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-the-clock-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.
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.
Read more from the Spring Arts Preview: