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Eleven early artworks by Yayoi Kusama, given by the artist to her New York doctor in the 1960s, are heading to Bonhams, where they are estimated to collectively fetch between $8.8 and $14 million in a single-owner sale this May. Consisting of three paintings and eight works on paper, these pieces remained in the collection of Dr. Teruo Hirose for six decades until his death in 2019, and are being consigned by his son, a photography professor.
When Kusama first visited Hirose for medical care for an unknown issue in 1960, both individuals had recently emigrated to the US from Japan. Hirose, a physician and cardiovascular surgeon, had a reputation for providing treatment to Japanese immigrants for reduced prices or even pro bono, making him a pragmatic option for the young artist, who had arrived in the states with 2,000 works on paper but very little by way of funds. Of the 11 works in the sale, all given to Hirose as a token of appreciation for his care, seven are from the group that Kusama originally brought with her from Japan when she left in 1957. Kusama and Hirose would go on to become friends, with the doctor attending the artist’s exhibition openings.
In the fall of 1959, Kusama had her first New York City solo show at Brata Gallery. In the mid-1960s, she established herself as a figure in the city’s avant-garde through her installations and happenings, though she would go on to fall into obscurity before her “rediscovery” in 1989. Although Kusama had intended to remain in New York permanently, she returned to Japan in 1973 due to deteriorated health. She was treated for Basedow’s disease and uterine myoma and subsequently hospitalized for obsessive-compulsive disorder. She has lived at a mental facility in Tokyo since 1977, making art at a nearby studio.
Early paintings by Kusama are relatively rare and garner top prices at auction. A 1959 painting featuring her signature “infinity net” motif — in which a swirling multiplicity of tiny dots overtakes the canvas to a destabilizing effect, said to mirror her childhood hallucinations — sold at Sotheby’s in 2019 for $7.9 million, the artist’s auction record. Two of Kusama’s infinity net paintings from 1960, acquired by Hirose in October of that year, are poised to lead the upcoming Bonhams sale with estimates of $3 million to $5 million each. Unlike other early infinity net paintings, which are predominantly a cool white, the “Hudson River” and “Mississippi River” paintings are characterized by a bold red hue.
The third painting in the sale, a slightly later, untitled work both made and gifted to Hirose circa 1965, is predicted to garner between $2.5 million and $3.5 million. The painting features multiple strata of colored dots — rings of red, yellow, and green — in a square shape, which recede into infinite space. Ralph Taylor, the global head of Bonhams’ post-war and contemporary art department, said in a statement that the work “demonstrates Kusama’s experimentation during the 1960s, while also foreshadowing her recognizable mirror boxes — where images grow and radiate from a single point.”
Taylor told Hyperallergic:
This collection of work comes from the pivotal moment in Kusama’s career as she transitioned from Japan to the wider world. They are intensely personal, particularly the River paintings which evoke memories of the river behind her house growing up where she sought solace from a fraught family life.
As a child in central Japan, Kusama was abused by her mother and neglected by her philandering father, all the while suffering from mental illness; from the age of 10, she used art-making to help her cope.
Kusama, who turned 92 earlier this week, is among the most expensive living female artists at auction and has set attendance records for her famously popular exhibitions. An exhibition of her work at the New York Botanical Garden opens on April 10.