Thirteen-hundred glimmering spheres float on the pond below Philip Johnson’s Glass House, in the Lower Meadow on the renowned architect’s 49-acre estate.
Just under a foot in diameter, the stainless steel orbs reflect the environment, creating seemingly endless echoes of the towering trees, the changing skies and the multiple arches of the pavilion Johnson designed at the pond’s edge. Hollow, the spheres weigh less than a pound each, so when the wind blows, they drift, sometimes in groups, sometimes one by one. When they touch, they clatter gently, like a chorus of muffled typewriters.
This is the newest iteration of “Narcissus Garden,” by Yayoi Kusama, an 87-year-old Japanese artist whose lifetime of works — paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints, installations, performance “happenings” — have been defined by compulsively repetitive patterns, most famously polka dots. On the Glass House website, Ms. Kusama is quoted as saying: “The single dot is my own life, and I am a single particle amongst billions.”
“Narcissus Garden” was first realized 50 years ago as a land installation at the 33rd Venice Biennale and has since been reinstalled internationally in numerous configurations; its last appearance on water in the United States was in Central Park as part of the 2004 Whitney Biennial. At the Glass House, it is one of three pieces that make up “Yayoi Kusama: Narcissus Garden,” organized to commemorate the 110th anniversary of Johnson’s birth and the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Glass House to the public.
“We wanted to have a celebratory mood here, and Kusama was it,” Irene Shum, the Glass House’s curator and collections manager, said.
While much of Ms. Kusama’s work, with its undulating motifs and often psychedelic colors, has an air of celebration, its impetus isn’t always joyful. The artist has suffered from anxiety and hallucinatory disorders for most of her life. After moving to the United States and working prolifically for 16 years in New York, Ms. Kusama returned to Japan in 1973. Since 1977, she has lived in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, spending her days in her studio across the street. In her 2002 autobiography, “Infinity Net,” she wrote: “I fight pain, anxiety and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art.”
Besides the potent beauty of “Narcissus Garden” at the Glass House, the pairing of the two projects evokes connections between Ms. Kusama and Johnson. Both were active during the same era: Although the Glass House was built in 1949, the pavilion was constructed in 1962, four years before Ms. Kusama created “Narcissus Garden.” Johnson acquired her 1962 collage “Accumulation of Stamps, 63,” which he later donated to the Museum of Modern Art. And the two traveled in common circles. “Kusama’s studio was below Donald Judd’s studio on 19th Street, and Judd was an artist that Johnson collected,” Ms. Shum said. “The proximity was there.”
Ms. Shum noted another parallel. “Johnson referred to the Glass House as his 50-year diary,” she said, “a place of self-reflection where he was working out his issues, just as Kusama is working out her issues through her art.”
On the opposite side of the house, an almost six-foot-tall shiny polka-dot gourd nestles into a grassy slope. Ms. Kusama’s “Pumpkin,” from 2015, is stainless steel, its polka dots punched out to reveal an interior painted a vibrant color called Pepsi red.
The pumpkin is a recurrent theme in Ms. Kusama’s work. Her parents were prosperous managers of wholesale seed nurseries, and in her autobiography she recalled seeing her first pumpkin as a child. “It immediately began speaking to me,” she wrote.
While pumpkins can have pejorative associations in Japanese culture, Ms. Kusama found them charming. “What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness,” she wrote. “That and its solid spiritual balance.”
The sculpture’s placement at the Glass House is significant. It sits on a concrete footing that once held Ellsworth Kelly’s 1973 “Curve II.” In 1984, Johnson donated Kelly’s sculpture to the Museum of Modern Art, and the site remained empty until now.
Not far from “Pumpkin” is another building called the Painting Gallery, where visitors will find “Robert Rauschenberg: Spreads and Related Works.” The exhibition presents six large-scale collages made with paper, fabric and other items, including a split rubber tire and an electric fan. The fan is part of “Recital (Spread),” completed by Rauschenberg in 1980 and purchased by Johnson the same year. The other pieces were selected by David White, senior curator of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, to complement “Recital (Spread).”
After the Rauschenberg show closes, the Glass House itself will be transformed by polka dots. For Kusama’s site-specific installation “Dots Obsession – Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope,” the artist’s team will return to the Glass House to apply hundreds of double-sided vinyl Pepsi red dots to the inside of its walls. During the month of September, the house will become a modified version of Kusama’s “infinity rooms,” mirrored chambers filled with intricate repeating patterns to produce a sense of boundless space.
“Unlike her other ‘infinity rooms,’ ours will be more restrained,” Ms. Shum said. “It will have a limited color palette, and it will be interacting with the natural environment instead of being enclosed. It will be about the reflections in the glass, the shadows that the polka dots will cast and the colors playing against the green outside.”
The Glass House is accessible by tour only, and this season several new options have been added. Ms. Shum will lead private, appointment-only tours of “Dots Obsession” and special weekly tours will bring guests to the Lower Meadow for up-close viewing of “Narcissus Garden.”
The installation marks the first-ever opening of the Lower Meadow to the public. Standing by the newly excavated pond, surrounded by the poignancy of Ms. Kusama’s hypnotic spheres, Ms. Shum gazed at the Glass House, the nearly transparent structure perched on a tree-lined rise.
“This is a view of the house that most people haven’t seen,” she said. “You can look up at the Glass House from here, and down at ‘Narcissus Garden’ from the Glass House.”
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