Yayoi Kusama's esoteric combination of "infinity nets" and polka dots sells for nearly US$6m at Bonhams Hong Kong

Yayoi Kusama is many things: a visionary in her field, an artist battling personal struggles, and the reigning artist in terms of combined sales of her work. In 2023 alone, Kusama’s work sold for a combined US$80.3 million, and this spring with the sale of her Infinity (1995) painting for HK$46.43 million (around US$6 million), including commission, she looks set to follow that reigning trend.

This painting, sold at Bonhams’ Hong Kong Modern & Contemporary Art auction comes hot off the heels of Poly Auction’s Hong Kong sale earlier in April which saw the HK$18 million (around US$2.3 million) sale of Red Pumpkin (1989). Bonhams' Hong Kong also broke records with this sale, with Infinity becoming its highest-ever selling contemporary work. 

Infinity, however, differs from Red Pumpkin through its far more imposing nature. Infinity comes in at nearly two meters tall and is the only known Kusama work to combine the “infinity nets” and polka dot styles abstractly in one work.

The painting somewhat serves as a metaphysical self-portrait, blending together Kusama’s iconic styles, and the outcome of the life she’s led. To have it finally appear in the public eye, after years of being in the hands of private owners, gives us an opportunity to both appreciate the work and the history from which it originates.

Infinity took centre stage at Bonham’s Hong Kong Spring sale, as explained by Marcello Kwan (Head of Modern and Contemporary Art, Asia), both pictured here

Lot 12p | Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) | Infinity, Acrylic on Canvas
Painted in (researched by The Value): Photo evidence shows that the painting's creation began in 1987, at the latest. It was officially completed in 1995. 
Size: 193 x 125.5 cm 
Singed: Yayoi Kusama INFINITY 1995 on the back

  • Robert Miller Gallery, New York City, USA
  • Private Collection, USA
  • Acquired from the above by the current owner 

Note: This painting is accompanied by a registration card issued by Yayoi Kusama Inc.
Estimate: Valuation is available upon request with Bonhams. 
Hammer Price: HK$38,000,000
Sold: HK$46,434,000 (around US$6 million)

Bidding kicked off on the 25th of May with it opening for over HK$34 million. Julia Hu (Bonhams Asia’s Managing Director) immediately bid HK$35 million for her client on the phone. Auctioneer Marcello Kwan (Bonhams Asia’s Head of Modern and Contemporary Art) responded by reading out a written bid for Infinity for just over HK$36 million. This was met by Wu Wai-Yai who on behalf of her client on the phone bid HK$37 million. However, even this price wasn’t enough to beat the written bids, with Kwan reading out the winning bid for the paddle number “808.”

Both the “infinity nets” and polka dot style are deeply rooted in the somewhat troubled history of Kusama, something intrinsically baked into her art. The latter polka dot style appeared first in Kusama’s history in 1939.

This 1939 instance was not a published piece, but a sketch done when the artist was around nine or ten years old. The sketch features a woman, presumably Kusama’s mother, dressed in a kimono with her soon-to-be ubiquitous dots peppering the drawing.


Yayoi Kusama | Untitled 1939 | 25 x 22 cm | Kusama (second on the right) with her family

While this polka dot sketch would suggest that childhood whimsy informs Kusama’s art it is probably one of her first artistic depictions of the mental health issues she’s battled all her life. Once the subject of an academic paper titled “Genius Woman Artist With Schizophrenic Tendency,” Kusama’s work is an outgrowth of that struggle and even a coping mechanism.

Starting at around the age of ten Kusama began suffering from hallucinations, and while her family was affluent her mother was abusive and her father a philanderer. Such experiences were only made worse by the war that would break out in her childhood, with her being drafted into the war effort in 1945 as a factory worker, such a childhood led her to crave more freedom.

Yayoi Kusama photographed here in her New York Studio sometime in the 1960s

In this context polka dots appeared in her hallucinations starting from childhood, seemingly engulfing or embracing her. As later seen in her 1967 film Self-Obliteration this idea was meant to signify how all are absorbed into one. Anything be they an individual, animal, or item once covered in dots loses all meaning of self and becomes one.

This paired with her statements on how constantly repeating the dots “obliterated” her anxiousness led to obliteration becoming a key motif and theme present throughout her work. This pattern appears in this work on the left side of the painting before colliding, but never fully integrating with the “infinity nets” on the right.

The left-hand side polka dots of Infinity

“Infinity nets” can be seen as an evolution or extension of her polka dots. Others conflate the two as the same idea. Regardless, the idea of “infinity nets” originated following Kusama’s move to America in 1957, having grown disenchanted with her artistic prospects in Japan.

Kusama would first have a short stint in Seattle before settling in New York for a decade and a half. It’d be in New York where she’d experiment with canvas nets, covering items with them and painting, with some sessions lasting over fifty hours straight. This would be of some detriment to her as the tactile nature of those early infinity paintings caused her panic attacks.

The intersection between nets and dots on Infinity

Nonetheless, these “infinite nets” carry on the idea of “obliteration.” These nets delved into her fascination with finding the context of herself within the wider universe and what that meant for a person who also sought to “self-obliterate.”

Such an idea already existed back when she dealt with the idea of her dots, as written in her autobiography. In it, she wanted to understand how infinite was infinity and to see her place within that. She wants to be part of infinity in a deeply integrated manner, something her art represents. No piece may represent that better than Infinity itself.

In the painting, both halves mesh together in the middle. They are neither separate nor fully conflated with each other. Instead, they complement each other. Just like her ideas on obliteration and infinity, the two halves stand side by side like a reflection of Kusama’s themes across all of her work.

The painting Infinity which is currently being sold by Bonhams pictured here with Kusama in a photograph dated 1987

Photo evidence tells us that Kusama started painting Infinity in 1987 at the latest, with it being likely that it was completed and signed off in 1995. This would mean that it was created after Kusama’s return to Japan from the States in 1973, with her time in America being quite turbulent, dramatic, and exciting.

Her reasons for going to New York were that she viewed it as the centre of the art world, and while there she would meet pop art pioneer Andy Warhol. Warhol’s work seemed to make Kusama more provocative with her art. She did so by taking it into the political arena while still in America.

She was hyper-critical of the Vietnam War, with her organizing flashy demonstrations of nude, dot-covered performers in areas such as Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge. Following Richard Nixon’s first election victory she wrote to him. Kusama implored him to embrace the ideas of infinity and the liberation of self to end the hatred and struggle that drove the war in Vietnam.

The dichotomy between Kusama’s views on infinity and obliteration made manifest

With Infinity being the only painting to put “infinite nets” and the polka dots together in such an abstract way it is a truly unique Kusama work. Although, it can be compared to Pumpkin (2000), as seen below. However, Infinity truly grasps the self-reflection angle and this idea of merging Kusama’s main themes without them spilling over each other.

In this work, Kusama manages to showcase the journey her work has taken over her life. Both in the psychological sense of building up art and themes around the struggles she has faced, along with the physical journey of travelling from Japan to America and embracing new ideas. It truly is a one-of-a-kind work that is now finally visible for the wider public to enjoy. 

Yayoi Kusama | Pumpkin (2000) | 73 x 90.8 cm | Sold: over US$5.16 million, Christie’s Hong Kong, 2023

Lot 22 | Lee Ufan (b. 1946) | Dialogue, Acrylic on Canvas 
Painted in 2015
Size: 130 x 162 cm
Singed: L. Ufan '15 on the back

  • SACI The Bathhouse, Tokyo, Japan
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 4,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,200,000
Sold: HK$5,338,000 (around US$684,000)

Lee Ufan took second place for the most expensive work sold by Bonhams. It attracted at least three collectors eager to add the Korean work of art to their collection. Its final price of nearly HK$5.4 million (around US$ 684,000) exceeded estimation, a win for the “Korean Wave” in art.

This “Korean Wave” has produced many successful artists with Lee Ulfan being one of them. Known for his minimalist work, he was influenced by his background and appreciation for various periods of art. Originally he studied and mainly appreciated Chinese literature and art from the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties.

Lee Ufan would then travel to Japan to study philosophy, simultaneously becoming a pioneer in the Mono-ha art movement. Mono-ha was a post-war Korean-Japanese movement where artists sought to understand and interpret the natural world’s interactions with manmade objects. He was also a major figure in the Korean Dansaekhwa or monochrome painting movement.

While it may appear Lee Ufan is an artist firmly rooted in the East, he frequently made trips to Europe. This influenced him to make art that transcended any notions of borders or region, with him aiming to tastefully blend Western and Eastern design aesthetics into his work.

As such his work is popular with collectors around the world regardless of region. In 2021 his work East Winds sold for around US$2.66 million, the highest ever for any living South Korean artist. In 2023 Dialogue (2020) was auctioned by Christie's for HK$11,265,000 (around US$1.4 million).

Lee Ufan, pictured here, is known for his minimalist work

The sold piece, Dialogue (2015), is part of a wider series of the same name that has been going on since 2006. Across the series Ufan makes use of large flat-end paintbrushes to paint square single-stroke brushstrokes onto large canvas. The paint in the Dialogue series is often mixed with mineral pigments.

Ufan’s goal with this style of painting is to showcase the details in the changes of the brushstrokes as it glides across the blank canvas. Referring to these subtle changes as vibrations he aims to showcase these vibrations on a blank canvas emanating outwards moving beyond the blank canvas.

The square-like pattern is created with one stroke, with its artist aiming to show its changes as vibrations on the canvas and beyond

The works across the Dialogue series are the epitome of the Dansaekhwa movement. The movement’s goal is to think deeper about every movement made when creating a painting. To the movement every element needed to be considered and understood with even the space around the painting influencing how paintings are perceived. Ufan’s vibrations on the canvas and beyond fall within the scope of that ideology.

Ufan’s modern work abandons both realism and traditional painting and is the culmination of his greater experiences and maturation as an artist. These ideas were clearly appreciated by the bidders who sought to include such an important work in their collection.

Other Highlighted Lots:

Lot 21 | Zhong Sibin (1917-1983) | Sisters, Oil on Canvas 
Painted in 1977
Size: 76.6 x 61 cm

  • Windsor and Eton Fine Arts Ltd., United Kingdom
  • Private Collection, Australia (acquired from the above in 1979)

Estimate: HK$1,000,000 - 2,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,500,000
Sold: HK$1,900,000 (around US$243,000)

Lot 8 | Zheng Fanzhi (b.1964) | Class One Series No. 30, Oil on Canvas 
Painted in 1996
Size 48 x 38cm 

  • Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$1,200,000 - 2,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,400,000 
Sold: HK$1,782,000 (around US$228,000) 

Lot 9 | Zheng Fanzhi (b.1964) | Class One Series No. 6, Oil on Canvas 
Painted in 1996
Size 48 x 38cm 

  • Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$1,200,000 - 2,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,200,000 
Sold: HK$1,528,000 (around US$196,000) 

Auction Details:

Auction house: Bonhams Hong Kong
Sale: Modern and Contemporary Art Auction
Date: 25 May 2024
Sale Total: HK$60,685,360 (around US$7.7 million)