Published: September 14, 2016
Review and Photos by Greg Smith
NEW CANAAN, CONN.— As we walked down the driveway toward Philip Johnson’s Glass House, our tour guide asked us to stop as she began a brief synopsis of the property and the people who created it.
Philip Johnson was a celebrated Twentieth Century architect and the first director of the department of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. His landmark exhibition in 1932 introduced International Style and Modern architecture to the American public. His partner of 45 years, David Whitney, was a gallerist, curator, collector, critic and friend to some of the most influential Modern artists of the Twentieth Century. Both would have thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition on display in their home as curator and collections manager Irene Shum brought Yayoi Kusama to the Glass House.
The artist has provided two installations on the property, “Dots Obsession — Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope” and “Yayoi Kusama: Narcissus Garden at the Glass House,” as well as a 5-foot steel sculpture, “Pumpkin,” on loan from the David Zwirner Gallery.
Standing guard at the property entrance is a Postmodern gate that rises parallel to the nearby towering pine trees. Each rectangular pillar stretches 25 feet to a stepped half-circle top, similar in style to a ceramic form by Sottsass. Just off the entrance is a building made after a design by Frank Stella for a museum in Dresden, titled “Da Monsta.” Its primary purpose is to serve as a public bathroom. There are 14 buildings and structures on the 49-acre property, each with a distinct purpose and unique design.
“The pine trees were placed here so that you could smell them as you entered the property,” said the guide. “It serves as a release from the city.” I wondered what other senses the architect would enliven as we continued down the hill to the house that Johnson built and Kusama temporarily transformed.
Yayoi Kusama is one of the most celebrated living female artists in the world. Her dot-based work is conceptual and focuses largely on color, repetition and the scope of the infinite. She has enjoyed a diverse career in many mediums, including performance art, environmental installations, sculpture and painting. In 2008, Christie’s sold a large-scale oil on canvas, “White No. 28,” 1960, for $5.79 million, which gave her the record for the highest priced living female artist, though the record was broken shortly after.
On the connection between Kusama and Johnson, Shum told Antiques and The Arts Weekly, “We recently learned from Kusama that she did know Philip Johnson. He was already well known as an art patron when she first moved to New York. He acquired her artwork “Accumulation of Stamps, ‘63,” 1962, which he donated to the Museum of Modern Art in 1970.”
Kusama’s installation of 800 red polka dots offers a playful dialogue between architecture and art. Where the glass house was designed with Minimalism at heart, the glass walls meant to blend, but separate, a living space with nature to create a seamless experience, Kusama’s infinity room aims to achieve a similar idea through different means.
“My desire is to measure and to make order of the infinite, unbounded universe from my own position within it, with polka dots,” said Kusama. “In exploring this, the single dot is my own life, and I am a single particle amongst billions.”
Her work gives off a bountiful spirit akin to the stretch a puppy makes before it pounces, full of energy. The Glass House, an austere icon of Modernism, senses that sincerity and plays along gleefully. Where the glass walls serve as a lens to accentuate the natural surroundings around the house, Kusama’s dots push the landscape into a universal sense of expansion.
The house sits on a hill overlooking a grand landscape that Johnson molded into its final state. Shum said, “It’s a privileged view: from the promontory, the landscape dramatically drops down to the Lower Meadow and forest. It looks natural, but is in fact highly sculpted. The pond is central to this view, and we had recently dredged it, which is the first phase of the restoration of the pavilion.”
In that very pond is Kusama’s “Narcissus Garden.” The installation consists of 1,300 stainless steel spheres that float freely within the pond’s perimeter. They travel from one side to the other when the wind blows across the water, and reflect the environment around them. Kusama’s themes of infinity, self-image and repetition are at play in their entirety.
Shum said, “Unlike a typical exhibition, where the curator develops the checklist of artworks to be displayed, [the installation] has been more akin to an artist project, which slowly unfolds and showcases the creative process. Every aspect of this exhibition was determined in discussion with the artist and her studio.”
The two ideologies, Johnson’s glass representing the ideal structural form of the infinite, and Kusama’s conceptual interpretation of the same, mold together to form a beautiful collaboration between two great minds.
“Dots Obsession — Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope” continues through September 26, while “Narcissus Garden” is on view through November 30.
For additional information, www.theglasshouse.org or 203-594-9884.
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