Tag Archives: Yayoi Kusama

Arts & crafts at the whitney museum

Making Knowing:  Craft in Art 1950-2019; through January 2021 (floor 6)

Rachel Harrison: Life Hack; closed January 12, 2020 (floor 5)

Thanks largely to a postwar infiltration of feminist and diaspora art (often of a piece) in the West and artists working elsewhere receiving wide exposure in the context of an emerging global scene (if still dominated by the West), distinctions between art and craft in contemporary production have been ostensibly erased.  At the same time, long-held gender, cultural and other associations with each term persist. And “craft” most often evokes hand-hewn textile and textural materials … for the better in the “art world,” as per this show, in terms of diversity and possibility when juxtaposed with hands-off new media equally ascendant through the same period.  Most of the work included seems to acknowledge to at least some degree this semiotic and material lineage, whether as precursor and/or foil, while conveying strongly personal, pliable and luxuriant relation to preferred mediums and techniques.

Both well known, expected suspects and some with less exposure in this context are represented, overwhelmingly (not completely) by examples in the museum’s collection, which highlights its ample interest in this direction.  Off the elevator, the perfect intro is a fragmented mural (1976) by Ree Morton, comprised of painted pinkish, putty-like, imitation ribbons, flowers, puffy clouds, and make-shift ladders to … heaven, enhanced by literal floating signifiers—incarnate words like “pleasures” and “atmospheres.” The hopeful feminist romanticism (small “r”) conveyed is refreshing and seems, as well, to incorporate a subtle jab at heroic (male) abstract painting in the gluey strips and skeins of her process. To jump to a personal fave (and then I’ll circle back), which shares some of the same underlying sensibilities and offers reason alone to see this show: Liza Lou‘s near full–scale, pop-up kitchen (c.1990-1995), replete with brand-name, opened food boxes, dishes in the sink, and pie in the oven, sheathed entirely in tiny glittering beads.

Liza Lou, Kitchen (1990-1995); detail through the “window” (Whitney Museum exhibition, Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950-2019

Just about everything is engaging visually, with much provocation to jump around via kinship, contrast, comparison. Among first-generationers featured (although works here by them span three decades collectively): aesthetically oppositional sewn soft sculptures by Yayoi Kusama and Claes Oldenburg; a Richard Artschwager cube-table; an Eva Hesse macramé-like ropey hanging; a heavy, draped felt blob by Robert Morris; a cagey, wire-woven abstraction by Ruth Asawa; a lace-like, shimmery canvas by Howardena Pindell; one of Harmony Hammonds‘s padded rag-swathed scaffold sculpture; an Faith Ringgold painted tangka banner; an open-frame Alan Shields wall work of bead strands; a Miriam Shapiro frilly collaged canvas; small-scale weavings-on-paper by Sheila Hicks, who, forthwith, will be known by many for her monumental yarn column-waterfall recently exhibited at MoMA (“Surrounds: 11 Installations”; 10/21/19-14-20).  Hicks is also included in MoMA’s current show, “Taking a Thread for a Walk,” with an early serial bundled-yarn piece, which highlights more so earlier 20th-century fiber art and therefore offers (among other things) some historical context for the Whitney show. Selections there by Bauhaus frauen Anni Albers and Gunta Stolz may be further appreciated after seeing Elaine Reichek‘s satirically pedagogic embroidery samplers at the Whitney, one of which bears a quote by a Bauhaus “master” relegating the activity of weaving to women assigned to realized his envisioned textile abstractions.

Along with Lou’s tour de force, highlights from the next generation and beyond include: Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt‘s fragile, flowery flotsam and jetsam dream box, a distant relative of many “containers” by Joseph Cornell; Pepon Osorio‘s barrio-baroque assemblage-portrait of a shoe-shiner; a super-fly Nick Cave sound suit; a Mike Kelley big-baby blanket incorporating mangy stuffed animals; a very large textile-inspired figurative painting  by Njideka Akunyili Crosby; a conceptual piece primarily of found blankets alluding to the Native American foundations of US cities by Marie Watt; a ceramic and straw, regal and demure giantess by Simone Leigh. Of an abundance of more strictly ceramic works, Viola Frey presides with a characteristic painterly-glazed colossus in business attire, along with a self-portrait by parodic peer Robert Arneson; an earthy, rolled and modeled reclining figure by Mary Frank; and a sensual abstracted vessel series by Katy Schimert (whose work I first saw in a Whitney Biennial).

Pepon Osorio, Angel the Shoe Shiner (1993) (partial/detail; in the exhibition, Making Knowing; Craft in Art 1950 – 2019)

The Rachel Harrison solo (10/25/19-1/12/20) was an apropos complement in several ways. Harrison thrives on very mixed up media, mashing found stuff with artsy-like, painted plaster-y, wood-built structural and ornamental elements.  My reaction to the furtive “one person’s trash is her own … art” kind of thing was tentative; in fact, the blur of 1990s DIY randomness and Duchampian, gender-astute gesture to which Harrison was party (with Karen Kilimnik and Sarah Lucas, among others) eventually drew me in. Solidifying an allusion to the era, a winning series of tragi-comic drawings depicting Amy Winehouse juxtaposed with scribbled Picasso and DeKooning “women.”  

But the mainstay of Harrison’s oeuvre is gathered and arranged stuff–tools, socks, wigs, racks, partitions, live plants, original sculptural forms and more, which impressed as both absurdist stacks and spreads and responsible, inventive forays into perpetual recycling as make-shift decorating.  A key section for me was an apartment-like interior installation within the show. With its flimsy walls papered with photo-blow ups of misaligned faux-wood paneling and other box store improvement projects in progress, it conveyed an ongoing attempt at securing a home-sweet-artist-home. 

An installation in the exhibition, Rachel Harrison: Life Hack (at the Whitney Museum; yes, the chairs are part of it 🙂
Rachel Harrison: Life Hack at the Whitney Museum
An installation from the exhibition, Rachel Harrison: Life Hack (at the Whitney Museum)

Damien Hirst as (Outer) Space Painter

Damien Hirst: Colour Space Paintings, Gagosian Gallery, 24th Street; through June 30, 2018

At this stage of the game for Hirst, when hype has become both draw and a distraction vis-a-vis his art activity, he has been attempting to re-presented himself as a seemingly un-ironic, authentic (for lack of better term) abstract painter.  I’ll say, unexpectedly, that consolidated foray into pointillist non-objectivity on display here rises to the company of postwar predecessors like Richard Pousette–Dart, Larry Poons, Veja Celmins, and, especially, Yayoi Kusama, in terms of visceral optical power–specifically Kusama’s simultaneous vision of the endless universe and the buzz behind our eyes.

Hirst himself has linked the featured works, mainly from 2016-2017, to his long-standing interest in pseudo-scientific content via images of cells under a microscope.  He first produced “spot” paintings in the 1980s in the context of post-Minimalism, which segued, reciprocally, into candy-colored tablets of big pharma.  The circle forms were typically arranged in grids or bounded patterns, sometimes shifting within the compositional structure through color arrangement.  In the best works here, the spots, in a staggering diversity of tinted hues, are densely applied in all-over fields with an uncanny stroke that seems mechanical in regularity and hand-hewn with occasional delicately trailed paint threads.  Depending on light or dark grounds, they can  intimate staring into the daylight sun or night star gazing, rendering the exhibition title a double-entendre.

As a bonus, if seeming non-sequitur, a sliced shark piece from his break-through days (1990s) as art infant terrible is installed in an anteroom before the street-front gallery window. Perhaps a reminder of the shark-infested blue-chip art sea in which he swims, but also, of the preeminent theme of death that has haunted his oeuvre.  In that sense, to borrow a metaphor from Kusama on her own practice, the new paintings can suggest the obliterative nature of infinity.

Damian Hirst, installation of paintings at Gagosian 24th St. (May 2018)


Damien Hirst, sculptural installation, c. mid-1990s, at Gagosian 24th St., May 2018

Perceptual Delirium at Met Breuer

Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, The Met Breuer, though January 14, 2018.

This theme could be twisted to include  just about anything – on the other hand, that’s just it – “twisted” – denotative and connotative —which provides fluid links between the gathered works; and literally provides one of four sectional themes that overlap. By extension, the arbitrary and  relative nature of conventionalized signifiers like numerals and the terminology of reason (logic; rationality).   Everything from dangling wiry grids and other “anxious” Minimalist sculpture by Eva Hesse and Yayoi Kusama (among others); to faux- mystical art-mathematicians like Alfred Jenson and Hanne Darboven; to jittery,  often (not only) feminist videos by Carolee Schneeman and Dara Birnbaum, a requisite early Bruce Nauman body-part examination; to pre-Neo-Geo, entoptic (it fits) drawings and paintings that joggle the optic nerve, especially some South Americans, several seen in big abstraction  shows in NY over the past two seasons—yes, a folded aluminum sculpture by Lygia Paper; and, on another note, her idiosyncratic Brazilian colleague, Helio Oiticica, just off his Whitney retrospective.  Serialist-Minimalists, with their self-perpetuating, spreading compositions (the eternal return of the same, to pull Nietzsche out of context) are juxtaposed here with the raw painterly limbs of Philip Guston, meaty slabs of matter by Paul Thek; and  the nutty painted  people-eaters of Jim Nutt and Peter Saul.  Big hits and misses but overall, well illuminates some shaded aesthetic corners of late 20th century art.  Overall, the show seems to suggest that not only the personal but the perceptual is political—at least by the time it is processed by our sensory and  intellectual consciousness.

Mapping at MoMA: Perilous Journeys; A Decade; Dark Visions by an Impressionist

At the Museum of Modern Art (West 53rd):

Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project (through August 28)

From the Collection: 1960-69 (through March 12, 2017)

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty (through July 24)

Like many, I did not really like the gargantuan atrium-centered MoMA re-do (2004); and, despite the ostensible (arguable) necessity of a ginormous space to accommodate ever-larger postmodern projects,  not that much has looked great in there.  (One exception that immediately comes to mind: Sanja Ivekovic’s pregnant female monument presiding over MoMA’s infamous modernist “hot mamas,” in her 2011-2012 show, “Sweet Violence.”)  Anyway,  Khalili’s current video installation does looks very good — or maybe I just love the piece, which was included in the New Museum’s 2014 exhibition, “Here and Elsewhere“; but deserves any and all exposure.  It’s comprised of a group of free-standing screens, each projecting close-ups of hands drawing routes on maps, with audio narratives detailing the journeys of exiles, refugees, and migrant workers.  Beyond the crucial content–often dangerous, subterranean transient life around the globe, the aesthetic component is considerable.  Moving between the flickering screens, fade-in-and-out murmuring, and zoomified map graphics, patterns emerge, echoing the stories.  And the regions delineated, as well as the synecdochal hands featured, carry myriad, fluid associations.


The collection survey of work from the 1960s, organized by year, again defies the corny adage: familiarity breeds contempt–at least in its current incarnation, which will shift intermittently through its year run.  The 1961 Jaguar near the entrance is cool–even if obviously sensational and not quite integrated into the context of the outre art featured (though not exclusively) in the rest of the installation.

Overall, the art featured, pace the Jaguar, is relatively low or raw tech, hopeful, outspoken, eccentric; and individualistic–but not navel-gazingly so (lots of worldly references everywhere).  A few highlights:

Yayoi Kusama’s soft-phallus-covered, stuffed armchair represents an idiosyncratic, sex-charged counter-culture sensibility, and reminds of the octogenarian’s brave early visions, hard work and persistence that have perhaps been clouded a bit by her subsequent cult of personality and factory-like output.  Nearby, Claes Oldenburg’s aging, bean-bag-like, colossal ice cream cone, slumped in a corner, looks, in other ways, just as kooky.  Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn appears to be hung lower than I recall in the permanent galleries, which brought him–if not her–down to earth and not quite omnipotent (though no less iconic) in the midst of this mixed crowd.  James Rosenquist’s monumental, Pop-Photorealist sectional mural, F-111, wrapped around its own nook, gives it a physical reality, in terms of scope and process, lost in reproductions of his work in general–where it appears much more like the Photoshop imaging that it anticipates with loosely traced and sometimes airbrushed handiwork.  A luxurious Sam Gilliam drapery painting brings in the continuing development of abstraction, still dominant on the art scene through the decade.  An iconic flag-and-body print by David Hammons is especially latent, retrospective of his subsequent rise to the center of the international art world adamantly on his own terms.   Arte povera is represented with a tough and deliberate yet chance-driven assemblage grounded in concrete by Giovanni Anselmo.  A modest Betye Saar “window” collage-painting brings in a glimmer of diaspora expression that would not break fully into the mainstream until the late 1980s.   A Beatles section of ephemera includes the Sergeant Pepper’s album cover designed in collaboration with early British Popster Peter Blake;  and writhing Day-Glo posters suggest psychedelia as the true popular art style of the era; whereas Pop, in spite of itself, can be viewed within a continuum of the historical avant-garde.   In this vein, Milton Glaser’s famous Bob Dylan poster (MoMA has one) comes to mind for the rotation.

A niche section displaying mainly plastic-based furniture, coincidentally (or not) positioned near the old Bauhaus stairway area brings backs memories of a unique museum with a particular identity.


You will see why the Degas show bears such a seemingly cliche title — incontrovertibly weird, but, in the end, highly engaging; how else can you say it?  (Well, I don’t know about the “new” – that’s pushing the institutional rhetoric.)  This extensive monochrome print oeuvre appears particularly odd-ball for an artist famously associated with color by association with Impressionism–and it impresses as an authentic endeavor in pushing formal boundaries without apparent concern for critical affirmation.  Equally, especially in the extensive array of brothel scenes, an expressive quality is imbued that, although (or because) ultimately ambiguous, departs in sensibility from his characteristically alert, cerebral pictorial deliberations.  Collectively, they convey an obsessive, subconscious searching in their claustrophobic variety.  I have to admit, I did, eventually, succumb (for,  despite  a scholarly appreciation of this art giant, I’ve never “liked” his work).  Moving through the profusion of dark-toned, intimate (embarassingly so, in some cases) imagery, the chemically washy smears and smudges, defined by intermittent and brief fluid contours, became mesmerizing.  And his lighting effects are, at times, as effective in print as Rembrandt’s.

Sexy, Dirty-ish Hippies by Yuskavage; Child-like Sex Symbols and a Playhouse by Kusama

at David Zwirner, 19th St., through June 13:

“Yayoi Kusama: Give me Love” and “Lisa Yuskavage”

Mid-career painter Yuskavage continues with her signature style and subject: misty oil painting with strong naturalistic underpinnings and supernaturally big-boobed, bedroom and backyard Barbies–a blend of pop-culture porn with painterly tradition, and the historical male gaze with Third Wave feminist spins on scopophilia.  Here, it’s back-woods country–a ’70s commune-ish setting across the works. The babes luxuriate (mainly) in their own ripeness, while dystopian overtones seep into background dream scenes. For the first time in her oeuvre, men–waifs and guru-ish types, several FULL frontal, intermingle with the nymphs.  Yuskavage has fun with brief details–an embroidered patch of blue-jean or crafty jewelry fad–that taps the sub-culture at the borders of kitsch.  Overall, her exploration of American society’s hyper-sexualized fantasy female thus far has remained, according to the balance of criticism, ambivalent. It’s still on that fence, meaning, it’s still interesting.


In recent years, the paintings of the doyenne, Kusama, have become increasingly primitive in style, featuring glyphic body part and nature forms that constitute a sub-conscious kind of language. Whereas her monumental abstract paintings of just a few years ago (e.g., an exhibition at Gagosian, 2009), presumably aided in production substantially by studio assistants, were climactic in terms of blinding, all-over opticality, the recent (mainly) human-scale paintings convey more intimate sense of the artist’s nerves and touch.  I would maybe call this late style charming (in Kusama’s overall sometimes scary, isolated schemata). They have been influenced by intermittent forays into “girl” art and commercial design over the past two decades, traces of which have bled into the enterprises of compatriot heirs, not least, Takashi Murakami. The imagery across the works blend disembodied eyes, noses, lips, and other biomorphic graffiti  that, in places, disintegrate into abstraction, over bright, flat acrylic grounds. They suggest Rorschach-type art play, but also recap and recycle major themes of her art over five decades ago, the origins of which, according to the self-propelled Kusama myth, were unusual “visions.”

The eye, a loaded symbol across time and place and prevalent intermittently throughout Kusama’s oeuvre, is everywhere here, sometimes turning into pea pods, mouths, stars, vaginas (some with surrounding dentatas), or even netting “holes”–harking back to some of her earliest painting; likewise the “soft phalli” shapes that pop up (sorry) recall her early sculpture.   As in late analytic and early synthetic Cubism, lines are signs, rearranged and subject to various readings, like art-charts of an overactive psyche.  Yet also, in their cumulative horror vacui and repetition seem to combat a core, raw emptiness in Kusama’s art.  There is a bit of  “art brut” in the mix, as described by Dubuffet, influenced by Hans Prinzhorn’s seminal study of art by the mentally ill.  Unlike Prinzhorn’s subjects, Kusama has long held her particular neuroses in check by pursuing a remarkably prolific, far-sighted art career; however,  latent sexual  anxiety and lack of intimacy has remained seminal to that production, still close to the surface in these recent paintings.  Thus, her title, “Give me Love,” also recalling her bohemian breakthrough in ’60s downtown New York.

Also on view is one of Kusama’s signature dotted installations, The Obliteration Room (conceived in 2001), a simulated combo-domestic space, like several others in her oeuvre.  Unlike the others, this one begins completely white-washed, with visitors gradually covering the space through the course of the exhibition with colored dot stickers.  Simplistic; a fun-house, but also a glimpse of the artist’s remembered disorienting perceptions and compulsive art activities. For this U.S. venue, she has chosen a generic  American-type-Home Depot exterior (complete with doghouse), which contrasts with the twilight zone inside.  Make no mistake–Kusama is as art savvy and intellectual in her concepts and results as subconsciously driven. She’s getting the art love she deserves.

Yayoi Kusama, "Obliteration Room," conceived 2001; at David Zwirner (5/26/15)
Yayoi Kusama, “Obliteration Room,” conceived 2001; at David Zwirner (5/26/15)


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 .

Jeff Koons / Yayoi Kusama?

Re: Jeff Koons at the Whitney Museum:  Has anyone mentioned Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden of mirrored balls on a lawn at the 1966 Venice Bienale (to which she had not been invited)?*  For $2 each, she hawked them–“on sale: your narcissism”–until chased out by officials.  (The piece has since been revisited and installed in various contexts by the amazing octogenarian, Kusama.)   Narcissism is the great common denominator, as Koons’s not at all uninteresting bloated Brancusis remind us–and just as he predicts–Koons_1 (2)over and over.

[Left: Snapping myself at the  Whitney.]

*Images of the original Kusama in situ are copyrighted, though still in wide circulation on the web (google).