Yayoi Kusama - Disruptors: Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Design and Watches Hong Kong Thursday, May 25, 2023 | Phillips
  • Yayoi Kusama, who is undoubtedly a female disruptor, has consistently shattered artistic conventions and challenged societal norms throughout her illustrious career. In an era when female artists were frequently marginalised, Kusama's audacious explorations and bold forays into the avant-garde signalled her unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of artistic expression. Her tenacity, coupled with a fierce desire to innovate, paved the way for her ground-breaking achievements and lasting impact on the art world.


    It was not just the art world where Kusama had to break into, but society itself. Born in 1929 to a strictly conservative family who strongly opposed her artistic tendencies, she had to contend with both familial oppression and nationalist aggression that was building in Japan in the 1930s and exploded in the 1940s during World War II. This weighed heavy on her fierce individualism and fragile psyche, the product of such developing into auditory and visual hallucinations that have plagued her from a young age. 



    Yayoi Kusama aged ten, 1939
    Image: © YAYOI KUSAMA



    Following a stint in Paris, Kusama arrived in New York City in the late 1950s, immersing herself in the city's thriving avant-garde scene which was then dominated by the Abstract Expressionist movement. Her arrival in the epicentre of modern art coincided with a period of significant artistic evolution, as artists sought to break free from the constraints of traditional artistic practices and forge new paths of expression. Against this backdrop, Kusama's work emerged as a daring alternative to the gestural abstraction championed by prominent artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.


    Kusama's Infinity Net paintings, characterised by intricate, repetitive patterns that seem to extend infinitely across the canvas, embodied a deliberate departure from the prevailing artistic trends of the time. In contrast to the emotional intensity and spontaneity of the Abstract Expressionists, Kusama's labour-intensive and meditative approach to mark-making evoked a sense of quiet contemplation. By eschewing the heroic, masculine narratives associated with Abstract Expressionism, Kusama's work disrupted the established artistic canon and introduced a new visual vocabulary that reflected her own psychological landscape.


    Furthermore, Kusama's engagement with the New York art scene transcended the realm of painting. She forged connections with artists such as Donald Judd, Eva Hesse, and Claes Oldenburg, who would later become leading figures in the Minimalist and Pop Art movements. Kusama's interdisciplinary practice, which encompassed painting, sculpture, and installation, paralleled the burgeoning artistic pluralism that would come to define the 1960s. In this way, her work not only disrupted the dominant artistic paradigms of her time but also anticipated and contributed to the emergence of new artistic movements.


    The 1960s would also set the stage for some of Kusama’s most powerful work, as she began employing her art as a vehicle for activism and social commentary. During the decade she staged provocative Happenings and performance art pieces, often incorporating nudity and anti-war messages, which challenged social norms and rebuked the status quo.



    Detail of the present work



    Idiosyncratic Translations of Subjective Reality


    As a master of her various media, Kusama savvily shifts between such universally joyful content and more introspective or personal subject matter. These late paintings are confidently executed, animated by mature mark-making and a regard for the entire topography of her oeuvre.
    — Catherine Taft 

    Yayoi Kusama's My Eternal Soul series, of which the current work belongs, commenced in 2008. The series consists of vivid, kaleidoscopic paintings that showcase her remarkable skills as a colour expert and signify the mature work of one of—if not the—most influential contemporary artists of our time. Featuring rich, saturated colours, these pieces represent a distinct departure from the monochromatic Infinity Nets. Now in her ninth decade, Kusama's extensive and varied body of work—encompassing painting, sculpture, and performance art—has continued to develop and broaden with incredible ingenuity for over half a century.


    Representing Kusama's most extensive series of paintings to date, My Eternal Soul delves into the artist's previous themes and formal innovations using a strikingly vibrant palette. The present lot is a shining example of this series, and one of its earliest iterations. It features a visual language that recalls many of her iconographic innovations and formal inventions that are recognised as hallmarks of her career—repeating motifs that include flowers, eyes, pumpkins, the artist's hieroglyphic self-portrait in profile, and, of course, dots and nets. In a 2017 review, Roberta Smith remarked on the artist's use of past motifs: ‘The patterns in these brightly coloured works include passages of Net-painting, but also numerous mutations: ellipses, eyes, dots, and daubed lines whose patterns resemble enlarged fingerprints. There are faces, flowers and face-flowers, cell-like bubbles and amoeboid caterpillars. Again, space moves.’ i


    The work has appeared various times in institutional exhibitions in the United Kingdom and Australia, and bears strong resemblance to some pieces recently exhibited within Hong Kong's M+’s landmark retrospective, Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now.



    Installation shot of I Who Sing in Celebration of Humanity at Queensland Art Gallery’s Yayoi Kusama: Look Now See Forever exhibition in November 2011 – March 2012
    Artwork: © YAYOI KUSAMA



    A defining characteristic of Kusama's My Eternal Soul paintings is her envelopment of the canvas in a single, saturated base colour, which she later adorns with her intricate imagery. In I Who Sing in Celebration of Humanity, the artist tempers the field of ochre with tight, almost claustrophobic, application of black brushstrokes. Frontiers of palpable tentacles stretch out in grotesque horror and battle against the swarms of dots. Almost redolent of her net paintings, she provides a feast of form that draw witnesses into its porous centre. There we find a respite from the traffic of the composition, a pool of free form, and as an act of assurance from Kusama, a red heart.


    As demonstrated here, the centre of her My Eternal Soul works is a crucial compositional element, pulling the viewer into the heart of the paintings. Though teeming with a multitude of images and colours, Kusama creates these acrylic paintings by working on a flat, horizontal surface, moving around the canvas's border to complete her compositions. Critic Catherine Taft observes that these works radiate outward with 'centripetal energy,' negating any absolute orientation of the canvas and redefining traditional compositional parameters that are attached to painting; ‘The focus on centre is a dynamic and deliberate choice that points towards the more existential philosophies underpinning all of Kusama’s work, an acceptance of a driving push toward the unknown that lies at the end of life’, Taft goes on to determine ii.


    I Who Sing in Celebration of Humanity, with its enveloping dimensional harmony, demands submission. Harnessing her generous creative spirit, as well as the generative potential of her art, Kusama confronts the void directly, and fills it with her love.



    The Act of Presence


    Yayoi Kusama's signature mark-making technique, characterised by her meticulous and repetitive patterns, finds an intriguing analogue with the canon of Asian art, where a rich history of spirituality and tradition imbues the artist's strokes with profound meaning. Parallels emerge when examining the fluidity and intentionality of Kusama's art within the context of East Asian artistic practices, such as Chinese ink painting and Japanese calligraphy.


    In traditional Chinese ink painting, for instance, the artist's hand is guided by the breath, as each stroke embodies the vital energy or 'qi' that flows through the natural world. This energy manifests itself in the artwork, as the artist captures the essence of a landscape, a plant, or an animal with deft, purposeful strokes. Kusama's oeuvre is likewise infused with a sense of spirituality, as her obsessive and meditative patterns evoke an inner cosmos that transcends the physical realm. Her work is both a reflection of her personal struggle with mental health and an attempt to connect with a higher, spiritual plane.



    Bada Shanren, Landscape after Guo Zhongshu, circa 1650


    Similarly, Japanese calligraphy, or shodo, places great emphasis on the spiritual aspects of mark-making. Rooted in Zen Buddhism, shodo is viewed as a meditative practice where the artist's mind and body must be in harmony to achieve the fluidity and precision necessary for expressing the essence of a character. Kusama's art, with its repetitive patterns and all-encompassing installations, echoes this spiritual quest for harmony and unity.


    Grappling with the Enigmatic Whispers of the Psyche


    Kusama’s affinity for repetition and her dedication to mark making is not only a manifestation of her artistic vision but also an intimate reflection of her inner turmoil. Her repetitive, mesmerising patterns and immersive installations serve as a therapeutic outlet for her to confront and navigate her psychological challenges. Such a glimpse into the artist’s soul reminds one of the works of Frida Kahlo—an artist whose oeuvre included portraits sprinkled with carefully placed trinkets and intimate motifs.


    Works such as The Frame bears some similarity to the present lot in terms of its composition (cues such as flowers and birds border the painting, just as Kusama's version contains tiny figures and objects) but also in its pointed evocation of the self. Similarly, Kusama has been open about her lifelong experiences with hallucinations and obsessive thoughts, which have driven her to create art as a means of both escape and self-realisation. Moreover, by adorning her works with the achingly beautiful ebullience of her polka dots, Kusama invites us to explore the dissolution of the self, the very ego that defines our individual existence – a process that she calls ‘self-obliteration’.



    Frida Kahlo, The Frame, 1938
    Collection of the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris
    Artwork: © 2023 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Across sections of the present lot, this process emerges, tessellating through size and scope while acting as a compositional, and spiritual anchor: by enveloping her subjects and surroundings in these dots, the artist invites us to consider our place in the grand story of existence. They symbolise the infinitesimal particles that make up the universe, a reminder that beneath the surface, everything is interconnected. Like a Zen master wielding a brush, I Who Sing in Celebration of Humanity transports us into a realm where the lines between the self and the cosmos blur, urging us to confront the fragility of our ego and the impermanence of all things.


    By sharing her inner struggles through works like the present Lot, Kusama invites viewers to contemplate the complex relationship between creativity and mental health, thereby fostering a deeper understanding of the human psyche and the transformative power of art.


     Collector’s Digest


    • One of the most prominent and prolific artists working today, Yayoi Kusama’s practice blends painting, installation, sculpture, and performance to powerful effect. 

    • After moving to the United States in 1958, she became a leading member of the New York avant-garde art scene. She returned to Japan in the 1970s, choosing to reside in a mental health facility and work in a studio during the daytime.

    • The Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C. is currently exhibiting a solo show of Kusama's work, titled One with Eternity, until 16 July 2023, showcasing the museum's permanent collection of the artist.

    • Kusama’s largest retrospective in Asia, Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now, at the M+ Museum in Hong Kong recently closed on 14 May 2023. The exhibition featured 3 new works, and over 200 works across various international collections, the M+ collection as well as the artist’s own collection. This retrospective will soon travel to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

    • Phillips is delighted to offer this fresh to the auction market work by Kusama alongside Kusama’s exciting retrospective at the M+ Museum, having also achieved the world auction record for the artist most recently in May 2022 in New York with Untitled (Nets) at US$10,496,000.


    i Roberta Smith, ‘Yayoi Kusama and the Amazing Polka-Dotted, Selfie-Made Journey to Greatness’, The New York Times, 3 November 2017, online

    ii Catherine Taft, eds., Yayoi Kusama, New York, 2017, p. 64

    • Provenance

      Victoria Miro Gallery, London
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      South Brisbane, Queensland Art Gallery, Yayoi Kusama: Look Now See Forever, 18 November 2011 - 11 March 2012
      London, Victoria Miro Gallery, Yayoi Kusama: Paintings & Accumulation Sculptures, 25 April - 25 May 2013

    • Artist Biography

      Yayoi Kusama


      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 nonagenarian who still lives in Tokyo and steadfastly paints in her 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.

      View More Works



I Who Sing in Celebration of Humanity

signed, titled and dated '"I WHO SING IN CELEBRATION OF HUMANITY" [in English and Japanese] Yayoi Kusama 2009' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
162 x 162 cm. (63 3⁄4 x 63 3⁄4 in.)
Painted in 2009, this work is accompanied by a registration card issued by the artist's studio.

Full Cataloguing

HK$7,500,000 - 9,500,000 

Sold for HK$8,509,000

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Disruptors: Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Design and Watches

Hong Kong Auction 25 May 2023