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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Follow the Dots and Reflect on the Beauty of Yayoi Kusama's Art



Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, with the Guest House and Yayoi Kusami's Pumpkin
Yayoi Kusama is now the featured artist as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  Crowds are lining up out the door to see her exhibition, "Infinity Mirrors.”  It’s a blockbuster show made up of mirrors and dots that’s capturing the public imagination with huge crowds. 

When I went to visit Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut for the very first time in September, there was an installation of Kusama’s art in the house and on the property.   Red polka dots of various sizes were attached to all the glass walls.  

To me, the dots fit perfectly into Philip Johnson’s iconic house--as flat red circles on a very flat building.  Some visitors at that time remarked that it interfered with how they had hoped to appreciate “The Glass House.”  But the dots didn’t interfere with the building’s transparency. Shadows and reflections appeared that would not have been there otherwise. Perhaps the dots made me even more aware of the house’s transparency, and color shined through along with the light.

As for the Johnson property, there’s an eclectic mix of buildings, 14 in all.    They’re totally different from each other, representing the great diversity in Johnson’s architectural genius.  Each building was a work of art in itself, with a sense of wholeness to it.  Set into the landscape of 49 acres, it is part of something much larger than itself, an entire park or environment.

The polka dots of Yayoi Kusama are much the same.  They’re small pinpricks in the center of something much larger.    In reflecting on the dots, and in experiencing a multiplicity of dots, we become aware of the universe much larger than ourselves.   We go outside of ourselves, into the larger universe.  Presumably the Hirshhorn exhibition will make that world seem infinite and thus the title, “Infinity Mirrors.”  

 The difference between Kusama's installations at The Glass House and in "Infinity Mirrors" is the difference between seeing the expansiveness of life in nature and being inside of our own small world and being forced to expand outward. The Hirshhorn is expecting an explosion of "selfies" taken at the exhibition. Visitors will only be allowed in the six installation rooms, with the doors closed, for a limited amount of time.

Pumpkin on the grounds of The Glass House
Kusama displayed one of her large pumpkins on the grounds of the Glass House.  The metal sculpture was pierced with polka dots and has a red interior. Kusama’s pumpkin theme repeats in one of the six installation rooms of the the Hirshhorn Exhibition.  It’s an installation called “All the eternal love I have is for the pumpkins.   (One of these glass pumpkins broke last Saturday, forcing a temporary closing of the exhibit.)

The photo by Domus was taken in November, 2016
Pumpkins, like the polka dots, are a lifelong obsession for the artist.  According to Kusama, "In Japanese, a 'pumpkin head' is an ignorant man or a pudgy woman, but for me, I am charmed by its shape, form, and lack of pretension."    There’s a humor in Kusama work, too.

The Glass House's Kusama installation also featured mirrors in an entirely different form -- different from those at the Hirshhorn.  They were spherical balls in a pool of water called Narcissus Garden, surrounding the Pond Pavilion designed by Johnson. They spheres, 1300 of them, each 30 cm wide, moved and floated with the ponds currents.  They reflected the sky, the water and land.  Like Monet's Water Lilies, Kusama's water art unifies the elements of water, earth and air, except that it's not done in a series of paintings. Its a form of kinetic sculpture.  In it's effervescence, Narcissus Garden reminds me that some things can never appear the same again.

Philip Johnson's Pond Pavilion and Yayoi Kusama's Narcissus Garden, September 24, 2016, view from above
Kusama, born in 1929, is now 87.  She moved from Japan to New York in 1957 and played an important role in the avant-garde movement of the '60s.  She participated in events with Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman and Allan Kaprow, instances of performance art called “happenings.”  But in 1973 she moved back to Japan, exhausted and suffering from hallucinations.  She has lived in a mental institution since that time. There was a rebirth of interest in her art in the late '90s.  Her work perfectly embodies Pop Art and Conceptual Art, bridging the two movements, as well as Environmental Art and Performance Art.  

The public appreciation for installations and Conceptual Art has finally risen, giving her the broad audience she has today. The Hirshhorn Show is a retrospective celebrating 50 years of her life as an artist.  It will travel to four other museums around the US and Canada.  Sometimes it takes a life time of work and struggle to finally achieve what you’re here for and today is her time. (The Narcissus Garden is a variation she had introduced years ago at the Venice Biennale in 1966.  The "Infinity Mirrors" concept actually goes back in Art History, used in the Hall of Mirrors and integrated into the design of the Palace at Versailles.)   

Yayoi Kusama
According to art critic Philip Kennicott, Kusama says, “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings." Is it a combination of the obsessiveness in OCD and the hallucinations of schizophrenia?   If it is mental illness that creates this great art, then we can recognize mental illness as a special gift and not stigmatize these people who suffer from it.  (Read Philip Kennecott's Review.  He sees her as criticizing the art world's narcissism. I believe that criticism is justified.) 

She has given us a visualization of the connectedness of all life. The only other contemporary artist who does it so well is Anselm Kiefer, or possibly Bill Viola (now at SAAM). Kiefer and Kusama distinguish themselves with their spiritual insights.  And her audience is enriched, coming away with an understanding of life that is so much fuller. Can't wait to see the Hirshhorn show. 
(The best article on the Glass House exhibition is from DeZeen.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wonder, Awe and a Great Escape at the Renwick


Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2014
One afternoon last month I suddenly arrived in Cappadocia, or least that's what it seemed.  I didn't actually go there, nor have I ever been there except through pictures of that ancient Turkish landscape.  However, I spent my time going to the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery which had just re-opened with an exhibition entitled Wonder.

Gabriel Dawe, Plexus 1A
The works speak for themselves, as they're huge installations that recall the wonders of the natural world in a beautiful 19th century building that recently underwent restoration.

Tara Donovan's construction is made of styrene index cards, toothpicks and glue.  As an artist, she may not have been thinking of the same aspects of nature that evoked a response in me.  According to Donovan, "It's not like I'm trying to simulate nature. It's more of a mimicking of the way of nature." On the nearby wall, a label quotes Albert Einstein: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It's the fundamental emotion in which starts the cradle of true art and true science."

Then a rainbow of colors invited me into the next room.  Plexus 1A is miles of strings that weave prisms of color into the monumental architecture. Gabriel Dawe is the artist.  His design recalls the colors and embroideries of his early life in Mexico City and current home in East Texas. Viewers are invited to take their own photographs. It's appropriate that the Renwick is a building dedicated to the contemporary crafts, since each of these works of art focuses on the materials and the tremendous time, skill and dedication required for fine art crafts.

Dawe, Plexus1A
Continuing back on the left side of the building, viewers come into a grandiose room with giant stick weavings by Patrick Daugherty. (A photo of Shindig is on bottom. See the previous blog about one of his interactive and impermanent environmental installations, in Reston, VA)

The Renwick invited nine well-known artists to celebrate the re-opening with works for this exhibition.  Each artist was given an entire room for a comprehensive creation, many of them recreating the natural world in a way that helps us understand it better.

John Grade,  Middle Fork (interior view)   Another view is directly below.

Upstairs is one of the true giants of nature, a tree. You look at it from the outside or take in the interior view.  Artist John Grade, a resident of the Pacific Northwest, engaged an army of volunteers. First, Grade made a cast of a 150-year-old hemlock tree in the Cascade Mountains. Then he reassembled the shape with half a million segments of reclaimed cedar and separated it into sections.  Named after the tree's location in the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River, the tree cast as Middle Fork (Cascades) is 85 feet long. 

As you might expect, visitors walk all around the giant tree perched on its side.  When the exhibition is over, this "natural" model will be put back in nature, back to the area from which it comes.  The artist says the impermanence makes it poignant, since it will eventually decompose.




Quotes are sprinkled on labels throughout the exhibition.  Taking her cue from the local area, well-known sculptor Maya Lin (architect of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial) used fiberglass marbles to recreate the Chesapeake Bay.  There are thousands of tine blue-green marbles running floor to ceiling in the entire room.  Lin is a geographical artist, and I was reminded her provocative exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art a few years back.  Here she has recreated the many estuaries of the bay, which crawl in spider-like patterns up the walls. She re-used the glass her father and other artists had used in Ohio before the glass-making technology improved. The branches of the waterway are delicate and fragile, reminding us that nature itself is fragile, too. 
Maya Lin, Folding the Chesapeake
   

The Renwick itself is important historically, as it was originally home to the oldest art museum in the District of Columbia, the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The building was almost destroyed.   When Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady, she recognized the building's significance and used her influence to save the building from the wrecker's ball.

Jennifer Angus, detail of  In the Midnight Garden

Wonder really hit me in the last room I saw of the exhibition.  Artist Jennifer Angus created a beautiful structural design of insects in room covered in vivid, vibrant pink.  In The Midnight Garden" forms several different patterns on walls stained with cochineal.  Using 5,000 insects, she made mandalas on the wall and interspersed them with skulls, reminders of death.  "It is not understanding but familiarity that destroys wonder," is quoted by John Stuart Mill on the wall of another room. In an article I read about the artist, Angus freely admitted that she is no longer  in awe of the subject (too much familiarity) but wishes for her viewers to experience the wonder.  Throughout the exhibition, words of the philosophers -- ancient to modern -- makes us stop to ponder.
Jennifer Angus  In the Midnight Garden



One quote really hit me. Ranulf Higden of the 14th century said: "At the farthest reaches of the world often occur new marvels and wonders, as though Nature plays with greater freedom secretly at the edges of the world than she does openly and near us in the middle of it."  For a few short hours, I had escaped to the edges, to the edges of wonder.  Locals and visitors in Washington, DC, please go to the Renwick and spend some time in Wonder.  Second floor galleries close May 8, 2016, but the 1st floor galleries stay up until July 10, 2016.  Leo Villareal, Janet Echelman and Chakaia Booker also have large installations in the show. 
Patrick Dougherty, Shindig


While the art inside of the building continuously amazes, it's ironic that the wonder and beauty of the building is marred on the outside by a neon sign: "Dedicated to Art."  There's no need to be so banal since art speaks for itself. (When Philip Kennicott wrote a review for the the Washington Post, he said the neon sign had to go; I wonder if it has been taken down yet.)