Yayoi Kusama, Atsuko Tanaka and Jennifer Bartlett in ‘Fallout’ at Aspen’s Boesky Gallery
Special to The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO ...
What: ‘Fallout,’by Atsuko Tanaka, Yayoi Kusama, and Jennifer Bartlett
Where: Marianne Boesky Gallery
When: Through April 19
More info: marianneboeskygallery.com
With a handful of paintings and two sculptures, the Marianne Boesky Gallery has brought to Aspen one of the most important and pleasurable shows of the winter cultural season. The sparse selection in this jewel-box space features work by three 20th-century luminaries: Atsuko Tanaka, Yayoi Kusama and Jennifer Bartlett. The experience of viewing these works comes also with an invitation to consider the compelling historical circumstances of their making.
Each of these artists began their careers in different places and under different influences. Tanaka and Kusama shared a childhood experience of wartime Japan, but Tanaka remained there after the war and joined its avant-garde while Kusama spent her formative years in the orbit of Andy Warhol and the Pop scene of New York. Bartlett was a bit younger, by about 10 years. She came of age under the reign of Minimalism, and in particular its practice at Yale where she attended graduate school. And yet, the six paintings in this show together make a fortuitous, coherent grouping, with the two Kusama sculptures chiming in with a cheeky humor.
This show has for its curatorial motive the presentation of three artistic responses to national disaster, World War II for Tanaka and Kusama, and 9/11 for Bartlett. This ends up working well, despite their divergent strategies. The eldest of the group, Kusama (born in 1929), had by her own account experienced nothing but misery as a child, working in a factory during the war and living with parents who could not understand her compulsive art making. Finding post-war Japan too conservative and stifling, Kusama landed in New York in 1958 where her impulse for staging public events, many with overt sexual content, fit in with the Happenings movement of Alan Kaprow and Warhol’s Factory. But while Warhol and the popsters would direct their artistic interest toward mass culture, Kusama always worked from the imperative to externalize what she experienced psychologically. She has always used her artistic practice to manage an intractable terror that the war imprinted on her mind. The motifs of the polkadots and other obsessive patterning, some inspired by the motion of water, some taken directly from recurrent hallucinations, helped direct her consciousness toward more metaphysical, spiritual realms where she could see the possibility of beauty and love for humanity. The “Infinity Net” of this show exemplifies what is for her the never-ending project of holding back the darkness.
Tanaka was able to find in Japan an artistic milieu in which she could pursue her art without fetters. She fell in with the Gutai movement, a collective of artists based in Osaka. Inspired by the highly individualistic expression and ethos of American Abstract Expressionism, the Gutai artists broke from the cultural values of imperial Japan that had enforced social conformity, traditional artistic forms, and collective over individual interest. In rejecting these constraints, the Gutai artists declared themselves to be unique creative forces. The three Tanaka paintings here reflect the movement’s emphasis on a direct, tactile engagement with materials. We can see in the circular forms and the networks of lines connecting them just how she went about painting these works. As in much of Abstract Expressionism, the finished marks record the actions of the artist and her presence. It is as if she has just finished the piece and stepped to the side so that we can see it. These are declarations of her singular creative capacity.
The two Bartlett paintings are somewhat the outliers in this grouping. Having internalized the grid as a student at Yale, Bartlett has made use of it throughout her career. It appears again in the two paintings of this show, both executed in the post-9/11 moment. The grid maps on these pieces a compositional structure not found in the Tanaka or Kusama. With it, Bartlett places one foot in the rationalizing, systematizing vision of her minimalist background. In the tradition of Donald Judd or Carl Andre, the grid is a means of intellectualizing her subject; it distances her own person from the artwork. With these regular, ordered squares, Bartlett references a world that exists independent of artistic creativity, as if she was building her expression on the scaffold of a geometric given.
But that is only half her stance and the one least weighted. Like those of her show companions, these are warm, painterly pictures. Her presence as a mark maker, as an artistic persona, comes through in how she fills out the grid with a repetition of gestures, just as bees fill each cell of a comb with life. These paintings are the products not of mathematics, but of sentience. In “Firemen,” the variegated patterning of circles approaches objective representation, perhaps of the World Trade Center but certainly of an urban environment. Or, if the perception of scale is reduced from the architectural to the human, the vertical flesh-tone shapes read as figures, perhaps those referenced in the title. And in “Red Yellow Blue,” the imprecise free-hand circles, solid and concentric, mostly disregard the discipline of the grid lines. In agreeing with the rest of the show, these Bartlett paintings fall on the side of the sensual and not the intellectual.
Circles, with all their evocative power and symbolic potential, run through all these works except one. Any attempt to interpret them would be too reductive, too much an imposition of canned paradigms. One way to think about them, however, is by considering the sole piece in the show without circles, Kusama’s “Shoe.” This work dates from the early ’70s and belongs to a larger series in which Kusama sought to externalize a fear that plagued her mind since childhood. When only a toddler, she had accidentally witnessed a sex scene. The experience left the artist with a visceral horror of the penis. She carried this terror into her adult life, but had the wisdom to objectify and humorize it by creating room-sized installations filled with soft penis shapes. Here in “Shoe,” one might be tempted to say, the feminine cavity is filled with these sweet-potato phalli. The inclusion of this piece in the show invites a juxtaposition of a masculine to a feminine principle, but for me that interpretation is too pat, too facile. Kusama’s object itself doesn’t support a yin-yang binary. Her penises are flaccid, floppy, caricatured and hardly ready to penetrate this collectivity of circles. This disarmament of the penis is, after all, what Kusama’s project is all about. In her rendering, the threat is neutralized. They become comic, soft forms from which she could make a couch, which she did. This unconventional representation of the phallus suggests that we ought to be equally circumspect about what to say about the circles.
A straight-off-the-street experience of this show would not convey to the viewer legacies of disaster. These works are too exuberant, too unabashed in a cultivation of beauty, too humorous, too confident in the assertion of artistic identities. They are not meditations on those events, but triumphal answers to them.
Timothy Brown writes on visual art and literature. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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