The searing four-panel painting presented here in electric green and navy blue on fluorescent pink has been created especially for this exhibition, with the gallery space and with particular groupings of works and colours in mind. The ‘Infinity Nets’ are among the most celebrated of Yayoi Kusama’s many innovations, and caused a critical sensation when first unveiled in the late 1950s. They were profoundly influential, signalling a point of departure from the legacy of Abstract Expressionism and anticipating later developments in Pop, Minimalism and Concrete art. They have remained a staple of Kusama’s practice with a singular consistency for over 50 years.
The net paintings developed out of a small canvas called Pacific Ocean 1958, which the artist produced in an attempt to replicate the effect of the waves she saw rippling below her on her flight from Japan to the United States. Their palette was severely restricted, with one colour painted in tight repetitive loops to form undulating nets over a monochromatic ground, often as simple as one shade of white on another. The scale of the works was also remarkable for the time, often covering entire walls to the point that they appeared like walls themselves, anticipating Kusama’s later and equally innovative installations. Lacking a discernible centre and obeying no known law of composition, they proposed painting not as the production of modular, autonomous entities, but as objects within the world — paintings as surface-driven three-dimensional forms.
Her ‘Infinity Net’ paintings were the focus of Kusama’s first few solo exhibitions on the United States east coast between 1959 and 1961, and marked her arrival at the forefront of the Avant-garde in New York. Enveloping the viewer and suggesting the possibility of infinite expansion into space, they anticipated the turn to Minimalism by some six years. That they were extremely popular with her young artist peers of the time (Donald Judd and Frank Stella both purchased works) suggests the degree to which they contributed to later developments in art.
However, unlike the aggressive mark-making of Abstract Expressionism or the erasure of gesture characterising Minimalism, Kusama’s paintings bear the paradoxical trace of an immense labour consisting of accumulated tiny gestures. Their dazzling optical effects and apparent reference to nothing more than their materials and the process of production was more in keeping with the Concrete art of European artists like Lucio Fontana and the Dutch Nul group, with whom she would become associated throughout the 1960s — one of the few American-based artists to do so.
It is possible to see Kusama’s signature polka dots as already present in these paintings, as the negative space left between the loops of the netting. The influence of the paintings’ surfaces can also be detected in the undulating fields of Kusama’s soft sculptures, mirror rooms and psychedelic canvases. That the artist continues to produce her ‘Infinity Nets’ is testament to their centrality in her practice.