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View from Keswick, in the Lake District

My time in the UK was split between the timelessly serene Lake District (and former haunt of Wordsworth and Coleridge) and the frenetic expanse that is London. It is the perpetual longing for the both/and that I have come to know as elemental, similar to the paradox captured so poetically in that famous line from D. W. Winnicott: It is a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found.

Lots of plays, lots of art, lots of time with friends. I’ll offer up a few highlights over the next few days. When it comes to special exhibitions currently on view in London, this is a singular moment in time in that the three biggest shows with the longest lines are all by artists in their final years: Lucian Freud was 88 when he passed away last year, Yayoi Kusama is 82, and David Hockney is 74. All of them are almost dizzingly prolific and tirelessly exploratory. No laurel resting, no slowing down. Very inspiring.

I’ll start at the top. My favorite of the three was Kusama’s show at the Tate Modern. I’ll talk about the other two in future posts.

Kusama has a memorable back story. From a review in the Guardian by Tim Adams:

All art is attention-seeking, but few artists have ever taken their demands to be noticed to the extremes of Yayoi Kusama. Now 82, and resident by choice for the past 35 years in a psychiatric care home in her native Tokyo, Kusama is currently seeing all her wishes come true. Not only has she been granted this obsessive-compulsive 14-room retrospective by the Tate, one of her career-defining Infinity Net paintings sold for $5.1m in 2008, a record for a living female artist.

Success did not come easily. Born in patriarchal and deeply conservative Japan of the late 1920s, even the idea of becoming an artist, as a woman, must have taken a supreme effort of will. To become an artist quite as liberated from convention as Kusama must have felt a lot like the insanity she has always feared – and to some extent nurtured – in herself…

She seems to have been drawn to surrealism, but given it a less playful, more psychologically unbalanced field, an edge perhaps explained by the fact that at the same age as she was seeing her visions, she was forced by her mother to spy on her father in bed with his string of mistresses and geishas. She developed a loathing of phallic images, and an overwhelming fascination with voyeurism.

Her response to these disturbing, formative forces seems twofold: she sought a kind of self-obliteration, covering herself and everything around her with her trademark polka dots – there is, among many other spotted surfaces, a fabulously spacey suburban living room here in which the edges of objects, sofas and tables are blurred by primary-coloured circular stickers, picked out in a psychedelic light. Elsewhere, mirrored “infinity rooms” take these points of colour into more dimensions than the eye can easily cope with. Almost nothing has been immune from Kusama’s dottiness: horses and cats, buses and houses, trees and fields and rivers, she has camouflaged them all. Damien Hirst’s outsourced efforts look decidedly spotty by comparison.

The range in this body of work is extraordinary. One room is full of her early paintings—obsessionally patterned and subtle in the absence of saturated color—and are reminiscent of early aboriginal paintings that use dots to reference the mystical landscape of central Australia. She moves from paintings of minimal tonality to obsessive phallic sculptures, also understated chromatically, to color used in an almost fetishist manner. Colored dotting soon becomes her signatory style but it does not come across as cheesy or inauthentic. Kusama’s work feels like it came from “complete necessity” (to quote my favorite line from Roberta Smith*). I loved every moment of the show.

Not without irony, Damien Hirst‘s Tate Modern show opens soon. A master of marketing and self promotion, his work almost never passes the coming from necessity test. Sure, that’s not the only measure for engaging and compelling art. But it has come to be an issue of increasing importance to me.


A room full of exquisitely subtle Kusama early paintings


A closer view of the painting surface


Phallicizing every object


Wild phallic landscapes as well


Infinity Mirrored Room. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

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* Roberta Smith’s plea for what she longs to see and feel in contemporary art exhibitions is outlined here.

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Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, now 80, is having a show of her recent work at Gagosian in New York. For a long time Kusama has been an enigmatic figure in the art world. She is famous for her obsessive dots and loops, covering furniture and entire rooms with stuffed “penises.” Diagnosed with the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) Kusama’s art can be seen through a number of different lenses. A recent article in the New York Times by Alexi Worth helps contextualize that discussion. Here’s an excerpt from Worth’s article:

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When the elevator doors finally opened, a potbellied man with a fringe of gray hair bounded into the room, followed by a crew of gear-laden assistants. Araki, the most famous Japanese photographer, was an ebullient self-caricature. Grunting, laughing, shouting orders and dirty jokes, he seemed a mischievous antidote to the notion of Japanese reserve. The assistants scrambled to set up a tripod and a pair of giant lights, and to seat Kusama in front of one of her radiant new paintings, so that Araki’s performance could begin: squatting, swiveling, lunging back and forth between Kusama and his equipment, he moved through the small, crowded space with an enchanting unpredictability. After 10 minutes, he was sweating profusely. The rest of us watched him, more or less transfixed. But Kusama sat motionless, silent, never smiling, showing no response to Araki’s virtuosic patter. For most of an hour, she stared unblinkingly into the cameras, her gaze projecting a fixed, dour blankness.

I had seen that look before. In a famous Hal Reiff photograph from 1966, the young Kusama, as beautiful as any pinup, lies naked on a sofa covered with hundreds of phallic protrusions, wearing only painted polka dots and high-heeled shoes. It’s her eyes that transform what might have been a frivolous Surrealist premise (Playmate in Penisland) into something unexpectedly somber and unsettling. In posed photographs, Kusama nearly always looks back at the camera with a similar odd, mute intensity. I had assumed that her deadpan was a deliberate choice, a way of managing her public image. Perhaps only Picasso, with his habitual black-eyed ‘‘power stare’’ (the mirada fuerte), controlled his own photographic demeanor as consistently.

Watching her with Araki, though, I began to wonder if Kusama’s gaze was less strategic than accidental: the look of a woman whose emotions were damaged, or at least inaccessible to her physiognomy, who simply could not smile. Of course, I knew that Kusama lives in a psychiatric hospital, a small white building we had passed on the way to the studio. But it had never occurred to me that her sense of humor, which seemed so central to the work of hers that I loved best, could have been rendered invisible by her illness. After Araki left, we sat back down at her conference table. I told her it seemed odd to me that a woman whose art was so often comic, and even outrageously funny, should smile so seldom. ‘‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’’ she answered. There was no anger in her voice, but she whispered something further in Japanese to an assistant. The assistant leaned over to me: that was it. The interview was over.

I had hoped, in thinking about Kusama, to sidestep the question of her mental condition, which I suspected had been mythologized and perhaps blown out of proportion in recent years by critics, by journalists and, above all, by Kusama herself. Instead, later that evening at my hotel, I found myself scanning Psychiatry Online, joining the legions of amateurs who have speculated about her strangeness. The starting point for all such investigations — given the silence of her doctors — is Kusama herself. In 1975, at the lowest point in her career, she published an autobiographical essay, ‘‘Odyssey of My Struggling Soul,’’ that included vivid memories of childhood hallucinations, depression and suicide attempts. ‘‘I don’t consider myself an artist,’’ she declared; ‘‘I am pursuing art in order to correct the disability which began in my childhood.’’

Probably more than any other living artist, Kusama’s case highlights the tensions inherent in the division between mainstream and outsider art. Is great art the conscious effort of brilliant minds, or is it an outpouring of freakish individuality? Kusama’s is clearly both. Claiming to be utterly uninfluenced by any other artist or school, she pictures her art-making as a purely therapeutic necessity: ‘‘art medicine.’’ And yet her artwork has been understood, by her friend Donald Judd and others, as a uniquely sophisticated response to the predicaments of 20th-century modernism. At times, Kusama can seem like a grandmaster who claims not to play chess but who just happens to feel like moving his pieces into winning positions. Of course, this invites skepticism: some people doubt the severity of her mental illness, while others blame the ‘‘gullible art market’’ for overvaluing the work of a woman who never properly understood what she was doing. Kusama herself, delighted by her escalating auction prices but paranoid about the least implication of indebtedness to any other artist, has retreated ever further into gurulike ambiguities. ‘‘When I work on a piece,’’ she told me in an e-mail message, ‘‘I have no conception of what I want to create. With my hands doing the work on their own, a work is finished before I know it. Thus, my fantastical works yet unknown to me are produced one after another. . . .’’

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“Cold Mountain Studies 10” (1988-90) by Bruce Marden

Having just gone through a stack of recent art periodicals—Modern Painter, Art on Paper, Art Papers, Art Forum—I can categorically say that the number of times I felt connected to (compelled by? curious about? impressed with?) the art being written about or advertised is at a lifetime low. After a while you feel like a lonely dingy, trying to keep from capsizing while the noisy regattas, festooned and extravagant, barrel past. Ahoy! Any other small craft out there?

It may be that all the art regattas are being pulled ashore, now in storage until the next good breeze season is upon us once again and we are through this particular patch of bad weather. Dingys are all season vessels, too small to notice or worry about. And there is something to be said for that durability and agility.

For the first time in quite a spell, today’s Times brought news of two shows in New York that feel dingy-friendly: The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, at the Guggenheim; and Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors, at the Metropolitan. Both shows are up until April 19.

The influence of Asia on American art is a fascinating topic and one that I have studied for some time. The Transcendentalists were digging into Asian spiritual traditions as early as the 1840s, with accounts of Emerson and Thoreau reading the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. Japanese prints made their way into American visual consciousness, many by way of Paris-based artists who were captivated by a different concept of pictoral space as portrayed in Ukiyo-e wood cuts.

That meme’s influence has continued, showing up in a wide variety of facets of American art. And it is an influence I resonate with deeply—one that features the meditative, the mysterious, the nonlinear and nonrational.

And Bonnard. He’s the colorist whose work never ends in pleasuring the eye. One of Bonnard’s signatory flairs was his insistence in placing a stripe or patch of bright orange in every painting. He is, after all, the master of the secondary palette—those colors that result from mixing two primary colors—the purples, the greens, the oranges.

Here is an excerpt from Holland Cotter‘s review of the Guggenheim show:

Asian influence seeped into American painting a bit later, after scholars like Ernest Fenollosa and artists like John La Farge visited Japan. In the show you can see the fashion for it catch on and spread, in Whistler’s inky 1870s nocturnes, in Arthur Wesley Dow’s turn-of-the-century Japanese-style prints, and in the spiritualizing work of artists who lived closer to Asia in the American Northwest: Morris Graves with his luminous images of birds and Chinese bronzes, Mark Tobey with his calligraphic “white writing.”

Tobey’s art is sometimes taken as a precursor of gestural abstraction in New York. And the case for linking some forms of Abstract Expressionism with Asian writing has been made and unmade many times. With its lineup of Pollocks, Motherwells and Klines the show pushes the argument forward again, though without adding anything startlingly new to it.

Instead its surprises come from the West Coast. There’s a gorgeous painting by Sam Francis, who lived for a while in Tokyo, of what looks like a lotus on fire. Lee Mullican’s “Evening Raga” has the note-by-note shimmer of Indian music. And his friend Gordon Onslow-Ford, a spiritual omnivore who painted on a ferryboat in Sausalito and wore “visionary” like a campaign button, offers a kind of abstract version of “Starry Night,” all filigree webs and wheels.

By the time this piece, “Round See,” was done in 1961, John Cage had been painting, composing and proselytizing his customized version of Zen for years. A section of the show is dedicated to him, or rather to a concept he embodied, one absolutely central to Asian culture: the idea of lineage, the transmission of forms and knowledge from mind to mind.

Cage developed his aesthetic of chance operation in part through study with the Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki, and shared what he learned with contemporaries like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. A Rauschenberg combine called “Gold Standard” (1964) was slapped together in a matter of hours on a Tokyo stage as Cage watched.

But Cage’s creative DNA also passed on to a generation of younger, Zen-tinged, Neo-Dada artists who used the group name Fluxus. Work by several of them — Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Alison Knowles — is assembled near Cage’s, along with a ready-for-the-future-travel suitcase packed with Fluxiana.

Traditional Zen painting is black and white. By contrast, Tibetan Buddhist art comes in vivid colors, which made it naturally attractive to artists and writers taking drugs in the 1950s and 1960s. Some are indelibly identified as Beats. Jack Kerouac, with sketchy bodhisattvas and a manuscript slice of “Dharma Bums,” is one. So is William Burroughs, whose esoteric cut-and-paste work called “The Third Mind” gave the show its title.

Where an artist like Harry Smith fits in is harder to say. Chronologically he was a Beat. But his short animated films blending Tantrism, Theosophy, Orientalist Pop and Alastair Crowley, all to a cool jazz score, don’t feel period specific. They could be hippie ’60s. They could be by young artists today. (It’s important to note that the show barely touches on Islamic Asia, specifically on Sufism, in which Mr. Smith was interested.)

There are a number of free-radical types like him in the show, which is one reason it has a patchy, scrapbookish look. Even the section devoted to Minimalism resists the sort of uniformity that art history, ever straightening and cleaning, tries to impose.

Ms. Munroe [the show’s curator] finesses the problem by inventing a category she calls ecstatic minimalism, which covers expected figures like Robert Irwin, Ad Reinhardt and Richard Tuttle, but also admits personally expressive works like those of Agnes Martin and Yayoi Kusama, and makes room for excellent artists like Natvar Bhavsar , Zarina Hashmi and Tadaaki Kuwayama, so seldom seen in big mainstream shows that they’ve barely been slotted at all.

Into this charmed circle Ms. Munroe also brings abstract artists working with sound and light, like Jordan Belson, James Whitney and La Monte Young. Whether you call Mr. Belson and Mr. Whitney optical scientists or psychic magicians, they are fascinating figures, very much in line with the Guggenheim’s own history as a museum of non-objective art rooted in diverse cultural and spiritual traditions.

As for Mr. Young, he and his “Dream House,” with a 24/7 drone and trippy lighting by Marian Zazeela, have long since become underground institutions. First installed as a permanent environment in his Manhattan home in 1962, then used for performances with his teacher, the Hindustani raga vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, and now reconstituted at the Guggenheim, “Dream House” forms a natural bridge to the conceptual and performance art that brings the show to a close.

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