Archive | December, 2012

Painting of the Day/ Museum Exhibition Review: “Picasso Black and White”

26 Dec

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Woman Ironing (La repasseuse). by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Oil on canvas, 1904. Currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum, NYC.

My notes + Review of “Picasso Black and White”: 

The painting above came at the end of Picasso’s Blue period, a period brought on by the suicide of a friend of Picasso. Earlier in the Blue period, Picasso painted in stronger hues of blue than in the painting above, and later in the Blue period his blue tones became more muted, reaching the point of grey as in the painting above. This is the first painting we see in the Guggenheim’s exhibition, “Picasso Black and White,” a very interesting and different sort of exhibition from those I’ve seen at other art museums this year. It sets a somber, serious tone for the rest of the exhibit, suggesting an artist who didn’t work in the business of pleasurable seascapes and cute children like other artists. Although Picasso became quite comercially successful even while alive (something unusual for artists, who often garner attention only after they’ve been dead for decades), his art doesn’t come across as that of an artist who tried to create crowd-pleasers, for it lacks color and can be so abstract, it becomes utterly mystifying. 

The style of the exhibition only adds to the mystifying quality of the black, white, and grey works on view. The paintings are arranged along the spiral ramp, with each contained in its own little alcove and plenty of space between them. One much-appreciated benefit of this is that by virtue of the space between paintings, it is much less crowded, and you almost feel as if you’re viewing everything by yourself while everyone else in the museum is relatively far away looking at other art. The space also makes it seems as if there is an unusually low number of works on view: with 118 paintings and sculptures, it only contains 27 less works than the mammoth Met exhibition “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” but compared to that exhibition it feels like “Picasso Black and White” has half as many works. 

One aspect that I did not like about the exhibition design was the low amount of accompanying literature, in the form of captions, audio tour stops, and the catalogue itself. Only the most well-known Picasso works on view provide explanatory captions and an audio clip, but these captions give little information. At about four intermediary points on the viewer’s ascend up the Guggenheim building, there are two medium paragraphs of general information on the wall that give biographical background information about what was happening in Picasso’s life at the time that he completed the works to follow. While this is illuminating, I feel that it doesn’t go far enough to really explain why Picasso painted without color so often. The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition doesn’t help out that much, either, for it contains four short essays at its beginning and devotes the rest of its pages to 150 plates of the works on view in addition to other comparative works. 

Given the lack of information, at the end of the exhibition it still isn’t really clear what it means that Picasso painted in black and white all throughout his life in every style, something that can’t be said for his paintings in blue or rose. The only explanation given is in the catalogue, where art critic David Sylvester comments that “the need to isolate often governs Picasso’s use of color…[there is] an assertion of chosen color…[and] that absence of variety in the color helps to isolate qualities of form. Black-and-white, then, seems to have been used because managing a complicated composition was enough without having to organize contrasts of color as well.” 

I am particularly skeptical of this last sentence. Picasso seems to be of such technical mastery judging on his oeuvre’s sheer range; how could he really just be using a monochrome palette to make his job easier? And if he really was just trying to focus on form, why paint so often in black and white only? Why not try just green, or just purple? I feel like black and white had some sort of special significance to it, but the exhibition never tries to explore that possibility. And since it does posit that black and white was used to concentrate on form, it should have then dissected Picasso’s construction of form, which, especially in his Cubist and Surrealist works, can be very difficult to grasp, especially for the non-expert who really wants to understand it on a deeper level. It would have been nice to know how Picasso even went about constructing the non-objective black and white works on view, why he made the linear and geometric choices that he made. 

Nevertheless, this exhibition is definitely worth seeing because the paintings on view belong to museums in Europe and are rarely seen in the United States. The viewer experience is also very comfortable compared to that of other exhibitions because of the aforementioned space. And make sure, if you go, that you visit the reading room, located on the ramp at a lower level, to read the four short essays in the exhibition catalogue rather than buying it. It won’t take that long and it’ll save you $60. 

 

Painting of the Day

24 Dec

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Dark Evening. by Howard Hodgkin (born 1932). Oil on canvas and frame, 2011. 

Notes from howard-hodgkin.com:

Stefan Kuiper writes in Vrij Nederland, 28 August 2010: ‘In the past, until about ten years ago, [Hodgkin] worked on the basis of personal memories, and his paintings bore titles such as In Paris With You (1995-1996) and In Raimund Stecker’s Garden (1998-2001). His art was private, confessional; as though all sorts of intimate acknowledgements could be found among the enigmatic forms. Those paintings were highly personal theaters (the broad, paint-spattered frame resembling the entrance to a stage) in which the painter brought his memories to life. Paint had become Proust’s madeleine. Hodgkin’s new work is different, less private. That can be discerned in the titles—Lawn, Big Lawn, Sky—but also in the form. The small and intimate panel Leaf (2007-2009), for instance, involves no more than a single sharply curled sweep of thinned green against a background of plain wood. And Mud (2002) is a unprepared plank covered with wide strokes of green and grey. Though it consists of practically nothing, somehow this little picture effortlessly gives rise to associations with landscapes and shoals, or an approaching storm. These paintings are more suggestive than Hodgkin’s earlier work, less insistent, and consequently better. The difference resembles that between people who give energy—Hodgkin fondly refers to his paintings as a cast of characters—and those who take it. Between inhaling and exhaling.

‘The question is whether the painter himself sees it that way. Hodgkin nods eagerly when I present him with my interpretation. That new approach to the work, he says, has to do with added confidence (“I used to be afraid of boring the viewer”) but also with a new method. “Painting, to me, meant plodding away endlessly. I spent entire days turning things around and around in a painting. Plenty of pentimenti were carried out before I felt satisfied with the work. At a certain point I had had enough of that. It became too strenuous, especially with my difficult knees.

“Nowadays I work differently, with circumspection, more like a chess player. I’d say that about ninety percent of the time in my studio is spent on a contemplation and analysis of the work, and only ten percent on actually painting it. So when I sit there staring at the wall, I’m in fact hard at work.” His eyes twinkle mischievously: “Explaining that to my assistants took quite some time.”‘ 

My comments:

Howard Hodgkins’ work is the antithesis of the exhibition I saw this past Friday in Manhattan at the Guggenheim Museum, “Picasso Black and White.” Whereas in that exhibition Picasso wanted to omit color from his paintings in order to focus on the line and how that is used to form figures in compositions, in Hodgkins’ work color is form. Who is right: is line or color better? This was a kind of debate back in the 19th century between Classicists like Ingres, who believed in the primacy of line, and Romanticists like Delacroix (who actually said himself that he hated grey), who relied on colors to convey emotion and provide the energy of the painting. Personally I tend to gravitate toward more colorful paintings. 

I think Hodgkins’ painting is interesting for the way he painted over the canvas and on the frame that encompasses it too, as if his painting is extending out from the confines of itself into the real world. 

Painting of the Day

20 Dec

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Luncheon of the Boating Party. by Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Oil on canvas, 1880-1881. Currently on view at the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Notes from phillipscollection.org:

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir remains the best known and most popular work of art at The Phillips Collection, just as Duncan Phillips imagined it would be when he bought it in 1923. The painting captures an idyllic atmosphere as Renoir’s friends share food, wine, and conversation on a balcony overlooking the Seine at the Maison Fournaise restaurant in Chatou. Parisians flocked to the Maison Fournaise to rent rowing skiffs, eat a good meal, or stay the night.

The painting also reflects the changing character of French society in the mid- to late 19th century. The restaurant welcomed customers of many classes, including businessmen, society women, artists, actresses, writers, critics, seamstresses, and shop girls. This diverse group embodied a new, modern Parisian society.

Renoir seems to have composed this complicated scene without advance studies or underdrawing. He spent months making numerous changes to the canvas, painting the individual figures when his models were available, and adding the striped awning along the top edge. Nonetheless, Renoir retained the freshness of his vision, even as he revised, rearranged, and crafted an exquisite work of art.

Additional notes from wikipaintings.org:

Renoir sold this painting to the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who supported the impressionists, after its completion. The painting, arguably one of Renoir’s most famous works, contains many of Renoir’s close friends, including his future wife, relaxing at the Maison Fournaise along the Seine River. Renoir often included his friends and acquaintances in his paintings, and this one is no different. At the bottom left of the composition, a woman holding a dog (monkey pincher), is seamstress Aline Charigot, whom later became Renoir’s wife. The painting also includes other close friends, actors, the proprietors of the establishment, and prominent social figures of his day. As such, it can be seen as a snapshot of the social times, as well as a depiction of a relaxing day on the river. 

My comments:

I’m not a huge Renoir fan, but I think this is really a masterpiece of Renoir’s oeuvre. I especially love the way Renoir renders the light sparkling off the glasses on the table. Even though wineglasses are usually delicate and fragile, Renoir uses a substantial amount of paint on them which gives them weight. This is an example of the contrast between Renoir’s depiction of 19th century France and that of Degas’s (as seen in l’Absinthe). Although both artists chose subjects from the same socioeconomic class in the same country at the same time period, we see radically different definitions of what it means to be a bourgeoisie in late 19th century France. Both paintings feature their subjects drinking forms of alcohol, but in Renoir’s painting it functions as a party aid and in Degas’s painting it becomes a source of excess and sickness. Both artists also employ similar styles in each painting as well, with those gestural brushstrokes and a generous use of paint (although not an overwhelming amount as we see in Van Gogh’s work). 

Painting/Art of the Day

19 Dec

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The Kiss. by Man Ray (1890-1976). Gelatin silver print (photogram), 1922. In the collection of MoMA, NYC (not on view).

Notes from moma.org:

A photogram is a picture made on photographic paper without the aid of a camera. To make this one, Man Ray exposed the paper to light at least three times. Each time a different set of objects acted as a stencil: a pair of hands, a pair of heads kissing, and two darkroom trays, which seem almost to kiss each other with their corner spouts. With each exposure, the paper darkened where it was not masked.

“It is impossible to say which planes of the picture are to be interpreted as existing closer or deeper in space. The picture is a visual invention: an image without a real-life model to which we can compare it,” notes curator John Szarkowski. A Surrealist might have said, instead, that it discloses a reality all the more precious because it is otherwise invisible.

Man Ray claimed to have invented the photogram not long after he emigrated from New York to Paris in 1921. Although, in fact, the practice had existed since the earliest days of photography, he was justified in the artistic sense, for in his hands the photogram was not a mechanical copy but an unpredictable pictorial adventure. He called his photograms “rayographs.”

Additional notes from manray.net:

This is one of Man Ray’s earliest Rayograms, a process by which objects are laid directly on to a photo-sensitive paper then exposed to light. To create this particular picture, he transferred the silhouette of a pair of hands to the photographic paper then repeated the procedure with a pair of heads (his and his then lover’s, Kiki de Montparnasse).

Rayograms gave Man Ray an opportunity to be in direct contact with his work and react to his creations immediately by adding one layer upon the next layer. He used inanimate objects as well as his own body to create his earlier pictures, and the pictures sometimes have an autobiographical quality, with many of his photographs portraying his lovers. 

Man Ray has long been considered one of the most versatile and innovative artists of the twentieth century. As a painter, writer, sculptor, photographer, and filmmaker, he is best known for his intimate association with the French Surrealist group in Paris during the 1920s and 30s, particularly for his highly inventive and unconventional photographic images.

Until recently, Man Ray’s contribution to the history of American modernism has been largely overlooked. The majority of critics have found his work derivative or, for those with an even more myopic vision, little more than a pastiche of work by more accomplished painters and sculptors. The issue of influence is one that Man Ray was well aware of, and for which he had established a simple defense: “I had never worried about influence. There had been so many – every painter whom I discovered was a source of inspiration and emulation…sufficient that I chose my influences – my masters”

The “problem” of Man Ray begins with the matter that he cannot be classified as an artist in one genre. Painter, photographer, filmmaker printmaker, object-maker, poet, essayist, philosopher – his eclecticism flaunts the ground rules of art history. Man Ray is a chain of enigmas. Paradoxes characterize each phase of his long and complex career and combine to make him the quintessential modernist personality.

Why, to begin with, did he believe that family ties and roots existed to be severed? Information about Man Ray’s childhood and formative years was exceptionally difficult to obtain because Man Ray did not want people to know about his youth. He did not want his family in America to grant interviews about his past. The special tension of Man Ray’s early life emerges like a photographic print slowly developing in the tray.

He insisted that dates were meaningless and bore that out within the stream-of-consciousness, out-of-sync narrative of his memoirs; yet at the same time, he compulsively catalogued all his works over nearly three-quarters of a century, to the extent that he always knew at any time the status, ownership, and location of everything he had ever produced.

Man Ray participated centrally in Dada – a loosely formed movement motivated by the urge to subvert the entire range of artistic endeavor preceding it-yet at the same time he maintained a reverence for the Old Masters, and for the value of tradition as it shaped individual talent.

Even with disappointments and embitterment about his position as an artist, he insisted upon making his way as a painter, to the point where visitors to his studio who sought to bring up the subject of photography were brusquely turned away.

Was the fabrication of a persona called Man Ray ultimately more significant to him than the reputation of the artist Man Ray? If the impression his paintings made was important to Man Ray, why did he pride himself on being such un type rapide (quick study), able to knock off a portrait in a headlong rush? why did he insist upon the inherent passivity of the artist as the most harmless member of society-when his passion and commitment were boundless and electrically apparent to anyone in his presence?

Man Ray’s greatest conflict was his lifelong struggle with the one form of expression in which he had no peer: photography. His unerring eye could pick out a constellation of details and frame them so that they appeared to have arranged themselves. In the studio on the rue Ferou, among thousands of outtakes from portrait sessions and en plein air ramblings never revealed to public view, it is nearly impossible to find a bad picture.

Man Ray’s photography is great because it embraces variety. It represents a virtual new order of reality; it is its own world. It is restless and omnivorous, taking on all the possibilities of perception as its territory.

The supreme present, another modernist obsession, was all that mattered, and the photograph, as a “certificate of presence,” in Roland Barthes’s definition, embodied that instant in time. In 1966 Man Ray told Jules Langsner, the curator of the Man Ray retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, that:

A camera alone does not make a picture. To make a picture, you need a camera, a photographer, and above all a subject. It is the subject alone that determines the interest of the photograph.”

Talking to journalist Colette Roberts, Man Ray alighted upon another metaphor for photography’s place in his life, calling it a “second violin for me, just as necessary in the orchestra as the first violin.”

Man Ray was blessed with lifelong curiosity verging upon voyeurism; he was naturally intrigued by the way people looked and lived. The camera was “his passport, permitting safe passage across otherwise perilous boundaries” – however, he did not inhabit these new and exotic countries for very long. The camera was also a shield defending him while serving as a key to the secrets of others, and therefore a perfect vehicle for Man Ray’s reflective personality.

To his detractors, Man Ray’s solarizations, rayographs, and distortion studies were trucages, the ultimate technical tricks produced by a magician who was not to be taken seriously. However’ his admirers were – and continue to be – those who recognized his capacity to pierce the protective veil of what seemed real. The eyes in Man Ray’s portrait photographs always appear liquid, softened just enough for us to think they might indeed open upon the soul. His outdoor shots force us to rethink nature as something less than natural and closer to imaginary. His fashion photography is so dynamic it wants to leap from the page. His nudes manage to be sensual and untouchable simultaneously. 

My comments:

It’s interesting how different artists treat the theme of the kiss, and evoke different feelings as a result. This photograph is quite small, measuring about the size of an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper (It’s actually 9 3/8 x 11 3/4 in), but I feel like if I passed this image in real life, it would catch my attention and make me stop, arresting me more than another artwork of the same size would; it is small but powerful. Its power lies in its mysteriousness, the inability to identify the expressions or any physical characteristics about the two figures in the photogram. Depending on who is kissing who, it will garner different reactions in the viewer, ranging from wistfulness to disgust. Here, none of these visual cues are present, yet the action of the figures is very clear from the title and the image itself; as viewers, we are left in this kind of uncomfortable situation. Given that one of art’s greatest truths is its powerful ability to evoke a rainbow of emotions in the viewer with just a few formal details, when artworks such as this photogram lack so many indicators that viewers often use to form a reaction, it can be a bit unsettling–at least to me; maybe this is just my problem. But assuming this is not just my personal view and that others might share it about this artwork, I wonder if Man Ray wanted it to be ambiguous. He could have painted or sculpted the same subject to make the details less ambiguous, since he also painted and sculpted, but he deliberately chose to make this a photogram. Was he even trying to be mysterious, or just experimenting with a medium and trying to be innovative?

Painting of the Day

18 Dec

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Dans un cafe (also called l’Absinthe). by Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Oil on canvas, 1876. On view at the Musee d’Orsay. Paris. 

Notes from wikipaintings.org:

The two figures in this painting are Ellen Andree, a noted French Actress, and Marcellin Desboutin, an artist and noted bohemian personality, sitting at the Café de la Nouvelle-Athenes, in Paris, France. In front of the woman sits a glass of the greenish colored liquid, Absinthe. It was first exhibited in 1872, where it was criticized as ugly and disgusting; at a later exhibition in 1892 it was removed from the show. It was shown a year later in England, where it sparked controversy. The woman in the painting was derided as a whore and the entire image was seen as a blow to morality and the degradation of society due to absinthe.

Notes from musee-orsay.fr:

Unlike his Impressionist friends, Degas was an essentially urban painter, who liked to paint the enclosed spaces of stage shows, leisure activities and pleasure spots.

In a cafe, a fashionable meeting place, a man and a woman, although sitting side-by-side, are locked in silent isolation, their eyes empty and sad, with drooping features and a general air of desolation. The painting can be seen as a denunciation of the dangers of absinthe, a violent, harmful liquor which was later prohibited. Parallels have been drawn with Zola’s novel L’Assommoir written a few years later and indeed the novelist told the painter: “I quite plainly described some of your pictures in more than one place in my pages.” The realistic dimension is flagrant: the cafe has been identified – it is “La Nouvelle Athènes”, in place Pigalle, a meeting place for modern artists and a hotbed of intellectual bohemians. The framing gives the impression of a snapshot taken by an onlooker at a nearby table. But this impression is deceptive because, in fact, the real life effect is carefully contrived. The picture was painted in the studio and not in the cafe.

Degas asked people he knew to pose for the figures: Ellen André was an actress, and an artist’s model; Marcellin Desboutin was an engraver and artist. The painting cast a slur on their reputations and Degas had to state publicly that they were not alcoholics.
The off-centre framing, introducing empty spaces and slicing off the man’s pipe and hand, was inspired by Japanese prints, but Degas uses it here to produce a drunken slewing. The presence of the shadow of the two figures painted as a silhouette reflected in the long mirror behind them is also expressive and significant.

 My comments:

It’s interesting how all the so-called “Impressionists,” among which Degas is listed (although, according to his biography at edgar-degas.net, he preferred to call himself a realist) managed to produce work that appears completely different from that of their fellow Impressionists; compared to Renoir, Sisley, and Monet, Degas’s work follows this trend (although I think there are stylistic similarities between his work and that of Mary Cassatt, another Impressionist; but this isn’t surprising since she and Degas spent a lot of time together as artists and Degas was a huge influence on her). Degas seems to combine the subject matter of the Realist with the stylistic philosophy of the Impressionist, using the gestural brushstrokes that capture the transiency of light and of every individual moment in urban settings that don’t always present the niceties and pleasurable activities of 19th century France. This makes me wonder who was actually truer to life, Degas or Monet/Renoir, who gravitated toward happier scenes? I don’t think that by virtue of its cynicism that Degas was more “honest” in his paintings than Renoir or Monet, because even in 19th century France, a time as chaotic as any other with its share of societal ills, there were happy moments. And besides, no matter the circumstances, nature can also be a source for gentle, peaceful beauty, and it is available at all times. Given this truth, the portrayal of happier or more somber themes must be a choice by every artist, not simply a response to conditions. Perhaps Renoir and Monet were just glass half-full type of people Degas was the opposite; or perhaps their choice of themes didn’t reflect personal temperaments but rather other motivations. 

Regardless, I think this is a fantastic painting by Degas, and I love how he can use so few brushstrokes to convey so strongly and clearly the expression of bored melancholy on the woman’s face. The shadows he paints on the wall for each figure are so thick, they’re almost separate persons in and of themselves, as if the woman and man have lost their souls and are just sacks of blood and bones. Are they so depressed because of the absinthe, or is their drinking of the absinthe a result of their depression? 

 

Painting of the Day

17 Dec

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Christ Carrying the Cross. by El Greco (1540/41-1614). Oil on canvas, ca. 1577-1587. Currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. 

Notes from metmuseum.org:

During his long career in Spain, El Greco produced numerous paintings of Christ carrying the cross. This canvas (from the Robert Lehman collection), arguably his earliest version of the subject, is not a narrative scene: no other figures are represented and the setting is not recognizable. Instead, it is a devotional image of haunting immediacy and resonant with pathos. Christ’s willing sacrifice for mankind is expressed through his gentle embrace of the cross and his heavenward gaze.

Bibliographical information from wikipedia.org:

El Greco, born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, (1541 – 7 April 1614) was a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. “El Greco” (The Greek) was a nickname, a reference to his national Greek origin, and the artist normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), often adding the word Κρής (Krēs, “Cretan”).

El Greco was born in Crete, which was at that time part of the Republic of Venice, and the center of Post-Byzantine art. He trained and became a master within that tradition before travelling at age 26 to Venice, as other Greek artists had done. In 1570 he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and executed a series of works. During his stay in Italy, El Greco enriched his style with elements of Mannerism and of the Venetian Renaissance. In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and produced his best-known paintings.

El Greco’s dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries but found appreciation in the 20th century. El Greco is regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism, while his personality and works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis. El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.He is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic or phantasmagorical pigmentation, marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.

Painting/Art of the Day: Who is the Artist?

16 Dec

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Fireflies on the Water. by Yayoi Kusama (born 1929). Mirror, plexiglass, 150 lights, and water, 2002.

Notes from huffingtonpost.com:

There’s no denying Yayoi Kusama’s love of polka-dots. She dreams about them, wears them, paints them, and constructs them. So it’s not surprising that ahead of her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (which was on view earlier in 2012), the famous Japanese contemporary artist is showing a new dotted-light installation titled “Fireflies on the Water.” Built inside a small room with mirrors on all sides, the exhibit consists of 150 miniscule lights suspended over a small pool. Search for a point of focus in the endless mirage of reflections — all you’ll see is a shadow version of yourself reflected back.

“Fireflies” is not so different from Kusama’s past work, as it builds on her hallucinatory approaches and psychedelic space conceptions. Like “Obliteration Room” and “Infinity Mirror Room,” it showcases her love of unnerving darkness and fascination for infinite space. But the newer work embodies a more tranquil version of her obsessions, perhaps marking a more peaceful period in the artist’s vision-driven career.

Interesting biographical information from wikipedia.org:

EARLY LIFE: 1929–1949

Born in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture as the fourth child in a prosperous and conservative family, whose wealth was derived from the management of wholesale seed nurseries, Kusama has experienced hallucinations and severe obsessive thoughts since childhood, often of a suicidal nature. She claims that as a small child she suffered severe physical abuse by her mother. In 1948, she left home to enter senior class at Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts, where she studied Nihonga painting, a rigorous formal style developed during the Meiji period; she graduated the following year. She hated the rigidities of the master-disciple system where students were supposed to imbibe tradition through the sensei. “When I think of my life in Kyoto,” she is quoted, “I feel like vomiting.”

EARLY SUCCESS IN JAPAN: 1950–1956

By 1950, Kusama was depicting abstracted natural forms in watercolor, gouache and oil, primarily on paper. She began covering surfaces (walls, floors, canvases, and later, household objects and naked assistants) with the polka dots that would become a trademark of her work. The vast fields of polka dots, or “infinity nets,” as she called them, were taken directly from her hallucinations. The earliest recorded work in which she incorporated these dots was a drawing in 1939 at age 10, in which the image of a Japanese woman in a kimono, presumed to be the artist’s mother, is covered and obliterated by spots. Her first series of large-scale, sometimes more than 30 ft-long canvas paintings, Infinity Nets, were entirely covered in a sequence of nets and dots that alluded to hallucinatory visions. In the early 1960s Kusama began to cover items such as ladders, shoes and chairs with white phallic protrusions. Despite the micromanaged intricacy of the drawings, she turned them out fast and in bulk, establishing a rhythm of productivity she still maintains. She established other habits too, like having herself routinely photographed with new work.

Since 1963, Kusama has continued her series of Mirror/Infinity rooms. In these complex installations, purpose-built rooms lined with mirrored glass contain scores of neon coloured balls, hanging at various heights above the viewer. Standing inside on a small platform, light is repeatedly reflected off the mirrored surfaces to create the illusion of a never-ending space.

NEW YORK CITY: 1957–1972

After living in Tokyo and France, Kusama left Japan at the age of 27 for the United States. In 1957 she moved to Seattle, where she stayed for a yearbefore moving on to New York City, following correspondence with Georgia O’Keeffe in which she professed an interest in joining the limelight of the city, and sought O’Keefe’s advice.[15] During her time in the U.S., she quickly established her reputation as a leader in the avant-garde movement. In 1961 she moved her studio into the same building as Donald Judd and sculptor Eva Hesse; Hesse became a close friend. During the following years, she was enormously productive, and by 1966, she was experimenting with room-size, freestanding installations that incorporated mirrors, lights, and piped-in music. She counted Judd and Joseph Cornell among her friends and supporters. However, she did not profit financially from her work. Around this time, Kusama was hospitalized regularly from overwork, and O’Keeffe convinced her own dealer Edith Herbert to purchase several works in order to help Kusama stave off financial hardship.

Kusama organized outlandish happenings in conspicuous spots like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, often involving nudity and designed to protest the Vietnam War. In one, she wrote an open letter to Richard Nixon offering to have vigorous sex with him if he would stop the Vietnam war. Between 1967 and 1969 she concentrated on performances held with the maximum publicity, usually involving Kusama painting polka dots on her naked performers, as in the Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at the MOMA (1969), which took place at the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art. In 1968, Kusama presided over the happening Homosexual Wedding at the Church of Self-obliteration in 33 Walker Street in New York, and performed alongside Fleetwood Mac and Country Joe and the Fish at the Fillmore East, New York City. She opened naked painting studios and a gay social club called the Kusama ’Omophile Kompany (kok).

In 1966, Kusama first participated in the 33rd Venice Biennale. Her Narcissus Garden comprised hundreds of mirrored spheres outdoors in what she called a ‘kinetic carpet’. As soon as the piece was installed on a lawn outside the Italian pavilion, Kusama, dressed in a golden kimono, began selling each individual sphere for 1,200 lire ($2), until the Biennale organisers put an end to her enterprise. Perhaps one of Kusama’s most notorious works, Narcissus Garden was as much about the promotion of the artist through the media as it was an opportunity to offer a critique of the mechanisation and commodification of the art market. Various versions of Narcissus Garden have been presented worldwide venues including Le Consortium, Dijon, 2000; Kunstverein Braunschweig, 2003; as part of the Whitney Biennial in Central Park, New York in 2004; and at the Jardin de Tuileries in Paris, 2010.

During her time in New York, Kusama had a decade-long sexless relationship with the American artist Joseph Cornell, Kusama’s only recorded romantic attachment to date.

RETURN TO JAPAN: 1973–PRESENT

In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan in ill health, where she began writing shockingly visceral and surrealistic novels, short stories, and poetry. Kusama checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill and eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital since, by choice. Her studio, where she has continued to produce work since the mid-1970s, is a short distance from the hospital in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Kusama is often quoted as saying: “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.” She continued to paint, but now in high-colored acrylics on canvas, on an amped-up scale.

My comments:

Kusama’s piece is really fascinating and interesting, but it brought to mind a question that I’ve wondered about contemporary art pieces-but it could also apply to pre-Modernist art. As you can see in this photo,

Image

the artist did not build the installation that she thought of herself. So technically, she did not “create” her own artwork. This brings up the idea that art is an idea, not necessarily a tangible object-a very contemporary notion in and of itself. But this idea could also be used to justify earlier works, such as those made by the Renaissance masters. They too had studios and employed several artists to help them put together a painting, doing the less technically difficult portions of paintings such as painting in the night sky or foliage. The main artist to whom the work is attributed kept close watch over what his employees did, to be sure, but he technically did not fully make his art.

Knowing this, is this a problem? Is artwork that is actually fully made by the artist who takes credit for it more authentic than art that is made by multiple people but attributed to only one person?
I am not trying to question the authenticity of all artwork because all artists draw on sources of their culture, and therefore never make art that is truly theirs or is truly original; that would be impossible to ask. But I think it’s an important point to consider if Kusama’s work, or Jeff Koons’ work (Koons has a studio full of professional artists who create his artworks in their entirety while he merely supplies the idea; it’s literally like an art factory and he is a business) is as original as that of artists like Vincent van Gogh who never had any helpers.

For me, I’m not sure if I respect artists like Kusama and Koons as much as I respect artists like Van Gogh. Yes, I understand that it would be quite difficult for a diminutive woman who lives in a psychiatric hospital like Kusama to build a installation like Fireflies On The Water. But then again, if your entire occupation is that of the artist, isn’t that just part of the job? If you don’t actually make the works that you create in your head, I feel like one could argue that you are no more than an aesthetic philosopher. I believe that art is a product of what the artist who made it is capable of; if Kusama isn’t capable of actually building Fireflies on the Water, then she can’t make that kind of art. Because it’s one thing to direct others to put every material in its place as you wish, but it’s another thing to actually do it all yourself. Even if you minutely verify that your helpers put everything just so, the process of making it, and by extension the artwork itself, will be slightly different than if you had made it on your own. The reason I think this is so important is because art really is just the synthesis of non-art objects into something that, almost miraculously, becomes art, a really Gestalt kind of phenomenon. I feel like once a material (such as a light) becomes part of an artwork, it by itself even takes on special artistic quality, and in terms of the art realm it becomes kind of special and even sacred (this seems especially true when you consider how seriously museums take their collection, judging by all the don’t-touch rules  and security guards around). As a result, I feel that when someone is arranging art objects to make an artwork, he is the artist. It may not have been his idea how to arrange the objects, but he is the one making the objects into art, and it’s disingenuous that only the person who came up with the arrangement schematic is given credit for that art process.

 

 

 

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