The Order of Things

Art and anarchy at midcentury.

“Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968”
July 9-Sept. 22, 1998
“Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor”
July 2-Sept. 22, 1998
Museum of Modern Art, New York City

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Two summer shows, side by side at the Museum of Modern Art, introduce little-known figures with close ties to the Abstract Expressionist generation. Enter Door No. 1 and you’re inside the strange spider web and polka dot domain of Yayoi Kusama, a flamboyant Japanese artist who worked in New York during the ‘60s. Choose Door No. 2 and make yourself at home in the American sculptor Tony Smith’s more austere, but equally odd, architectural spaces. These are smallish, intense shows that aim, as curator Robert Storr writes in the Smith catalog, “to whet the appetite of the general public.” Viewed together, they reveal surprising affinities between two versatile and ambitious artists whose early childhood traumas inspired them to try to redesign the world.

Kusama, the lesser known of the two, is the more accessible and eye-catching artist and the more in tune with our time. Born in 1929 in Tokyo, as a child Kusama suffered from hallucinations that she was being overwhelmed by proliferating dots and nets. Obsessive, repetitive patterns entered her work early on. Determined to take New York by storm, she wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe–a female artist who had succeeded in the male-dominated New York art world–for advice. O’Keeffe, initially puzzled by the young Japanese artist’s ambitions, told her to show her work to anyone willing to look at it. Kusama arrived in 1958 with a couple of thousand small drawings and watercolors, mainly of O’Keeffe-like multiseeded flowers in vibrant colors. Looking down from the top of the Empire State Building at the crowds below, Kusama realized that she needed to do something more spectacular–“like a bomb,” she said–if she wanted to attract notice. She extended the net patterns of the flowers across huge canvases, creating the white-on-white “Infinity Net” paintings that remain among her most beautiful creations and, along with color variants, were favorably compared at the time to the decentered, “allover” paintings of Jackson Pollock (., 1960).

B y 1961, Kusama had begun covering familiar objects–an armchair, a stepladder, a rowboat–with carefully sewn phalluses (, 1962). These monochrome “accumulations,” as repetitively patterned as the infinity nets, have a deadpan wit quite different from Claes Oldenburg’s squishily theatrical hamburgers and lipsticks, with which they were sometimes shown in early Pop Art exhibitions. Like the polka dots, the proliferating penises were, according to Kusama, an attempt to contain her fears by representing them. “I was scared of penises,” she blandly remarked at the press opening. Kusama’s 1964 affair with Joseph Cornell (documented in Utopia Parkway, Deborah Solomon’s recent biography of Cornell) has a peculiar aptness: The man terrified of women–who enclosed movie goddesses and ballerinas in little fantasy boxes and nicknamed Kusama “You-you-I”–meets the woman scared of men.

A kindred ambivalence marks Kusama’s “Food Obsession” sculptures, inspired, she claimed, by the image of all the food a person consumes in a lifetime passing by on a conveyor belt. Kusama’s pasta-encrusted clothing may have a link (as curator Lynn Zelevansky suggests) with eating disorders, which were barely discussed at the time. But such objects as the bronzed (1965) have a mod glamour undiminished by the passage of time.

B y the mid-’60s, Kusama was experimenting with ways to insert her own image into her work. She had herself photographed, nude except for high heels and polka-dot stickers, then superimposed the image over one of her accumulations of phalluses. In such works she seemed to be toying with male expectations of the Asian femme fatale. By the late ‘60s, Kusama had turned from these ambiguous engagements with the male gaze to more attention grabbing performances. In 1968, she staged well-publicized nude-ins at MoMA’s sculpture garden and at such Vietnam War-era hotspots as the Board of Elections. A 1967 film called Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, on view in a side gallery at MoMA, gives a sense of what these occasions may have felt like. Kusama, clothed in a kimono, dabs paint on her nude models, who begin to dance in comic self-consciousness, then escalate, to a loud acid rock soundtrack, into orgy.

Kusama’s performance pieces always ended the same way, with the arrival of the cops. They got her on the cover of the New York tabloids, but they didn’t pay the rent. Her paintings and sculptures, with their use of body parts and food, anticipate the work of such current artists as Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith (Tony Smith’s daughter), but they failed to attract the financial and institutional backing Kusama needed. She remained desperately poor during her New York sojourn–another reason, perhaps, for her obsession with food–and returned to Japan in 1973, where she lives, by her own choice, in a Tokyo mental hospital that has a special emphasis on art therapy. Today, Kusama is a cult figure in the Japanese avant-garde, recognized not only for her art but for her novels as well–gothic fables of sexual violence set in New York, with titles like The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street (which ends with a suicidal leap from the Empire State Building) and The Burning of St. Mark’s Church.

T ony Smith, less well-known than his drinking buddies Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, is nonetheless hardly obscure. His sculptures of the last two decades of his life–he died of a heart attack in 1980, at the age of 68–look perfectly at home in MoMA’s sculpture garden. Maillol’s nude, Picasso’s goat, and the other sculptures that Kusama’s nude minions cavorted among have been put into storage. Smith’s (1964), a black, steel monster two stories high, reigns in their place.

Smith liked to joke that his career–architect, painter, sculptor–followed the initials of his name: Anthony Peter Smith. He came to sculpture late, but the ambition to reshape the world was there from the start, reaching back–as in Kusama’s case–to childhood trauma. Born in New Jersey in 1912, Smith was the grandson of the designer of the standard fire hydrant and grew up among engineers such as his father. He contracted tuberculosis at about age 4 and for several years lived alone in a little prefabricated house in the backyard, so the rest of the family would be protected from contagion. The previous year, during a family trip to the world’s fair in San Francisco, Smith had seen an installation of Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings. Back home in his quarantine shack, he spent long hours fashioning “pueblos” out of medicine boxes and covering them with papier-mâché “adobe.”

S uch primitivizing fantasies made him particularly well suited, when he was groping for a profession, to the “organic” architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom Smith studied and worked during the late ‘30s. Smith’s 15 or so completed buildings, mostly houses, are obviously indebted to Wright in their light-filled eaves and open, geometrical forms. The three interlocked buildings of the (circa 1951) are daringly deployed in a pentagonal form across the rocky hillside of Connecticut coastal bluffs.

Architecture didn’t give Smith the control he wanted; changes to the Olsen compound, in particular, depressed him. An ambitious plan for a hexagonally based church, raised above the ground on stilts and with stained-glass windows by Pollock, came to nothing. When his wife’s opera career took her to Europe in 1953, Smith went along and took his sketchbooks. There he hit on a pattern based on circles in a grid which he called, after a geological formation near Bayreuth, Germany, the Louisenberg series. Storr makes large claims for these paintings, seeing them as the first successful attempt to “systematize the ‘allover’ painting” invented by Pollock and Rothko. The art critic Lucy Lippard discerned a different impetus in these buoyant pictures, labeling the peanut shaped forms as “testicular”–a sign, Storr adds, of “the ‘ballsy’ ethos of [Smith’s] generation of male artists.”

B ack in the States, Smith–as interested in nets and grids as Kusama–worked up his geometrical patterns into three dimensions, thus returning, in a sense, to his architectural roots. (1961), currently placed as a sort of triumphal entryway to the southeast corner of Central Park, demonstrates the unsettling possibilities of tetrahedral shapes, where the triangular faces have a dynamic lightness lacking in rectangularly based structures. (The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has helpfully added a note that the work “is not intended to promote cigarette smoking.”)

A polymath and an autodidact with no degree beyond high school, Smith had too many ideas. The sexual pulse of a lot of his objects–“There is something erotic in all my work,” Smith admitted–is evident in loud titles for sculptures like She Who Must Be Obeyed and Jim’s Piece. He constructed almost as many phallic shapes as Kusama and filled his notebooks with erotic doodlings comparing the sex organs of humans and flowers, or depicting Christ–Smith was a Catholic–with breasts.

S mith’s political ideas are more elusive. He adopted an upbeat American organicism derived from Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. There’s nothing on record, as far as I know, to link him to his mentor Wright’s notorious sympathy for Hitler and fascism. But some of Smith’s doodles and offhand remarks give one pause. One of the drawings on view at MoMA is a diagram of the races, with the Jews identified as “circumscised [ sic ] cut off from Earth.” In another drawing, from 1943, Smith develops his personal symbol, the “spiral cross,” which is really nothing but a relaxed swastika. Traveling in Germany after the war he felt an uneasy admiration for Hitler’s Haus der Kunst exhibition hall in Munich–“As you may have guessed,” he wrote to the painter Barnett Newman, “the thing as a whole was very like the church [design] I sent you”–and for Albert Speer’s gigantic stadium at Nuremberg. Such remarks inspire Storr’s rather defensive observation that “unlike fascist art and architecture, Smith’s sculptures and buildings were insistently built to human rather than superhuman scale.”

It may be that grandiose schemes for redesigning society inevitably flirt with repressive politics. Or perhaps the New York art world, in which Kusama ran aground, required such a tough-guy mentality to survive. Either way, Smith’s work, unlike Kusama’s, seems locked into its time. The inflexible architect leaves behind a whiff of Ayn Rand; his twisted metal hulks suggest the ruins of uninhabitable places. Walking through Smith’s fantasy world of black steel, I found myself drawn to some of his softer, more tentative objects, like the handmade plaster web called Wingbone (from his daughter Kiki’s collection) or a pencil sketch of confused sperm, tangled up (in a traffic jam?) with the caption: “Will Jackson Pollock affect our cars?” These, it occurred to me, had the Kusama touch–anarchic, whimsical, looking for a perch to call home.