astonishing variety of media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, film, performance, and immersive installation. Ranging from works on paper featuring intense semi-abstract imagery, to her Accumulation sculptures and environments, to her Infinity Net paintings with their dense and continuously arcing patterns, her life’s work is truly remarkable. Much of her oeuvre has been marked with an obsession for and a desire to explore and escape from psychological traumas. Her installations immerse the viewer in her fixated vision of infinity through dots, nets, mirrored spaces or, as here, eyes that illustrate her psychological experiences, sharing her vision with that of the viewer.

    Fear of Death from 2008 is a masterful exemplar of Kusama’s continued investigation of the compulsive nature of her being and the quasi-psychedelic manner in which she is able to publicly relate her experiences through painting. The canvas takes the shape of a perfect square, typically thought of as one of – if not the most – stable of shapes, with its equilateral sides and perfect 90o angles. However, Kusama instantly destabilizes the uniformity of the canvas by ringing it with a jagged border of blue; each triangular form serves to disrupt the linear continuity transforming the plumb-bob straight sides of the canvas into ones of topographical irregularity. Pointing in towards the yellow ground, the blue peaks assume an antagonistic and violent dimension. Like the cavernous yaw of a beast’s mouth preparing to gnash down upon its prey, the blue border seems determined to simultaneously contain and destroy the picture plane. Yet, even as the jaws of death threaten ominously, the glorious light of the yellow ground explodes back in defiance. Painted in a brilliant sunflower hue, the yellow ground plays host to hundreds of red eyes peering out to the viewer. Assuming both a protective quality and one of ominous paranoia, the ocular repetition clearly manifests Kusama’s obsessive modus operandi.

    Kusama traces the roots of her unique repetitive style back to her traumatic childhood when she began to experience a specific series of hallucinations. As Kusama recalled, “when I was a child, one day I was walking the field, then all of a sudden, the sky became bright over the mountains, and I saw clearly the very image I was about to paint appear in the sky. I also saw violets which I was painting multiply to cover the doors, windows and even my body. It was then I learned the idea of self-obliteration. I immediately transferred the idea onto a canvas. It was hallucination only the mentally ill can experience.” (Y. Kusama, quoted in Yayoi Kusama Now, exh. cat., Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1998, p. 15)

    In Fear of Death Kusama utilizes this repetitive motif to its most powerful end. Covering the canvas in a field of staring eyes, she further enhances the immediacy and potency of the picture through her use of the vibrant red hue for each glaring oculus. According to Japanese folk tradition, red is the color best suited for expelling demons and illness. Similarly, the motif of the eye is one of symbolic significance. Utilized for millennia as a powerful talisman to protect and preserve one from both physical and spiritual harm, the eye is additionally associated with the ever-present paranoia of one afflicted with mental illness. Here Kusama manages to conflate the two in one heady, unified composition, representing both her frenetic infirmities and her desire to overcome these selfsame maladies.

    Yayoi Kusama’s position within domain of contemporary art is wholly unique. A woman raised in the Eastern traditions of Japan, Kusama has achieved overarching success in a field dominated by Western-born men; indeed, Kusama is in a category all her own. Fear of Death is a masterpiece of her contemporary oeuvre and the manifestation of the themes and concerns that dominate Kusama’s work and with which the artist has grappled from an early age. Juxtaposing the stability of the square and a palette of strictly the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue against the agitation of a jagged border and seemingly aggressive imposition of an ocular army, Kusama’s Fear of the Death is the magnificent realization of these personal visions in the two-dimensional plane. Mirroring in its title and composition that existential dilemma first posed by Barnett Newman so many decades ago, Fear of Death challenges the domain of the visual and psychological: who’s afraid of red, yellow, blue? Who’s afraid of death?

  • Artist Bio

    Yayoi Kusama

    Japanese • 1929

    Named "the world's most popular artist" in 2015, it's not hard to see why Yayoi Kusama continues to dazzle contemporary art audiences globally. From her signature polka dots—"fabulous," she calls them—to her mirror-and-light Infinity Rooms, Kusama's multi-dimensional practice of making art elevates the experience of immersion. To neatly pin an artistic movement onto Kusama would be for naught: She melds and transcends the aesthetics and theories of many late twentieth century movements, including Pop Art and Minimalism, without ever taking a singular path. 

    As an octogenarian who still lives—somewhat famously—in a psychiatric institution in Tokyo and steadfastly paints in her immaculate studio every day, Kusama honed her punchy cosmic style in New York City in the 1960s. During this period, she staged avant-garde happenings, which eventually thrust her onto the international stage with a series of groundbreaking exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1980s and the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993. She continues to churn out paintings and installations at inspiring speed, exhibiting internationally in nearly every corner of the globe, and maintains a commanding presence on the primary market and at auction. 

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Fear of Death

2008
acrylic on canvas
76 1/2 x 76 1/2 in. (194.3 x 194.3 cm)
Signed, titled and dated "Yayoi Kusama 2008 Fear of Death" on the reverse.

Estimate
$600,000 - 800,000 

sold for $605,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1261

Contemporary Art Evening

New York Auction 13 November 2014 7pm