This summer hosted some big talked about shows that will linger into the fall. Perhaps the most hyped was Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney Museum. After opening as a blockbuster show at the Tate Modern this past winter, and Kusama’s recent collaboration with Marc Jacobs, the 83 year-old Japanese artist’s signature polka dots seem to be everywhere. Not just at the museum and on billboards advertising the exhibition on all possible surfaces, but throughout the city in various public spaces. I was having dinner the other night and just as the conversation shifted to this phenomenon we turned around and lo and behold Kusama’s polka dots had swallowed the building behind us.
With all of this said, its hard not to see this exhibition as a type of spectacle you are consumed by before you even see it. Kusama is in her eighties and has been working for the majority of her life so the ability to categorize this show chronologically seems to work in a way that normally could seem boring or obvious. Towards the end of the exhibition we come across the large paintings and stuffed forms (chairs, clothing, etc) that are most emblematic of her work. But my favorite pieces were those in the very beginning. These include a small grouping of photographs of the artist at various ages, the earliest as a young child, that half serve as ephemera and half as the genesis of Kusama as performance artist, and the many watercolor and pencil works on paper that seem so sensual and deep and psychologically informed. These works are mostly from the fifties, before Kusama moved to New York and her whole life seemed to change as she struggled to become an art world star and are therefore, a piece of her oeuvre the public has not been overly exposed to – a bit of a treat.
Also at the Whitney is Sharon Hayes: There’s so much I want to say to you whose show should not be overshadowed by Yayoi Kusama. This highly political exhibition touches on many key cultural and political ideas of contemporary society as well as the recent historical past. Through signs, record covers as historical and political lineage, language, film and photography, Hayes’ work is crucial to the use of art and language as a political tool and a testament to its ability to be provocative and thought-provoking, rather than pedantic or cliché, when done with an intuitive commitment to such strategies. The exhibition, which unfolds as one continuous installation, tinkers on the edge of the universal and deeply personal with each corner turned. One of my favorite works in the show is the two-channel video of college students discussing their impressions of the politically radical sixties and seventies and early childhood memories of the eighties entitled ‘We Knew We Would Go To Jail’ (2003/2012). ‘We Knew We Would Go To Jail’ addresses the notion (very often addressed by artists) that what we perceive and what is real is often not, if rarely, in conjunction with one another. Here Hayes does so with the visual but also with language, asking the viewer to listen and then decipher rather than using purely aesthetic sensibilities to derive this crucial component to our experience of the world.
The other show getting a lot of talk this summer is Ghosts of the Machine at the New Museum. This exhibition is a retrospective of sorts, or as the museum writes ‘an encyclopedic cabinet of wonders’ spanning over fifty years with a range of international artists who, most simply, embrace a fascination, or trepidation, with technology. It would be hard to not admit that I was enamored by this exhibition. It is definitely comprehensive and the floors of the New Museum, that often feel to small for that of a contemporary art museum, seemed to unfold more spaciously then I had ever remembered experiencing, with each new room holding works that required time spent with them that equaled this new expansiveness. Even those works whose initial visual performance adds some whimsy are worth a second, longer look. These include Hans Haacke’s ‘Blue Sail (1964-195), that floats in the air like a distant memory and Günther Uecker’s ‘New York Dancer IV (1965), a large ‘figure’ draped in a beige cloth and studded with nails that remains still for the majority of the exhibition until twice a day when its motor is turned on and it oscillates between a vicious monster gyrating its sharp exterior at viewers and a slow shift of movements reminiscent of a young girl swishing and swirling in her first party dress, the sounds of its mechanism and appendages creating a soft whisper. Other works like the large installation of Richard Hamilton’s 1955 ‘Man, Machine and Motion’ are a kind of a kind of pre-history of our modern day story with technology and a reconstruction of the machine from Franz Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ takes us back even further.
At the Met, Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings is a beautiful collection of drawings of flora. Kelly is most often considered for his abstract paintings that have come to define his career. However, in this exhibition of nearly eighty drawings created throughout the artist’s life, Kelly displays a keen sensitivity to the medium and figurative subjects through his treatment of density and line that makes Kelly’s utensil appear to be an intuitive part of his being. It is well worth seeing both to experience another side of this iconic artist and, simply, to see something beautiful.
Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan at MoMA also enlightens the viewer to a more expansive practice of an artist generally known to the greater public for one thing. In the atrium of the MoMA we are exposed to Boetti’s large tapestries, several being the map tapestries, the most iconic. These are in fact a delight to see both on the walls and the floor. However, in the main exhibition, on the museum’s 6th floor, we come in contact with the works that comprise the artist’s oeuvre beginning with his very early associations with Arte Povera. Boetti’s work is made up of forms and structures apparent in his early works made of mainly everyday objects of the basic kind like cardboard, wood and aluminum. But this is also apparent in his later works, which rely heavily on non-physical structures like the days of the week, maps and language in general. Boetti’s art is also often defined around idea of dualities expressed through a range of artistic practices from sculpture, drawing, tapestries, and more conceptual methods such as mail art. But it seems that what Boetti’s work is attempting to do within all of this, and apparent through one of the many quotes by the artist marking the walls of the exhibition, is to find the order of things and then to deconstruct it. This platform, reminds me of another artist working today across mediums and concepts, Ai WeiWei, who, in his recent documentary expressed clearly the necessity of knowing the order of things, of how structures, policies and the world for that matter works, because only then can it begin to be dismantled. Through Boetti’s various, and sometimes laborious artworks, and this somewhat grand and obtuse agenda, there is the feeling that he diligently worked towards this notion and as an artist found a way to combine this search for knowledge with the creation of objects that are also wonderful to look at and explore.
And of course, perhaps my favorite show of the summer, which I mentioned in my roundup last month, Rineke Dijkstra Retrospective at the Guggenheim.
Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney Museum of American Art through September 30th
Yayoi Kusama: Fireflies on the Water at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 28th
Sharon Hayes: There Is So Much I Want To Say To You at the Whitney Museum of American Art through September 9th
Ghosts in the Machine at The New Museum through September 30th
Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 3rd
Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan at The Museum of Modern Art through October 1st
Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective at The Guggenheim through October 8th
Rebecca Roberts is the founder of November Projects, an arts production and consultancy firm based in New York focusing on creative partnerships, special projects and events. Prior to starting November Projects, Roberts was a photographic agent at Management & Production Inc., working with some of the most sought out talent in fashion and fine art photography. Clients, past and present, include, The Public Art Fund, Planned Parenthood, The Noguchi Museum, No.10 Gallery, Calvin Klein, Barney’s, Elle Magazine and W. Rebecca is also a freelance writer contributing to several publications on art and photography including the blog ‘On Pictures’ on Artinfo, Acne Paper and vmagazine.com. Roberts also teaches at the School of Visual Arts.