Take a trip to the avant-garde ’60s with a rebel

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPRING ARTS PREVIEW | MUSEUMS - philip.ken­ni­cott@wash­post.com

Back in April, when the Hir­sh­horn Mu­seum and Sculp­ture Gar­den an­nounced plans for a big Yayoi Kusama show, no one could have known what mag­nif­i­cent dis­so­nance might come of pre­sent­ing her art in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal at the cur­rent mo­ment. Kusama, a Ja­panese artist born in 1929, was a fix­ture of the 1960s art scene, glee­fully trans­gres­sive, an­ti­war, a maker of hap­pen­ings and a lover of nu­dity. She be­longs to the age of Andy Warhol and Al­lan Kaprow, the in­flu­en­tial pi­o­neer of events and per­for­mance art. And now, with the na­tion’s gov­ern­ment firmly com­mit­ted to set-the­clock-back nos­tal­gia for some ear­lier, greater era of tra­di­tional val­ues, the Hir­sh­horn is de­vot­ing the first large in­sti­tu­tional ex­hi­bi­tion to sur­vey a rene­gade artist’s ca­reer.

“Yayoi Kusama: In­fin­ity Mir­rors,” open­ing Feb. 23, will sur­vey five decades of Kusama’s long and ex­u­ber­ant life as an artist, from her sur­re­al­ist early works to her cel­e­brated in­stal­la­tion pieces that trans­form space with psy­che­delic col­ors, mir­rors and LED fix­tures. The mu­seum ex­pects the show to be a block­buster, and it has an­nounced a sys­tem of free timed passes. That also prob­a­bly re­flects the par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge of ac­com­mo­dat­ing crowds through in­stal­la­tion pieces and en­closed mir­rored rooms. But there’s no doubt that there’s great en­thu­si­asm for this show, and it will be one of the ma­jor events of the spring art sea­son.

Be­fore it opens, how­ever, there are a few ques­tions. To what de­gree will Kusama’s work be con­tex­tu­al­ized within the larger his­tory of the mid­cen­tury avant-garde? That his­tory is what makes it in­ter­est­ing, and still rel­e­vant. Her in­stal­la­tion pieces have en­joyed re­newed in­ter­est and found new au­di­ences in part be­cause there is an ap­petite in the larger art world for a su­per­fi­cial im­mer­sive aes­thetic of trippy spec­ta­cles and oh-wow in­stal­la­tions. These of­ten give a ve­neer of artsy glib­ness to what are es­sen­tially fun-house amuse­ments. Will Kusama’s work be clearly dis­tin­guished from such tripe? And will visi­tors come away know­ing the dif­fer­ence?

The mu­seum is ap­proach­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion with care and dili­gence, and it has is­sued a cat­a­logue, which is a re­as­sur­ing sign. Now it’s all in the in­stal­la­tion and ex­e­cu­tion.

Also worth not­ing

Two Na­tional Gallery of Art ex­hi­bi­tions this sea­son play to the mu­seum’s in­sti­tu­tional strengths. First up is “Della Rob­bia: Sculpt­ing With Color in Re­nais­sance Florence,” open­ing Feb. 5, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Mu­seum of Fine Arts in Bos­ton on a sur­vey of the work made by the Re­nais­sance work­shop of the Della Rob­bia fam­ily (and some of its com­peti­tors and lat­ter-day im­i­ta­tors). Della Rob­bia glazed terra cotta, with its bril­liant blues and blaz­ing whites, is as fa­mil­iar to visi­tors to Florence as palm trees are in Mi­ami. Glazed terra cotta is sturdy stuff, so we have in these mag­nif­i­cent works a win­dow into the col­ors of 15th-cen­tury art as they were ex­pe­ri­enced more than half a mil­len­nium ago. Later in the sea­son, the gallery turns its at­ten­tion to Frédéric Bazille, a con­tem­po­rary of Monet and Renoir. “Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Im­pres­sion­ism,” a mid­size ex­hi­bi­tion of about 75 works open­ing April 9, will ar­gue for his cen­tral role in the birth of im­pres­sion­ism.

Some will rec­og­nize the work of Ge­orge Condo from the al­bum cov­ers he has de­signed for Kanye West and Phish, while oth­ers will know him as a pro­duc­tive and of­ten provoca­tive artist who still finds things to say in tra­di­tional me­dia such as draw­ings and paint­ings. In “Ge­orge Condo: The Way I Think,” open­ing March 11, the Phillips Col­lec­tion will ex­plore the artist’s work in a large ex­hi­bi­tion of about 200 works, sur­vey­ing his ca­reer of some three decades.

COUR­TESY OF OTA FINE ARTS

Polka-dot­ted fab­ric sculp­tures crowd a room and con­tinue for­ever in Yayoi Kusama’s land­mark “In­fin­ity Mir­ror Room — Phalli’s Field,” from 1965. The Hir­sh­horn is cel­e­brat­ing the ahead-of-her-time oc­to­ge­nar­ian Ja­panese artist’s ca­reer with an in­sti­tu­tional ex­hi­bi­tion. (The mu­seum ex­pects it to be so pop­u­lar, it’s us­ing timed passes.)

Philip Ken­ni­cott

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