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Yayoi Kusama, an art auction, and a story of friendship


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan:

Last month we brought you the work of Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama and her latest exhibition, Cosmic Garden, at the New York Botanical Garden.

The outdoor exhibit captured her fantastical art from the mid-1940s all the way through 2020. Last week, Kusama's work was on display again in New York -- this time at an auction that fetched more than $15 million for some of her earliest and rarely seen works of art.

NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.

Christopher Booker:

Long before 92-year-old Yayoi Kusama became one of the world's most celebrated artists, she was a struggling artist in New York.

She arrived in the U.S. in 1957 with a suitcase full of kimonos and paintings. And just a few years later she crossed paths with a fellow Japanese doctor who would unwittingly become a steward of her work.

Ralph Taylor:

Dr. Hirose was a very well-respected doctor, author of more than 40 books on the profession and he was a philanthropist.

Christopher Booker:

Ralph Taylor is the Global Head of Post-War & Contemporary Art at Bonhams, one of the oldest auction houses in the world. He helped uncover the story of some of Kusama's earliest pieces.

In 1960 while living in New York, Kusama sought out the care of Dr. Hirose, himself a recent immigrant and one of only two Japanese-speaking doctors in the city. Unable to pay for his services she gave the doctor 11 pieces of her artwork. And that began a lifelong friendship.

This is kind of a unique American story. They both have arrived in New York and she is a struggling artist. And because of the nuances of our city, of the American healthcare system, this relationship is forged.

Ralph Taylor:

Absolutely. And that, it's a really important point. You know, she was definitely someone who was desperate to move to America, who really wanted to throw off the shackles of postwar Japanese life. And the same actually for Dr. Hirose, but in a slightly different way. So I think it's really only in America in the wonderful melting pot in the 50s and 60s that you could have found these two, you know, combining into this unlikely duo.

Christopher Booker:

Dr. Hirose passed away in 2019, the work of his long-ago patient still hanging on his walls.


With Amelia there at 3.8 million dollars, and we sell it here in Bonhams New York.

And on Wednesday, art dealers from around the world bid on these rarely seen works from the earliest days of Kusama's career, eight pieces she brought on the plane with her from Japan, and three paintings created after arriving in the U.S.

Where do these works fit within the story of Kusama?

Ralph Taylor:

The works themselves, as they fit into the artist's career, are totemic. You know, she is someone who's most familiar themes revolve around flowers, around the polka dots, around infinity nets, and then latterly things like pumpkins, et cetera. But really her most important works, you think of the Infinity Net and these river paintings are absolutely fundamental. So really these are at the most significant point in her career. And there are very, very few works like these.

Christopher Booker:

Kusama thrust herself into her art and in the early 1960s painted Untitled and these two pieces, Hudson River and Mississippi River, one of the first times red appears in her work.

Ralph Taylor:

A lot of the themes in her work are represented in these, but she's doing it through the lens of New York. So the river, there was a river behind her house growing up in Japan, and it was a meditative place for her. She does not have a very happy childhood, but she used to sit by the river and watch it, watch it flowing. And so that is an absolutely central theme in her work. But then, you know, this is the Hudson River, the Mississippi River. So this is an accumulation of these experiences, but very much rooted in America.

Christopher Booker:

The eight pieces she brought with her from Japan are rife with symbols of her upbringing as the daughter of seed merchants. They sold on Wednesday for $3 million. And her New York works fetched more than $12 million.

Ralph Taylor:

You know, this whole project is a celebration of his life, of that relationship, of his keen eye and his charitable nature, but also this fantastic artist who bestrides the world these days. You know, these are the urgent but very early evocations of her talent. And I think it's only natural and appropriate that that should also manifest in price. And so really, it's about people who recognize Kusama as being one of the preeminent artists, hugely influential, she represents so much to so many people. But the opportunity to be able to own these works, it's very rare work such as this.

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