Nara 'little girl' painting and Kusama pumpkin to shine at Sotheby’s 50th Anniversary Contemporary Evening

Yoshitomo Nara is widely known for his iconic ‘little girl’ paintings that have taken the Asian art market by storm. His large-scale artwork Knife Behind Back (2000) was sold for HK$195.6 million (around US$25.1 million) in October 2019 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, making Nara the most expensive Japanese artist, a record that he still holds.

As 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Sotheby’s in Asia, the auction house presents another iconic painting by Nara to lead its Contemporary Evening sale. In the Milky Lake (2012), measuring 197 x 194 cm, is a monumental example of Yoshitomo Nara’s mature artistic output. It is also the first time that the painting has been offered at auction and is set to fetch HK$80 - 120 million (US$10.2 - 15.3 million).

Other highlights of the evening sale include artworks by another Japanese artist – Yayoi Kusama. A gigantic bronze sculpture from her signature pumpkin series, a mirrored box My Heart is Flying to the Universe, and Infinity Nets (QNTBH) are also among the top lots.

Lot 1119 Yoshitomo Nara | In the Milky Lake, Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2012
197 x 194 cm

  • Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 120,000,000 (US$10.2 - 15.3 million)

Created in 2012, In the Milky Lake features the most recognisable Nara heroine rendered in meticulous detail, the little girl in a green dress emerges from a pearlescent neutral background, her feet submerged in a rippling puddle. A major motif in the artist's work and after which Nara named his first major solo exhibition in 1995, In the Deepest Puddle.

Nara’s work took a dramatic shift after the March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan. After an initial period of reflection and engagement with local communities worst hit by the disaster, Nara experienced what Yeewan Koon describes as “a fresh surge of creative energy”. Half-submerged in water, the girl’s tranquil facial expression in In the Milky Lake conveys a sense of peace.

Yoshitomo Nara

Yoshitomo Nara | In the Deepest Puddles II (1995), 120 × 110 cm

Yoshitomo Nara | After the Deluge (2006), 162.5 × 145 cm

Viewers can also see the transformation of the little girl motif through her gaze. The eyes of this work articulate the artist’s move away from the early mischievous stare of his figures to his later ethereal dreamy gaze.

Similar works from the series are now in museum collections. One example is After the deluge (2006), currently in the collection of San Diego Museums. Measuring 162.5 x 145cm, the painting is slightly smaller than In the Milky Lake. In 2020, Agent Orange (In the Milky Lake), another painting of the same theme, sold for nearly HK$66 million at auction in Hong Kong.

Lot 1118|Yayoi Kusama | Pumpkin (L), Bronze
Created in 2014
241 x 235 x 235 cm
This work is number 8 from an edition of 8

  • Victoria Miro, London
  • Private Collection
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$40,000,000 - 60,000,000 (US$5.1 - 7.6 million)

Other sale highlights include artworks by Yayoi Kusama, whose retrospective exhibition titled Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now at M+ Museum has put the Japanese artist under the spotlight in the art world again. 

Going under the hammer at Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Auction, Kusama’s Pumpkin (L) (2014) is a rare example of the artist’s highly coveted sculptural pumpkins. With a size of 241x 235 x 235 cm, it is the largest version of this series in bronze and the first of this monumental scale to be offered at auction.

It was produced for the artist’s installation at the Victoria Miro Gallery in 2014, a significant year for Kusama, whose work was the subject of three international museum exhibitions.

Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now retrospective exhibition at M+ Museum in Hong Kong

Another edition of the present work was installed in Manhattan, outside of The Sky Building at 605 West 42nd Street

One of the most universally recognisable images of contemporary art today, the pumpkin is central to Kusama’s widely celebrated oeuvre, appearing throughout the artist’s work from flat canvases and abstract paintings to gallery-wide installations. Kusama’s pumpkins are the embodiment of optimism, serenity and joy – a motif which the artist has repeatedly returned to for its “spiritual balance”, inspiration and motivation.

Inspired by the matured pumpkin’s organic surface, Kusama’s stylised ribbons of multi-sized spots are most frequently depicted in yellow and black, making this bronze edition an exceptional example.

A total of eight editions of the current Pumpkins (L) sculptures were made. Rest of the work from the series are now in private hands or museum collections such as The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, the outdoor sculpture garden at the Donum Estate Vineyard in Northern California. It was also installed as the first permanent public artwork by the artist in Manhattan, outside of The Sky Building at 605 West 42nd Street.

Pumpkin (L) bronze sculpture and the My Heart is Flying to the Universe mirrored box (left) were showcased at Landmark, Central, Hong Kong

Lot 1120|Yayoi Kusama | My Heart is Flying to the Universe, Mirrored box and LED lighting system
Created in 2018
220 x 214 x 185 cm

  • David Zwirner, New York (acquired from the artist)
  • Private Collection 
  • David Zwirner, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner 

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000 (US$2.5 - 3.8 million)

The Pumpkin (L) sculpture was showcased earlier in The Landmark in Central, Hong Kong, alongside Kusama's My Heart is Flying to the Universe.

My Heart is Flying to the Universe (2018) is an example of Kusama’s iconic Infinity Mirror Rooms, referencing her seminal early mirror installation in Peep Show or Endless Love Show in 1966. Towering over two metres in height, the present work allows viewers to peer into infinity and lose themselves in the vastness of the universe that Kusama creates using lights and mirrors.

It is the first Mirror Room of this scale to be offered at auction in Asia and marks the second time that a Mirror Room of this size has ever come to auction. Since 2014, more than 11 prominent institutions from around the world have acquired Infinity Mirror Rooms. Examples of these works on a large-scale can be found in The Broad, Los Angeles; Tate Modern, London; Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC, amongst others.

Lot 1129 | Yayoi Kusama | A-Pumpkin (BAGN8), Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2011
162 x 130 cm

  • Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo
  • Private Collection
  • Victoria Miro, London
  • Private Collection
  • Seoul Auction, Hong Kong, 25 November 2017, Lot 46
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$40,000,000 - 55,000,000 (US$5.1 - 7 million)

A-Pumpkin (BAGN8), also by Kusama, is also not be missed artwork featured in the evening sale. Measuring 162 x 130 cm, it was created in 2011 at the apex of the artist’s global rise to pre-eminence. Executed in the artist’s signature black and yellow colour palette and of large size the artist conducts her pumpkin compositions, A-Pumpkin (BAGN8) exudes a luminous quality, the bright yellow of the pumpkin’s surface cutting through the shadowy blackness of Kusama’s all-over scaled tessellations.

Pumpkin is a symbol of triumph in Kusama’s artistic career and life. Yayoi Kusama grew up in Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture, Japan. She has been captivated by pumpkins since she was small at the seed harvesting farm of her family’s. In the early 1940s, the artist started experiencing hallucinations, and around the same time she started painting pumpkin.

Turning vulnerabilities into power, Kusama nullified the intense hallucinations she experienced by introducing them into her painterly reality and created these kaleidoscope patterns of dots and nets repeatedly. The iconic dotted pumpkin thus became a display of her internal struggles. Today, the pumpkin has achieved an almost mythical status in Kusama’s oeuvre, and stands as the artist’s alter ego.

Lot 1122|Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) | Figures, oil and Magna on canvas
Created in 1977
111.9 x 254 cm

  • Estate of the Artist
  • Castelli Gallery, New York (LC #809)
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2015)
  • Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 2018, Lot 24
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$55,000,000 - 78,000,000 (US$7 - 10 million)

The evening sale also presents Figures (1977), an iconic example of Roy Lichtenstein’s instantly recognisable oeuvre. Presenting an enigmatic tableau that draws together the full spectrum of twentieth-century image making, Figures is an example of Roy Lichtenstein’s works from his ‘Surrealist’ period.

Beginning in 1977, the artist began his own official Surrealism, filtering Picasso’s beached nudes, Dali’s desert landscapes and Miró's vibrant, geometric shapes into his own indelible cartoon style, resulting in a significant body of work totalling less than 49 paintings.

The title of the present work, Figures, is a clear reference to the work of Pablo Picasso, particularly the surrealist works of the 1930s. Lichtenstein takes the historic visual of a conversation between two people on the beach and reimagines it for his contemporary American moment.

Over the years, in addition to bringing Western masterpieces in Asia, Sotheby’s also plays an important role in promoting Asian artists in the interntaional stage. This season, it presents River at Dusk (2018), a superlative masterwork by Matthew Wong, created the year before his passing.

Lot 1112 | Matthew Wong (1984-2019), River at Dusk, Oil on canvas
Created in 2018
203.2 x 177.8 cm

  • KARMA, New York
  • Private Collection
  • Phillips, Hong Kong, 3 December 2020, Lot 4
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$40,000,000 - 60,000,000 (US$5.1 - 7.6 million)

Born in Toronto in 1984, Wong lived alternately in Canada, Hong Kong and the United States, completing a degree in cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan in 2007 and an MFA in photography at the City University of Hong Kong in 2013.

Around the same time, Wong began teaching himself to draw and paint, absorbing styles from masters as well as from Chinese landscape painting and forms in the natural world. Wong’s unique vocabulary is characterized by intricate tactile surfaces, spirited abstracted strokes, ebulliently radiant palettes, and dramatic foreshortening that recall modernist spatial abstractions.

River at Dusk captures the essence of dusk, expressing the artist’s ability of depicting a familiar, specific moment in time whether it be Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, dawn, dusk or night. Towering two metres in height, the painting envelops the viewer in Wong’s rich dreamscape of pointillist dots and impastoed dabs, deriving from memories and his mental database of artists and artworks that he encountered online, spanning centuries and genres.

Auction Details:

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: 50th Anniversary Contemporary Evening Auction
Date and Time: 5 April 2023 | 08:15 pm (Hong Kong Local Time)
Number of Lots: 47