Tag Archives: Conceptual Art

What Becomes a Legend Most? Kusama grand in garden setting

Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature, at New York Botanical Garden (The Bronx), through October 31, 2022.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is arguably the most famous living artist globally, her art widely appreciated and sometimes disparaged by diverse constituencies among both cognoscenti and the general public.  As she claimed decades ago, even more true today, her only rival in postwar art renown and notoriety has been Andy Warhol.  Her backstory is so well known, expounded by herself in innumerable candid interviews, that it has become part of her art in a way that exceeds the obvious intrinsic connection between any artist and her work.  Kusama has created for herself fashions that match her installations and collages that feature photos of herself interacting closely with her art. She has described her art activity as a life-saving compulsion that fills an emotional lack—a kind of neurosis for which she has been treated by mental health professionals as well.  A long-term symptom has been hallucinations, which at times “obliterate” (in her terms) her being.  Most prevalent are blizzard-like masses of dots, represented throughout her oeuvre. However, among her earliest such episodes, according to her self-propelled legend, was a flower pattern that extended from a tablecloth throughout a room; related representations tied in with her close examination of nature early in her art training (in the nihonga school). And so, an apropos and grand return to a garden in NYC, where she pushed her way into the avant-garde scene in the mid-1960s but also succumbed to mounting mental stress that led her back to Japan permanently in about a decade. From there, she laid low, art-wise, although she continued to make art and exhibited sporadically. She turned to literature in an equally frenetic way (including stories, novels, and poems, several awarding-winning; and she has continued, with a recent autobiography). A gradual shift back to the center of the art world was spurred by her appearance at the Venice Biennale in 1993–officially representing Japan.  Not debatable: a committed, prolific trajectory, from small works on paper to expansive canvases to sculpture and gallery-scale installations to an army of production assistants, and manufacturing and commercial design partners.  So what is hype and what is boring (you’ve seen one you’ve seen ’em all?) and what is purposefully, consciously repetitious to hypnotic aesthetic effect? Well, a lot of postwar art that is very interesting — imo. In these (and other) aspects, there’s a strong connection between Kusama’s oeuvre and Minimalism; mainly, it’s about the space around and between, as much as or in some cases more than particular images and objects.  Whether or whatever influence or osmosis of work by predecessors and peers (she has always claimed not – or at least “not much”), it is clear that, as in the case of Van Gogh, it is hardly the result of “madness,” although conveying insight into extreme psychological disturbance.  Hers is a a practiced, knowledgeable, studied oeuvre, vis-a-vis techniques, materials, surface, color, line, mass, scale, et al.

For my money (more on that below), veritably any Kusama show is exhilarating in some way or many. Bold and riotous; idiosyncratic and bombastic; predictable and inventive; individualistic and universal in its limited elements – namely, dots, and, secondarily, a netting motif, each possibly borne of deconstructed, isolated flower parts.  Thirdly, phallic forms, increasingly plant-like, which she derived as an apotropaic strategy to address her decried fear of sex (along with intimacy overall). Intermittent additions include pumpkins and eyes. Despite the immense size of and “workshop” participation in realizing her grandiose sculptural projects in recent decades, an authenticity of artistic mien and mission comes through.  Along with a wild and wacky sensibility that is freeing from the very idea of art analysis, contemplation, and, to some degree feeling. It’s nearly pure optical phenomena with a few thorny, metastasizing, tromp l’oeil effects that can suggest diseased sight. 

The exhibit spans Kusama’s career, extrapolating from the nature theme that is foundational equally with her psychic motivations. Displayed in three main indoor spaces and outdoors on the grounds, it’s a good walk to see it all, although it’s not as big a spread as several international traveling solo shows for the artist over the past two decades. Of course, you get the great NYBG as well–indeed, you pay extra for Kusama. Access to it all is a steep $35 (adults).  The current entry system, with tiered fees for varied indoor permanent and special exhibit points is confusing and not conducive to efficient navigation of the campus. Perhaps it’s time for museums to scale back increasing extravaganzas in lieu of reasonable visitor costs, or to otherwise limit according to specialized fundraising. Not to mention, it’s “rain or shine” ticketing and the stormy day of my reservation really put a damper on things — though still well worth it imo if you can swing the full fare.

I started in the lower library building, not far past NYBG’s main Moshulu Parkway entrance.  In the foyer area, a glass vitrines foyer hold strange sculptural “growths” that suggest alien, perhaps poisonous specimens; while a floor piece of glittering serpentine “phalli” rises in a cluster like luminescent tentacles.

From the exhibition, “Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG; in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library building (4/12/21)

Further inside are a few exquisite, very early works on paper that reveal a formative blending of botanical and cosmic with Surrealist inflection. Also introduced here are her complete repertoire of media and forms, including a relatively recent wall-sized, segmented painting with graffiti-like, all-over short-hand symbols, and an array of sculptures embellished—or blighted—with spots and sparkles. Pumpkins (as mentioned) are another staple–as they were in the war-time Japan of Kusama’s youth (as she has recalled).  They also evoke fairy tale play and Halloween-ish magic—the latter especially in a small, dark gallery found near the main visitor center/gift shop that you’ll come to later.  It features dotted pumpkin-shaped lanterns in a box of mirrors—not as fantastical as some of her past “mirror room” installations, but still engaging for its illusionistic infinity via simple concept and contraption, mashing up nothingness with stream-of-consciousness associations.    

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

In another part of the library building (one must go out and enter through another door) is a small “info” gallery with a mundanely presented timeline and small slide show of an early Kusama performance piece. You could skip that and just google later (if you didn’t already).  

Approaching the gorgeous conservatory building is a huge, hollow painted steel pumpkin sprouting “legs.” Inside, Kusama’s wide-eyed, over-blown Pop art flowers, along with a shining, half-hidden pumpkin piece, are inserted into bright floral displays—perfect.  A bit Alice in Wonderland. Indeed, Kusama loved the bronze of Alice and cohorts at the giant mushroom tea table by Jose de Creeft in Central Park, which she incorporated into staged “happenings” in the 1960s.

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG; inside the Enid Haupt Conservatory (4/12/21)

Along a main thoroughfare, selected towering trees are animated with with red-and-white polka dot fabric wraps. From a distance, the brightly bandaged branches may signal Anthropocene distress, but also facilitate an impression of a costumed tree ballet. 

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

Elsewhere, depicted cheery hybrid “organisms” can evoke the more forthright feminist biomorphism of Nikki de Saint-Phalle (playing over at PS 1 at the moment).   

“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Nature” at NYBG (4/12/21)

A tour de force is the siting of a 1966-conceived installation, Narcissus Garden, in a pooling section of a stream (as in the header photo above).  Comprised of bowling-ball-sized silver spheres, it was first exhibited, unofficially, on a lawn at the 1966 Venice Biennial, where it caused a success de scandal, especially as Kusama tried selling off the orbs for a few dollars each.  Here, the myth of Narcissus—i.e., the death-drive inhered in his magnetic attraction to his own image, is brilliantly conjured up in the fractured pull of bouncing reflections into the dark water.   Jarring in its juxtaposition of nature and artifice from close up, as one approaches and recedes, the flickery elements blend, like Seurat’s pointillism, into a buzzy and beatific environmental scrim.      

A stand-alone “cottage” installation returns to the early flower hallucination described above (and other of her work through the decades), with visitors handed plastic flower tokens to participate. As you go through the motions, you may find yourself musing once again on the timeless metaphorical trickery of Lewis Carroll’s fun and frightening fantasy. A shrine to and sharing of potent poetic vision.

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“Yayoi Kusama: Cosmic Garden” at NYBG (4/12/21)

Nauman Steps Out in/of Contrapposto in New Work

At Sperone Westwater (Bowery), through Oct. 29, 2016:

“Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, i  through vii”

It helps to know that you’re seeing the recent work of a video art  pioneer half a century ago.  Then you will trust in your immediate perception of dexterity with the medium in the shifting juxtapositions of unadorned, cropped images that characterize the featured, wall-scale projections.

Cognoscenti will come fully aware of Nauman’s widespread reputation as stark yet low-key Conceptual Art guru to several subsequent generations of artists to emerge out of the greater L.A. area.  Specialties: performances, alternatively, for the camera and recorded as documentation, that centralize the artist-body (as here) and word play–implied or directly, alternatively or mashed together–epitomized by the neon art signs for which he is best known.   Most compelling throughout his oeuvre is a unique dialectic tension between subversive, cultural erudition and dumb-deadpan humor–while his sense of form generally aligns with a Minimalist approach, i.e., serial, barely deviated repetitions, across still and moving, photographic and sculptural production.

So contrapposto is an over-determined sign–semiotically speaking–of the origins of western visual aesthetics–namely, anatomical mimesis idealized.  It’s a straight-ish line from 5th-c. (b.c.) Greece to late Rodin (at least)–with multitudes of related, even dogmatic, 2D production vis-a-vis the primacy of figuration, in between.  Suffice it to say, this  counter-poise pose has been fetishized as the birth of naturalism in figurative representation; and as such, a progressive step towards the self-conscious, gravitational human subject, as opposed to its otherworldly, stiff-kneed (votive) predecessors.  Nauman nudges it into movement through a series of essais, which gradually entice viewers to consider whether the ensuing visual rhythms are intuitive, algorithmic, or a potlatch combination reining in all sorts of other methodological possibilities as well as myriad associations.

These video “weavings” (note the one photo-stripped study included) have been generated by slicing and dicing sections of the bent/straight arm/leg pairing that define contrapposto, eking forward and back, flipped, reoriented, playing on negatives and positives–then montaged to evoke and juggle morphing, moon-walking, humpty-dumpties.  It only takes a few minutes to be mesmerized–and discreet pieces become more complex–i.e., pattern-like and pulsating, as one ascends the gallery’s ethereal floors.

I venture the series also encompasses a monumental wink at Duchamp’s mechanized send-up of the Classical subject in Nude Descending a Staircase (c. 1912); as, the Dada trickster has been a beacon for Nauman from early on (beginning with his now iconic performance/image series, Self Portrait as a Fountain, c. late 1960s, an homage to Duchamp’s infamous urinal-fountain, c. 1917).

Maybe it’s only four video takes–maybe it’s forty–with which Nauman has created and arranged these seemingly widely variegated non-narrative vignettes.  Maybe it’s partly a meditation on the hyped weight of art history–or a paean to its wellspring–probably both.  One thing for sure, he’s not just going through the motions–although it’s him going through the motions.

Neo-Bauhaus Body Art in Unique Photos by Hans Breder

Hans Breder,” through April 2; at Danziger Gallery (Rivington Street, LES)

Breder (b. 1935) is best known as an influential teacher–think compatriot German emigre, Hans Hofmann–based for decades at UI/Iowa City.  The most famous student under his direct tutelage at the “intermedia” program he established there was Ana Mendieta–for one thing, this show solidifies that artistic connection.  Of his own prolific oeuvre, it is his abstract videos, which have been underpinned by rigorous geometric formalism in sculpture, drawing and painting, that have gained the widest recognition.  The loose series of black and white photos on view here, from the 1960s – 70s, document “body sculpture” set-ups–nude women posed and strategically distorted with carefully positioned mirrors, and, occasionally, (it seems) some manipulation in the darkroom.  The resultant Surrealist-tinged illusions provoke perceptual tensions between recognizable, manipulated body parts and precisely formed yet non-existent object-apparitions that are both and neither–thus, tapping the essence of photography as well.  In the same way, they vacillate between staged and evolving “totems” (or fetishes) momentarily paused by the director.

As aesthetically erudite, grisalle compositions using mirrors and bodies, this work overall fits neatly with a prevalent Minimal/Conceptual wave in the era–descended from Bauhaus-associated precepts.   However, a few images are more pictorial, especially in light of Mendieta’s acclaimed, chthonian Siluetas series (1970s)–body impressions in nature, performed for the photographs through which they have endured.  The affinities are perhaps most obvious in several of the Breders in which women are partly submerged in natural bodies of water, clutching their mirrors–Ophelia and Narcissus, to mix troubling but intriguing literary metaphors.  However, difference between the two artists in this comparison, in terms of gender perspective and sensitivity, could not be more stark.  Mendieta removed or disguised the/her body, effectively denying the gaze; while flesh is arranged for display in the Breders.

So there’s all of that (for the better).  In any case, visually, these Breder photos are quietly mesmerizing.  Each image–they are all unique–distills myriad allusions to a century of modernist art while projecting a distinct artistic personality.

Let it Be: Yoko Still Kickin’ It

“Yoko Ono: The Riverbed”; a concept show of three installations across two Chelsea galleries:

Andrea Rosen (24th St.), through Jan. 23.

Galerie Lelong (26th St.), through Jan. 30

Although I concede a few of his points, have to disagree with Ken Johnson’s skepticism (exh. rev., NYT, 1/14/16, online) of this spacious, dual-gallery extravaganza for Yoko.  Coming on the heels of her high-profile, excellent MoMA exhibition last year (post), her whimsical aesthetic itself perhaps a bit at odds with this … extravaganza.  Yet, still–and always–highly recommended for tried and true fans (like me) and newbies alike.

The best part: at Lelong, a relatively enclosed room containing Mend Piece, a highly provocative workIn the center is a table covered with broken ceramics, twine, and containers of glue, with chairs provided for visitors to hang out and create sculptures, then placed on shelves along the walls.  A white monochrome (the pottery fragments, furniture, walls, shelves, Elmer’s) extends to a real espresso bar in the corner for refreshment.  The cups and saucers, designed as a set by Yoko with the coffee giant, Illy (perhaps involving negotiations for bulk scrap as well), feature trompe-l’oeil repaired cracks and scribbled dates of personal and public disasters symbolically mended through the project.

Mend Piece conjures all sorts of associations, from Surrealist objects to bound spiritual votives to make-shift children’s arts and crafts to “make-do” invention (i.e., bricolage, in several connotations) to an arte povera conception that re-frames damaged and discarded “leftovers” of elite commodities–with the “institution” responsible for doling out the pick-me-up potion that is an integral part of the installation.  Not to mention Rirkrit Tiravanija and his peer “relational aesthetics” arrivistes more than two decades later.   And of course, a nod to Yoko’s own early “mend” pieces (beginning c. 1962) in various forms.  It did look like fun, although I didn’t play; but plenty of people have, judging from the overflowing shelves and participants observed during my visit.

Since Yoko’s gradual resurgence as a visual artist through the 1990s, there has been some debate on the . . . let’s say . . .  depth of her work, while, on the other hand, a certain airiness (even, at times, seeming air-headedness) is precisely the point, and in that sense counter-balances the heavy-handed linguistic art  canonized (ironically) under the Conceptual umbrella to suggest a much wider girth.  And, while Yoko has never emphasized East Asian cultural or spiritual underpinnings as a major, precisely conscious influence, there are  some related idiosyncrasies in her use of language that probably have been overlooked by many Western critics.

Yoko is a fascinating, indomitable, survivalist, “human of New York.”  We have been tough on her; we think we know her.  It is impossible to sort to what degree her art may be victim or beneficiary of her half-century celebrity status.  In any case,  her fifty-year aesthetic trajectory has been largely consistent.  That she still actively puts it out there (along with herself, both as part of her art and as private citizen) is as important to the current contemporary art scene as was her ground-breaking early art career.

Serving Andy’s Soups, Yoko’s “Apple” and “Grapefruit,” at MoMA









“Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971,” through September 7.


The oddly empty, yet addictive allure of Warhol‘s art is mind-boggling. Boring until it’s mesmerizing (not unlike Minimalism). Students cannot get enough of Warhol, the images, as well as the myth.  Even if they think they don’t get it. Even if they are skeptical. Whether or not they are interested at all in “art” broadly or specifically. Supermarket to Studio 54 to the Louvre. Same take. Same procedure. Same surface. Pure “spectacle” –  reproductions of reproductions—no substance. Labels, photos, the front page of a newspaper. Yet despite its built-in, flattened reproducibility, so many of Warhol‘s big, bold screen prints, such as the suite of mostly neon-tinged Marilyns (on paper; 1967) in the current MoMA show, stake a clear claim in a long, essentially modernist lineage of “art.” (Today I thought of Picasso’s Dora Maars before this repeated yet stuttering, puzzled and psychedeli-cized image of the sexy star—which I hadn’t, precisely, in the past;  Warhols keep on giving that way.) Meanwhile, the seminal gold Marilyn canvas (1962; moved from the collection galleries into this focused show) looks more and more like a Byzantine icon over time, its aura palpable.

The central installation is the entire original series of 32 Campbell’s soup cans (1962), among the last of Warhol’s hand-painted (traced; stenciled) works, displayed like the commodities they are, on a shallow shelving, as in their debut at Ferus Gallery (L.A.)–just a moment away from the forthcoming “brillo boxes” (1964) that would that come closest to such an art-product union. As it is, the soup cans remain more so disembodied icons, like the Marilyns.  Still provocative in the machine-mimicking technique and vision of fast-food cultural nourishment for the democratized surplus society of postwar USA.

While Andy was creating a campy, subterranean superstar milieu around his art “factory,” Yoko was even more avant-garde (for lack of better term) with the Fluxus crowd, where she furthered its concept-driven, anti-product ideals not only through her own work but by hosting events for others in her downtown loft.  Subsequently, the creatively energetic octogenarian has remained foremost–through thick and thin in terms of her maligned public persona (late 1970s-80s) and the tragic death of long-time lover and husband, Lennon–a New Yorker. It feels right—an adopted hometown show for this  idiosyncratic, artistically generous-spirited, bohemian survivor.

With that in mind, her well-known piece, Apple (1966), placed near the start of the exhibition, reads as a kind of vanitas: a real apple, left to disintegrate gradually, is placed on a plexiglas pedestal adorned with a metal plaque that bears its tautological title–an imprint of the artist’s having “thought” this that will remain.  The clear base gives a floating effect to the plaque and the apple,  a green variety that evokes its frequent appearance in Magritte’s inscrutable paintings; likewise, the play between word and object.

Yoko‘s aesthetic is linked to Surrealism in other ways as well.  Bag Piece (1964) has visitors don a dark sack to appear as a “bundle” crawling in a corner, evoking Man Ray’s famous object, Enigma (1920).  There are also hired performers to keep it live for several hours each day.

"Bag Piece" by Yoko Ono; MoMA (5/22/15)
Yoko Ono, “Bag Piece” (1964) at MoMA (5/22/15)





Christo also comes to mind, even more so in a performance in which musicians are progressively wrapped in gauze as they are playing until the sound becomes mute, represented by photo documentation in the show. There is also the Half a Room installation (1967), which recalls Yayoi Kusama’s foray into domestic absurdity around the same time.

Yoko Ono, "Half-a-Room" (1967); at MoMA, 5/22/15
Yoko Ono, “Half-a-Room” (1967); at MoMA, 5/22/15

An absurdist element underpins the extensive, intermittent series of haiku-like “instructions” and “scores” for actions and performances that make up most of the show, the earliest of which were first presented in a book Yoko titled, Grapefruit (c. 1964), for the hybrid origins of the fruit.  So: “dance in pitch dark”; light matches, touch the sky; scream; imagine weather; interact with others—sometimes realizable in real time, sometimes not, sometimes seemingly somewhere in between. This aesthetic mix of prose and poetry, whimsy and obscurity, auteur and collaborator, has been the mainstay of her art. And some of the texts have been incarnated for the exhibition, e.g., “stepped on” or “dripped upon” or ink-obliterated canvases–also, at points, reflecting a Zen-ish approach. Buddhist precepts also lie within the scope of her most famous performance,  Cut Piece, (first performed 1964), represented here in a 1965 filmed version, in which audience members are invited to the stage to cut off pieces of the artist’s attire. The work has only become more resonant as it has been absorbed into waves of local and global feminist art and discourse through the decades.

While conceptual art, especially ephemeral-type text, is purposefully anti-visual in any conventional sense, the marketplace and museum have found ways to subsume it into their linked folds, not least with slick framing of salvaged, expansive notations  that suggest an “administrative” style.  So there’s that to consider here. There have also been criticisms of some of this work as “light-weight,” in terms of conceptual exercises (is it any thought in her head at any moment?).  Yet, the lightness (I agree) is also refreshing compared to more heavy-handed (whether through scale, medium, or philosophical implication) examples of the genre, and in that sense, accessible without thinking so hard that it’s not enjoyable to peruse.

At opposite ends of the ’60s spectrum in so many ways, Andy and Yoko share a blank-screen sensibility with their visual and verbal texts (respectively) that rely heavily on the viewer’s participatory imagination to become art.

Dates as Destiny: On Kawara at the Guggenheim

“On Kawara: Silence”; Guggenheim New York, through May 3.

It’s a show about nothing (to pun on a classic line from the philosophical depths of Seinfeld). No narrative or thematic arc.  In a limited variety of art forms, On Kawara numbered his own days to a total 29,771 (according to the David Zwirner Gallery website) before his death on July 10, 2014. By that count, he was born on January 2, 1933, although there are few facts confirmed about the notoriously tight-lipped, peripatetic artist when it comes to his biography or meaning in his work.

Anyone interested in/predisposed to/involved even tangentially with Conceptual Art per se will quickly recognize the mastery of  Kawara in this vein through the current installation, where his renowned date paintings make infinite, unspeakable sense up or down the museum’s unique spiraling space (as has been widely noted).

For the less informed, one might begin by apprehending Kawara’s implacable singular vision–in so far as a vision is a kind of idea– for the duration of his career and adult life, those two arguably more unified in his being than in that of any other of the many artists on record who have aspired to something similar. And then, well, read the painted signs—calendar dates—literally. While a few foster a quiet intersubjectivity (e.g., July 10, 1969; the first moon landing; Sept. 11, 1999, now foreboding), most resonate only individually, vis-a-vis blankness and specificity, as one surrenders to one’s inner Archimedean rhythm in scaling the ramp.

What might be called his “action” pieces (in comparison to the studio paintings)—mailed postcards, time-stamped as well as dated in series with repeated messages, then retrieved by the artist–are particularly interesting in the collective displays here. “I got up.” “I am still alive.” “I met.” Life and afterlife conjoined.  They add up to . . . something. But what? There is a compulsion to look for patterns and clues in names or recipients and/or numbers throughout, but nothing conclusive emerges.

Inevitably, Zen consciousness appears at stake in the seemingly ego-less lack of desire and even-keeled tonality of this oeuvre. Another take: Barthes’ “Death of the Author”—there is nothing but what we fill in (to very loosely summarize). Then again (as Foucault would reply to Barthes’ essay [“What is an Author?]), there is someone distinct behind it. How “disinterested” can any human be while constructing or construing anything to be left behind?

Art is not to humans as web is to spiders—even when it comes very close, as in that of Kawara’s chronological peer, Yayoi Kusama. It may be somewhat superficial to link them via their respective  disturbing war-time youth in Japan, reflected by both in dystopian Surrealist imagery in their early works. On the other hand, their repetitious, statements of self–Kusama, through repeated morphic symbols, and Kawara, numeric and linguistic ones–share a prolonged relentlessness and circular continuity. There is no “progress” (in the colloquial sense) in either oeuvre. Of course, there is no indication that Kawara, pace Kusama, had any social/emotional illness. Still, the obsessiveness of his art endeavors and commitment to personal erasure through the most subtle means bears an inverse resemblance to her fight against self-obliteration through flamboyant, though equally empty surfaces.

Methodological discipline, supported by predetermined colors, sizes, and formulaic composition, was means and end to expression for Kawara. At once highly idiosyncratic and encapsulating the dominant lingua franca of the international avant-garde art at the time he fell into his groove, On Kawara will surely live on, ironically vividly, in both contexts .