Yayoi Kusama, Pacific Ocean, 1960

NARRATOR: When Kusama arrived in New York, she began an ambitious series of paintings—the Infinity Nets. The four canvases in this gallery are among the earliest of them. In each, Kusama worked methodically, forging semicircles of dense white oil paint into nets that stretch across a black background. Then she applied a thin layer of white wash across the whole, so that the black dots seem to be bathed in a kind of fog. In this painting, called Pacific Ocean, the net becomes denser near the center of the canvas. Towards the edges, its energies grow more expansive. In some of the other works you’ll see here, the pattern is more regular, the mood more controlled.

Kusama exhibited the Infinity Nets in 1961, receiving excellent reviews from The New York Times and in the art magazines. She’d managed to distinguish herself from the Abstract Expressionists—painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, whose work largely dominated the New York scene. Kusama’s work matches or exceeds theirs in scale, but is radically different in intent. Abstract Expressionist paintings hinge on dramatic, expressive gestures. By contrast, Kusama’s begin from a place of order and regularity—the same brush stroke applied, with just a little variation, over and over and over again. The paintings’ powers lie in the cumulative effect of that action. The texture is remarkable, but so is the sense of the labor and energy required to paint like this on such a large scale.