28 May 2017

“How High-Tech Replicas Can Help Save Our Cultural Heritage”

by Jeffrey Brown

[The world is in danger of losing important and irreplaceable pieces of its cultural heritage, some by natural disasters, some by environmental damage, and others by the most venal of means, deliberate human destruction.  Science and technology is trying to do something to preserve and protect the endangered artifacts by creating duplicates based on computer images of the originals.  Copies, no matter how precise, can never replace the ancient art objects created by our forebears, but it can preserve them for study in some cases, should the originals disappear, and less vulnerable replicas can be displayed in places were the delicate originals are in danger of deterioration or damage from human interaction or natural elements.   On 28 April 2017, PBS NewsHour  aired the following report, which I found fascinating even just from a technical perspective, filed by correspondent Jeffrey Brown.]

Cultural objects around the world are routinely threatened by war, looting and human impact. But a kind of modern-day renaissance workshop called Factum Arte outside Madrid is taking an innovative approach to understanding and preserving the heritage and integrity of cultural works by copying them. Jeffrey Brown reports from Spain.
                                                                                                              
JUDY WOODRUFF: Every day, priceless cultural objects around the world are threatened by war, looting, the impact of humans and the passage of time.

But one organization in Spain is taking an innovative approach to understanding and preserving that heritage, by copying it.

Jeffrey Brown has that story.

It’s part of our ongoing series Culture at Risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: The tomb of Seti I, ancient Egyptian pharaoh, we watched it being milled, printed, and set. But we’re not in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, and certainly not in the 13th century B.C.

This is a workshop called Factum Arte in an eastern suburb of Madrid, Spain, filled with art and historical works of all kinds, with one unusual thing in common.

Everything in this large warehouse is a reproduction, a copy. But the work that goes on here raises profound questions about just what is real, and what it means to preserve an object.

ADAM LOWE, Founder, Factum Arte: We’re making copies of copies.

JEFFREY BROWN: The man who leads Factum, with evangelical fervor, is British artist Adam Lowe.

ADAM LOWE: The state of the art is that we can make something that is identical to the original, under normal viewing conditions.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, is the idea that you’re creating something that is, at least for the viewing experience, as real as the original?

ADAM LOWE: The idea is that you can get someone to understand the complexity of an object, and you can get them to read it in many ways through encountering facsimile, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Facsimile, an exact copy or reproduction. Factum calls its work digital mediation, and it operates as a kind of renaissance workshop of people with different skills: software designers, technicians, conservators, architects, artists, artisans.

Together, they make copies with a cause, not to mislead, but to understand and help preserve. One prominent example, this copy of a winged lion from Nimrud. It was cast from sculptures now in European museums that were taken from the site in Iraq in the 19 century. Last year, ISIS destroyed much of what’s left at Nimrud itself.

ADAM LOWE: So, in that strange twist of fate, everything that was removed in the 19th century is the only evidence that’s left. And we would love to be able to send facsimiles, like this, back to Nimrud to take up their place again on the site, so that you still keep that connection between …

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, that wouldn’t make up for the destruction, right?

ADAM LOWE: Nothing makes up for destruction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Factum first attracted international attention in 2007 by creating a replica of a huge painting by Paolo Veronese from 1563, The Wedding at Cana.

The original painting now hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris, but it got there as a gift of Napoleon, whose forces ripped it from its original home, a church in Venice. Factum’s experts studied, scanned, slowly recreated it, and finally put it, the copy, that is, into its old home.

ADAM LOWE: Many people started to question about whether the experience of seeing it in its correct setting, with the correct light, in dialogue with this building that it was painted for, is actually more authentic than the experience of seeing the original in the Louvre.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lowe had another major win in his recreation of King Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, built next to the original site.

ADAM LOWE: It’s a test between one scanning system.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Madrid, we got a tour of some key parts of the process, which begins far away from this building, with the scanning of the actual objects in the field.

That team is led by architect Carlos Bayod, using a laser scanner developed at Factum known as the Lucida.

CARLOS BAYOD, Lucida Scanner: We are capable now of recording the surface of a painting, for example, and obtaining data that are very close, that has very close correspondence to reality.

JEFFREY BROWN: How close?

CARLOS BAYOD: Well, in terms of resolution, we are talking about 100 microns, so one point of information every 10th of a millimeter.

JEFFREY BROWN: The data about the surface, even of something we think of as being flat, is used to create a detailed relief map of the object, without ever touching and potentially harming it, to understand how any intervention or restoration might play out.

CARLOS BAYOD: We believe this information should be very useful for conservators, people who have the duty of taking care of the works of art.

JEFFREY BROWN: To go further and build a facsimile of the work, in this case the tomb of Seti I, the data is crunched and fed into milling machines, computer numeric code routers, or 3-D printers to create the relief.

In another room, using a Factum-built printer run by Rafa Rachewsky, the photographed image is etched onto a custom-created surface known as a skin.

RAFA RACHEWSKY, Factum Arte: And it’s very thin, as you can see. It stretches enough so you can lay it onto the relief, and then you can place exactly where you want.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rachewsky carefully aligns the printed skin with the relief, and using contact glue:

RAFA RACHEWSKY: You want to be sure that you get everywhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because you want it to hold for several thousand years, right?

(LAUGHTER)

RAFA RACHEWSKY: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s then vacuum-sealed.

RAFA RACHEWSKY: As the air is coming out, these two are joining together.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, now it’s really fusing into one.

RAFA RACHEWSKY: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: The result, a test panel of the tomb of Seti I, representing less than 1 percent of what will be a full-scale replica, to eventually go on display next to the original in Luxor.

And why build a replica of the tomb? Because, says Adam Lowe, mass tourism, our own need to see the original in a place never designed for our biological presence, has its consequences.

ADAM LOWE: But what we’re really asking the visitors to do is to enter into a new contract for preserving things for the future, because by going to see something that was designed to last for eternity, but never to be visited, you’re contributing to its destruction.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is expensive work, developing new tools and techniques to take on whatever challenges the world of conservation throws at it.

To finance it, Factum builds custom pieces for contemporary artists, like this piece for Saudi Arabian artist Abdulnasser Gharem, which combines the dome of a mosque with a soldier’s helmet, and will be installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Factum is full of wonders, not the least of which was getting into a contraption built here called a Veronica scanner, 12 cameras taking 96 high-resolution photos of all angles of my head in four seconds. After an hour-and-a-half of 3-D printing, my very own small bust.

Oh, my goodness.

As technology advances and laser scans are increasingly replaced by this kind of photogrammetry, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which anyone can photograph an object and render their own model in 3-D.

ADAM LOWE: But I can imagine many things, so I can imagine I can take a photograph, as we’re doing, and I could recreate something from a photograph.

I can imagine other people might do it for less noble reasons or for straightforward commercial reasons, but that’s not a reason for not doing it. The recording critical, because unless you record it, you don’t know how it’s changing, you don’t know what people’s presence is going to it, you don’t know the effects of time on the surface.

JEFFREY BROWN: While Adam Lowe is most focused now on pushing conservation techniques, he’s also challenging how we think about copies and their relationship to originals, the very idea of originality.

The classical sculptures we know, he points out, are almost all copies of an original. And all those masterpiece paintings we love?

ADAM LOWE: You go to the National Gallery in London, you go to the National Gallery in Washington, and every single one of those paintings has a complex history.

It’s probably restored once or twice. It’s probably had more than that by certain dubious dealers who’ve tarted it up to sell it. So, there’s a whole history of what happens on a painting that’s constantly changing.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s no original when it comes to a work of art, you’re suggesting.

ADAM LOWE: No, I’m suggesting there is seldom a very clear notion of conception.

The way we see and understand cultural heritage changes over time. It always has, and it always will. And the way we value it, the way we look at it, the way we appreciate it, the way we display it, the way we collect it, all of these things are constantly subject to change.

JEFFREY BROWN: A change at Factum Arte’s workshop happening before our eyes.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Madrid, Spain.


23 May 2017

'The Roundabout'


In my last play report (“The Little Foxes,” posted on 13 May), I confessed to a fondness for the old-time well-made plays of the middle of the last century, and I named several American playwrights whose works I particularly enjoy.  I wasn’t thinking trans-Atlanticly at the time I wrote that report, so let me amend my statement to include some British writers of the same era: Noël Coward, John Osborne, Emlyn Williams, and Terrence Rattigan (in small doses).  Some of J. B. Priestley’s plays fall into this grouping (An Inspector Calls; Time and the Conways), so when I got an announcement for the 59E59 Theaters’ presentation of Priestley’s The Roundabout as part of the production house’s annual Brits Off Broadway series (4 April through 2 July this year), I suggested to my frequent theater companion, Diana, that we consider seeing it.  (Diana is much more attracted to this kind of material than am I.  She likes art that follows rules.)

So, on Friday evening, 12 May, Diana and I met at the theater complex on East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues for the 8 p.m. curtain of Priestley’s 1931 comedy of manners, the play’s long-delayed U.S. première production.  The co-production of three London theater troupes, the Cahoots Theatre Company, the Other Cheek, and the Park Theatre, started previews in Theater A, the 196-seat house of the three-theater venue, on 20 April and opened to the press on 30 April; the visiting production was due to close on 20 May.  (The same show, with one cast change, ran at the Park Theatre in London from 24 August to 24 September 2016.) 

The Roundabout is a recently rediscovered Priestley play, written in 1931 as a vehicle for a 24-year-old Peggy Ashcroft (1907-91; later made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, or CBE, in 1956), but the playwright didn’t finish the script.  (The Roundabout was written a year before the playwright’s first West End success, Dangerous Corner.  In other words, it was a tyro effort.)  The next year, Roundabout was produced at the Playhouse Liverpool (without Ashcroft) for its Christmas season and was subsequently mounted at various regional theaters around the U.K, but it was never performed in London until the 2016 co-production at the Park, where the play, in its first U.K. revival since 1932, was generally well received.  (Especially well reviewed was the performance of Bessie Carter, an up-and-coming young actress, in the role Priestley intended for Ashcroft.  Carter is the only member of the British troupe who stayed behind in England, replaced here by Emily Laing.)  The presentation at 59E59 is the play’s only U.S. production on record, making it the U.S. première. 

Found by Hugh Ross, director of the current production, in his father’s collection of Priestley books and papers, The Roundabout: A Comedy in Three Acts had been published in London by Samuel French in 1933, an edition that’s long been out of print, and has now been republished by Oberon Books (London, 2017; also available as a NOOK e-book).  Not only has the play never been filmed (not surprising, given its stage history), but I also found no record of a television version, even in Britain—so there’s no video of The Roundabout

John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, England.  In his nearly-90-year life, he became world famous as an novelist, playwright, essayist, broadcaster, scriptwriter, social commentator, and man of letters, whose career spanned the 20th century.  Many of his writings are leftist and critical of the British government (though The Roundabout makes targets of humor of both the aristocracy and communists.)  The writer chastised George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) in a 1941 essay in Horizon for the older playwright’s support of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (at the time, a partner with Hitler in a German-Soviet non-aggression pact); in 1949, however, George Orwell (1903-1950) put Priestley on his list of writers he considered too left-leaning to be allowed to write for the government’s anti-communist propaganda agency.  

As a newspaper columnist and critic, Priestley covered a variety of subjects and his writing revealed his anti-materialism and anti-mechanization.  His many published works include the novels Good Companions (1929) and Angel Pavement (1930), and the plays Time and the Conways (1937), When We Are Married (1938), and An Inspector Calls (1945), to name just a few of his many titles.  (Though The Roundabout is a rather straightforward well-made play structurally, as you’ll see, the plays that came after are experimental, particularly in terms of the depiction of  time.)  Priestley’s other books include the autobiographical Margin Released (1962),  Man and Time (1964), Essays of Two Decades (1968), The Edwardians (1970), and The English (1973).  He declined a peerage in 1965 and a knighthood in 1969, but accepted the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II in 1977.  He died on 14 August 1984 at the age of 89 (one month before his 90th birthday). Among his many awards and honors is a larger-than-life-sized bronze statue, commissioned after the writer’s death by the city of Bradford and unveiled in 1986 in front of the National Media Museum in Priestley’s hometown.  Priestley’s 1935 play Cornelius, also little known, was presented in Brits Off Broadway in 2013.

The playwright’s son, Tom (born the year The Roundabout débuted), said his father “described [the play] as ‘a very light comedy . . . a little less intellectually negligible than most very light comedies.’  Now at last,” Tom Priestley added, “we have a chance to judge.”  It’s a two-hour-and-20-minute three-acter, played here as two acts, with acts one and two combined, and it’s got an almost impossible plot to describe—all about the British aristocracy and commies (now there’s a combo!).  One New York reviewer quoted on the poster compared it to “the wit of Oscar Wilde, the frivolity of Coward, and the saltiness of Shaw” sort of all gemischt.  (Another proclaimed that “it is really a 1930’s rewrite of Shaw’s pre-W.W. I comedy Heartbreak House reset at the beginning of the Great Depression with versions of all the same characters,” but that’s a huge stretch.)  As Tom Priestley said, now we’ll see. 

The play’s set on a Saturday afternoon in 1931, a time when the British economy was in freefall as a consequence of the early days of the Great Depression.  Even among leftists—remembering that Priestley was a socialist—belief in the Soviet Union had eroded because of news of Stalin’s show trials.  The playwright attempted to weave these world-shaking occurrences together by depicting a farcically hectic day at the country house of Lord Richard Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe), a wealthy investor.  First, his portfolio is now virtually worthless, a situation he finds laughable.  Second, the house is invaded by all manner of mostly uninvited—and largely unwelcome—visitors who all decide to stay for lunch.  Already in residence is Alec Grenside (Ed Pinker), a young artist recommended by Kettlewell’s estranged wife to decorate some panels in the manor, and old friend Churton “Chuffy” Saunders (Hugh Sachs), a classic society hanger-on (and the only visitor who’s actually been invited) with a ready tongue and a sharp wit (think Oscar Wilde manqué).  Soon to show up unexpectedly are the daughter, Pamela (Emily Laing), he hasn’t seen in 10 years, now a devoted communist who’s been in the USSR working in a candy factory—terrible candy, by the way, says Pamela (though I found Soviet hard candy pretty good when I had a taste of it some 50-odd years ago)—and her companion and fellow ideologue who goes by the designation of Comrade Staggles (Steven Blakeley). 

Arriving as expected with some papers is Kettlewell’s secretary, a very young and callow Farrington Gurney (Charlie Field in his professional stage debut)—who just happens to conceive an immediate crush on Pamela.  They’re followed by the former grand dame of the neighborhood, Lady Knightsbridge (Richenda Carey), who circulates among the other local peers looking for employment for her lately straitened aristo friends, and Hilda Lancicourt (Carol Starks), Kettlewell’s current mistress whom he’s about to jettison as a money-saving move and who’s come in response to the letter Kettlewell sent to . . . well, dump her.  Pamela reveals that she’s also invited her mother, Lady Kettlewell (Lisa Bowerman), from whom His Lordship’s been separated for several years; it’s an announcement he doesn’t relish.  Rounding out the crowded household are Kettlewell’s two servants, his butler, Parsons (Derek Hutchinson), and the parlor maid, Alice (Annie Jackson), two of the most upright souls you’re ever likely to meet.  As Shaw pointed out, after all, the middle and working classes have the stronger sense of propriety—afflicted, as the great Irish playwright put it, with bourgeois morality; the poor and the aristocracy are less burdened since the poor can’t afford to have morals and the gentry are above such petty concerns.

Priestley’s portrait of a Depression-era dysfunctional extended family descends quickly into what I can only describe as a French farce as written by Wilde with a side of Shavian-lite political and social commentary, all enacted in the style of a Cowardy comedy of manners.  The drawing-room set may not have quite five doors (there are only three portals—no actual doors), but it might as well have with all the coming and going.  (A roundabout, by the way, is British English for both a merry-go-round and a traffic circle.)  Comrade Staggles, who looks like a prototypical commie student with round, steel-rimmed glasses, a student cap, work boots, and a scraggly beard, can’t help himself from making passionate advances to any woman he meets, from soon-to-be ex-mistress Lancicourt to housemaid Alice—none of whom will have any of it.  Lancicourt and Lady Kettlewell take every opportunity to button-hole His Lordship, as does his daughter, whose commitment to communism is more adolescent rebellion (she’s 22) than Leninist-Marxist conviction.  Young Gurney, the secretary, is Red Pam’s opposite number on the capitalist side of the debate—and he has a streak of schoolboy braggadocio that leads to a bout of fisticuffs in the garden with Staggles.  When Lady Knightsbridge learns that Kettlewell’s daughter is a communist, her immediate response is to inquire, “Is there any money in it?”  Chuffy, who has no reason to be anywhere in particular, pops in and out to deliver amusing, but lightweight aphorisms—though they’re still the best lines in the play!  In fact, Chuffy’s the best part in the play, with butler Parsons, who, with Alice, make frequent appearances both in pursuit of their household duties and to roil the overloaded plot.  (Parsons reminded me a little of William, the waiter in Shaw’s You Never Can Tell.)

In the end, little has changed on the socio-political front: the aristos are still aristos and their hangers-on are still hanging on, perhaps mildly chastened, and the servants remain servants.   A subplot that might have upset this order when Parson seems to have won a fortune on a sweepstakes race falls apart on a contrivance—Priestley seems to have chickened out.  Comrade Staggles comes to enjoy the luxuries wealth—and a little (too much) high-end brandy—provide.  The real conclusion is that old lovers are reunited as Mère and Père Kettlewell, maneuvered by Pamela, discover  their separation was a mistake--and new lovers, Pamela and the handsome young artist, Alec, turn out to have known each other all along and are brought together probably by the connivance of Pamela’s mother (who, you remember, sent Grenside to her husband in the first scene).

You got all that?  (And that’s just a précis.  I can’t manage a detailed retelling—and you couldn’t follow it if I did.)  It is a day, to paraphrase Lady Bracknell, crowded with incident.

I found the play mildly amusing, but not outright hilarious, though Diana liked it.  It’s more silly frippery than pointed comedy and the comparisons with Wilde, Coward, and Shaw are more about surface appearances than dramaturgical substance.  It doesn’t help that the topics Priestley is covering in The Roundabout are tied to the play’s time—the Depression, the potential of social change in Britain between the World Wars, the surge in popularity of Soviet communism before the revelations of the Stalinist atrocities—which doesn’t speak so much to our era.  This renders the Brits Off Broadway presentation more a curious look back, both at a period of British playwriting and at the work of one particular playwright of that time who’s less often produced than some of his peers, than a noteworthy experience in the theater.

I also feel that the comedy here’s played wrong.  The actors all approach the play more like Coward than anything else.  (Chuffy Saunders so resembles Wilde that I have to believe Priestley intentionally drew the portrait.  The somewhat stout Sachs plays him as slightly fey, in the vein of a certain stereotype of the effete aristo, which only reinforces the impression.)  The approach is flippant—all the earnest commie speechifying, is off-hand and light—but I think if it were played as if the characters—Laing’s Pamela and Blakeley’s Staggles are the two on that side of the ledger—were in earnest, it’d be funnier, especially in 2017.  I mean, how can anyone actually believe what the Bolshies were spouting back in the ’30s?  Really? 

The aristos probably should still be superficial—it suits them, especially when they’re all concerned about losing their money in the Depression.  (Here’s a coincidence: I just saw a play from the same decade about the merchant class gaining wealth, and now a play about the upper class losing it!  Both were written by left-leaning dramatists, though one author was an American woman and the other a British man, and one’s a melodrama and the other a farce—and the plays are set in different eras, 30 years apart.)  The two servants in the home, Hutchinson’s Parsons and Jackson’s Alice, seem to get the style for their characters just right, however.  As a result, they, plus the Wildean Chuffy, are the best in the ensemble, and the most memorable characters.

Once again, I was dealing with an ensemble cast—this one not as tightly blended as Daniel Sullivan’s Little Foxes company or Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Jitney cast.  Like Little Foxes, however, two characters dominate the plot, Lord Kettlewell and Pamela, so Protheroe and Laing maintain the audience’s focus as the other characters swirl around them, weaving in and out of the narrative.  Protheroe’s a tad stiff as His Lordship, which lends an air of incredibility to the character’s protestations of encroaching poverty.  Protheroe’s physical characterization and his line delivery never vary much, making Kettlewell seem programmed rather than reactive.  Laing makes Pamela a flibbertigibbet, which is fine in context, and she has a slight overbite that gives her the appearance of a mischievous little girl.

Sachs has such a good time with Chuffy that it’s hard to find fault with the character—so I won’t.  He has all the best lines and the actor delivers them with delicious panache.  Of course, Chuffy has no reason to be in the play except to accomplish this—but, then, a real-life Churton Saunders would have been superfluous, too, except to amuse his hosts and keepers.  Blakeley couldn’t be more type-cast as Staggles—even without the beard and the glasses he looks like central casting’s idea of a student commie, a cross between Vladimir Lenin and John Lennon.  His sincerity as a communist might be questionable in this performance, but his neediness as a young man who clearly never fit in in any social circle is demonstrable.  Staggles’s opposite number in a sense is Field’s Farrington Gurney, as impetuous a fellow as you’re likely to meet anywhere (well, except maybe today’s White House, but that’s a different matter).  Field, who bears a remarkable resemblance to comedian Craig Kilbourne, plays Gurney as slightly dull-witted but open-faced: he doesn’t think deeply, but he feels strongly.  (He’d probably be labeled an incipient upper-class twit, if Priestley were that way inclined.)

So far, the characters are all from the period comedy of manners stock company; you’ve met them many times before in one play or movie or another—and the performances, while sturdy, are quite in line with expectations.  At the outset, the same holds true for Kettlewell’s two servants, Parsons and Alice.  Then Parsons gets word that he’s picked the winner in the sweepstakes and will come into a small fortune.  He appears drunk to inform Lord Kettlewell he’ll be leaving the estate’s service.  (He wants to buy a country house to convert into a weekend hotel, and Kettlewell immediately offers to sell the nascent entrant to the middle class his own manor.)  All of a sudden, Hutchinson transforms from a stock character actor into an intriguing figure with a backstory and an inner life we hadn’t seen hint of before.  Alas, it only lasts one scene, as Priestley contrives to pull the rug out from under poor Parsons with some nonsense about the government’s deciding precipitously that the prize is too much for the economy to bear and canceling it, making a Tantalus out of the unhappy butler, shown the promised land of entrepreneurship and swiftly returned to domestic service.  Hutchinson makes the double character shift with assurance and credibility within the context of the play.  Would that Priestley had braved the uncertainties and gone with the reversal of fortune.  It might have been great fun.

Polly Sullivan, credited as the production’s designer, appears to have been responsible for both the set (lit by David Howell) and the costumes (supervised by Holly Henshaw), and both were fine—the clothing more revealing than the scenery.  The costumes were appropriate to the period and the individual characters, from Pamela’s and Staggles’s proletarian worker-attire to the three upper-class dames’ elegant country-afternoon dress, but the house’s furnishings seemed Spartan for a peer—unless we’re supposed to assume Kettlewell’s been selling off the furniture (or burning it for fuel).  Not only was Parsons called upon to move a chair about to accommodate visitors because there weren’t enough in the conversation hub, but these nobs, who’d certainly never deign to sit on a wooden bench except outdoors, often had to perch on what looked like long, low tables on either side of the drawing room; there was even a table lamp on each one to make it look like Kettlewell’s houseguests were sitting on narrow coffee tables.  Coward would surely shudder at the sight!  (I don’t know how big any of the three co-producing troupes is, but this is the kind of staging decision that often marks Off-Off-Broadway shows in New York.  Budget and space limitations are the usual rationale.)

Overall, The Roundabout was a pleasant evening in the theater—I can’t honestly say I didn’t enjoy the play or the performance; I’m glad I took the opportunity to see it.  I just feel that director Ross missed the boat a little on the presentation style.  (Of course, I could be way off base, but we’ll never know.)

Show-Score surveyed 25 reviews, but a number of them were for the London mounting.  On the basis of 17 reviews of the Brits Off Broadway production, the average rating as of 21 May was 69, of which 59% of the notices were positive, 23% were mixed, and 18% were negative.  The site’s high score was 90, of which there were three for the local production (including the New York Times) and the low score was 20 (for the website Woman Around Town).  I’ll be covering 13 notices in my round-up.

After observing in the Epoch Times that communism is “categorically the most deadly form of government ever,” Mark Jackson declared,

So it can safely be said that breezy debates about the virtues of communism versus capitalism, in a high-twit-factor, three-act, moldy British drawing-room comedy—already so second-rate in its inception that it’s only being revived now, after its abandonment in 1932—is hardly the place to do the topic justice.

Listing all the plot twists, Jackson asked, “Will you care about any of it?”  Despite “quite a talented cast,” the Epoch review-writer asserted, “The problem is that it’s just not terribly funny or impactful,” adding, “It’s quite a bland offering.”  Jackson, though, found one positive note in the play: “Priestley does get credit for presenting two communists [sic] types: the holier-than-thou Tartuffe-like scoundrel and the youthful idealist who swallows socialist rhetoric hook, line, and sinker.”  But even that accomplishment is incomplete: “Unfortunately, since the playwright’s social commentary extends to the lord and ladies as well, his apt criticism of the far left is so undercut as to be insipid.”  In conclusion, the Epochal reviewer wrote that “this particular genre of play doesn’t age well, but if you’re a huge fan of, say, ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ [sic] and, like Chuffy, pine for spatterdashes [we know them simply as ‘spats’] and top hats, you’ll enjoy ‘The Roundabout’ immensely.”  (I think Jackson has overthought this slight work, but that’s his take; his review received a 45 on Show-Score, one of three negative notices.  My only serious objection to his opinion is the implied disparagement of Wilde’s Earnest, one of my all-time favorite plays—the only play I’ve directed twice.  I’ve worn spats only once in my life, however—part of a costume for some period play I no longer remember.)

Andy Webster, in contrast, declared in the New York Times (which scored 90, you’ll recall), “This sparkling, impeccably staged play . . . will be catnip to ‘Downton Abbey’ devotees, with equal doses of humor and insight.”  The Timesman explained that “plot threads and characters abound” in the “social mosaic” of The Roundabout.  He warned, though, “Some period conventions creak.” but added that “the production is well served by its costume supervisor” and director Ross “adds a soupçon of farce to the percolating proceedings.”  Webster concluded, “Throughout, Priestley gently reminds us of the ephemerality of affluence” while his “words, with their generous, sympathetic regard for human nature, cast a binding glow over the production.”  The unnamed theater reviewer for the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Time” section described the play as “a classic roundelay, but instead of romantic shenanigans the comic intrigue turns on social, financial, and political concerns.”  The review-writer dubbed the cast “eleven accomplished farceurs” and singled out Carey as Lady Knightsbridge and, especially, Sachs “as a family friend whose every line pierces the hypocrisy around him, including his own.”

On Theatre’s Leiter Side, Samuel L. Leiter, noting that Hugh Ross’s production of The Roundabout is “smoothly staged,” found the play “offers enough nutrition for a band of first-rate thespians to feast on.”  Nonetheless, Leiter felt that “it’s still second-rate Priestley, far too long and chatty . . . for its wafer-thin, drawing room/romantic comedy plot, leavened by political satire.”  The TLS blogger added, “There’s some enjoyment to be derived from Priestley’s then timely and sometimes still pertinent observations on social and economic matters, but the relatively few laughs are mostly of the polite, muffled kind,” and “the first act tends to drag . . . with no real stakes established to keep us in suspense during the intermission.”  Leiter concluded that “the resurrection of Priestley’s comedy is mainly to be recommended for its acting.”  Howard Miller of Talkin’ Broadway reminded us (as I’ve said on occasion), “Not all resurrected and dusted-off plays from yesteryear reveal themselves to be glittering lost diamonds.”  He pronounced The Roundabout “a lovely garnet or topaz,” however, labeling it “a charming and well-performed work with an undercurrent of social criticism.”  The “well-oiled ensemble . . . does a fine job of keeping the lighter-than-air domestic comedy floating stylishly and smoothly.”  Though he found The Roundabout “a parade of comic turns in a play with the barest of plots,” Miller reported that “the fine-tuned performances by the entire cast . . . raises The Roundabout above the ordinary.”  He concluded, “While The Roundabout may not exactly be a newly rediscovered treasure unearthed from the good old days, it provides enough delights to make it well worth the visit,” adding that The Roundabout “is a must-see, a surprising, sojourn into the realm of lightweight comedy.” 

Describing the play as “a drawing-room comedy . . . in the style of [W. Somerset] Maugham, [Frederick] Lonsdale or Coward but with a bit more political content,” TheaterScene’s Gluck declared that The Roundabout “now seems rather dated and beside the point” after 85 years; even Ross’s “elegant and graceful production can’t disguise the fact that the play seems to be two generations late in arriving.”  The TS reviewer observed that though “the play seems to have something to say about economics and political systems, it is simply a very light romantic comedy” and Ross’s “production is quite proficient and fast-paced, but the characters are generic and we don’t learn much about them.”  Despite its “polished production,” The Roundabout is “little more than a dated drawing room comedy” which “pretends to be making a statement about British class structure and the economic and social changes.”  The play “ is both very lightweight and very much a period piece of an earlier age,” and though the “repartee is good . . ., the play is not particularly witty nor does it offer memorable one liners.”  On CurtainUp, Simon Saltzman reported, “Incessant flippant chatter is crisply deployed along with archaic social commentary in” The Roundabout, little “more than a passing, or perhaps passably socially aware divertissement.” 

Marina Kennedy dubbed The Roundabout “a truly charming play” on Broadway World and the “comings and goings of [the] colorful characters, the clash of social classes, and the fast-paced, clever dialogue create a totally entertaining and engaging theatrical experience.”  Ross’s “staging is superb and the show’s cast shines bright”; Kennedy reported, “You’ll love the cast of The Roundabout. They are funny, lively and authentic.”  Theater Pizzazz’s Rocamora quipped, “Unearthing old theatre gems is like digging for truffles—and British director Hugh Ross has found one”—though I’m not so sure making a comparison to a fungus is especially complimentary.  Dubbing the play “a long-lost treasure,” the Theater Pizzazz review-writer asserted that it “holds the promise of an entertaining comedy of manners—but delivers far more.”  She explained, “In the midst of all [the] frivolity, playwright Priestley offers a sharp, satirical birds-eye view of an anxious era when England’s social order is changing.” 

On Theatre Reviews Limited, David Roberts asserted that “the comedic stuff” of The Roundabout is the way the characters “collide with one another in deliciously hilarious flights of fantasy all the time challenging the decorum of polite society.”  “Under Hugh Ross’s well paced direction,” the TRL reviewer found, “the cast is uniformly engaging.”  He affirmed, “It is the unpredictability of [the] parallel story lines that makes ‘The Roundabout’ consummately entertaining,” though “Priestly chooses not to explore the issues he introduces with any depth.”  Roberts concluded that the play “is a delightful romp around the roundabout well worth the trip.”  In the other notice rated a negative 45, Theatre Is Easy’s Eleanor J. Bader said in her “Bottom Line” that The Roundabout is a “comedic, but inconsequential, look at upper class decadence and Communist sympathizers in 1930s Great Britain.”  It’s “played for laughs, rather than ideas,” asserted Bader, though she found Staggles and Gurney “obnoxious” for their “relentless womanizing” and “the play’s comedic impact . . . tempered by Priestley’s positioning of Pamela, Comrade Staggles, and Kettlewell as equally deluded.”  Furthermore, Bader found “the juxtaposition” of “the idealism and utopian dreams of young Communists with  the unscrupulous behavior of Kettlewell and his business associates” “maddening.”  Her conclusion was that “The Roundabout is well acted and well staged.  I wish that were enough, but it’s not.  Despite the still-timely reference to sexual misconduct, the play is dated; despite some terrific one-liners, its assets are insufficient to recommend what is ultimately a stale production.”

The lowest Show-Score rating was the 20 received by Alix Cohen’s notice on Woman Around Town.  Characterizing the play as “[o]stensibly a lightweight drawing room satire about changing social order,” Cohen asserted, “In the hands of George Bernard Shaw, we might’ve seen the classes spar with meaningful illumination.  Were the piece by Noel Coward, then it might’ve been sharply witty.”  Instead, she complained, “we’re subjected to a tedious two hours in the hands of milquetoast Kettlewell, almost-ran Chuffy, bratty, tantrum-throwing, mischief-making Pamela, and boorish, cliché Comrade Staggles.  (Other characters are frankly negligible.)”  Of the cast, Cohen asserted that “aside from flickers, those onstage range from poor to irritating to ho-hum”; “there’s not a flicker of character definition, actors often tune out when not speaking.”  The staging “is so heavy handed,” she found, “movement has no motivation except audience view, irony goes by practically unnoticed.”  Even the set “has no attractions” and the costumes, fine for the men, are “uniformly unflattering apparel for women.”

On the Huffington Post, David Finkle announces “great news”—first, because The Roundabout “has just resurfaced” and, second, because it’s been revived “in a grand production, directed exactly as it should be by Hugh Ross and with precisely the right cast.”  Characterizing the play as “a drawing room comedy not unlike others from the period,” Finkle continued: “Nevertheless, in its way it was already accomplished, and in its way it’s now dated.”  Then the HP reviewer added, “Dated, yes, but possessing the kind of charm those plays continue to hold, rather like the perfume of faded flowers.”  Summing up, Finkle affirmed:

The true value of The Roundabout is that it’s Priestley getting laughs at the expense of the upstart English who’ve jumped on the Communist bandwagon.  To some very large extent, he’s defanging the bear-toothed threat of the age, a threat he might have taken more seriously.  But if he had, The Roundabout wouldn’t be half the fun it is, and that excuses plenty.

18 May 2017

Yayoi Kusama


On 23 February of this year, a new retrospective exhibit of the 78-year career of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama opened at the Smithsonian‘s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  It’s attracted quite a bit of attention, both from the press and from museum-goers—which isn’t bad for an 88-year-old artist who first hit the scene in the U.S. in the late ’50s.  According to a New York Times report on 27 March, the Hirshhorn recorded “the highest attendance in 40 years” during the first month of Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors and about one third of those visitors (about 57,000 people) have come to see the Kusama show.  Though the artist has been deemed significant for the whole of her career, Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu pointed out that “it has only been in recent years that [Kusama] exhibitions have consistently broken museum attendance records and attracted enormous attention.” 

Back in 2004, my late mother and I went up to the Whitney Museum of American Art (then at Madison Avenue and 75th Street) for that year’s Biennial principally because Kusama was included in the show.  At 75, she was by far the oldest artist featured in the show; promoted as a kind of retrospective of modern art from the ’60s to the present, the 2004 Biennial was mostly really new stuff.  Most of the artists in the exhibit were in their 40’s or younger—the only other “older” artist in the show I identified was David Hockney (portraits, garden and interior watercolors), only 66 at the time—and Kusama’s installation, Fireflies on the Water (2002), was easily the most interesting piece in the show.  Fireflies was a little room, mirrored on all sides with a still,  dark pool of shallow water filling the floor area (there was a narrow platform to walk on) and all hung with strings of tiny yellow and blue Christmas-like LED lights suspended in series from the ceiling on long, nearly invisible wires that made them look like blinking lightning bugs.  The mirrors and the water, reflecting the room ad infinitum, did make me feel lost in infinite space, a thematic impulse in Kusama’s art.  One by one, viewers went into the room—there was an attendant at the door to let people in and keep everyone in line waiting—and experience it (I dont know what other word to use here) for a few moments. 

My interest in Yayoi Kusama began in the early 1960s.  My parents bought a part-ownership in the Gres Gallery, a small modern-art gallery in Washington around 1957 and Kusama was exhibited there several times after she first set herself up in the United States.  One early exhibit Gres mounted was Six Japanese Painters in 1960, a display of Japanese artists working in contemporary Western styles, rather than traditional Asian forms—something that was unfamiliar to American collectors at that time.  I haven’t been able to verify this, but I recall that Kusama was among the painters in that group show, which toured the country, including such  venues as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the San Francisco Museum of Art.  She did have two solo shows at Gres: Yayoi Kusama in April 1960 and Yayoi Kusama: Watercolors in November 1961.  Beatrice Perry, the managing partner of Gres and later Kusama’s dealer, and her husband Hart became the artist’s friend, even sheltering her at the Perry home when the pressures got too great.

From one of the 1960 shows, my parents bought a Kusama canvas, one of her “Infinity Net” paintings, an untitled 51"-square, red-and-black oil painting that probably cost a couple of hundred dollars at the time.  An abstract pattern of tiny red, irregular blotches tessellated over a black background so that the canvas looks like a fine network of black lines surrounding little islands of red, the painting was sold by my mother in 1996 when Kusama’s work had a surge of popularity; I believe it went for low five figures.  (In 2008, one of Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings brought $5.1 million at auction, a record for a living female artist at the time.  In 2014, a 1960 painting sold for $7.1 million at Christie’s.)  Despite the de-acquisition, Mother maintained an interest in Kusama’s art, hence the trip up to the Whitney 13 years ago.  (I’m sure that if she were still around, Mom would be saving a visit to the Hirshhorn for my next trip down to D.C. so we could go to Infinity Mirrors together.)

Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, in 1929, the youngest of four children.  Her family was well-to-do, owners of a plant-seed nursery.  The artist’s mother’s family were prominent merchants with numerous, diverse businesses; her grandfather was both an influential businessman and a local politician.  Because of the difference in status between the families, Kusama father, Kamon Okamura, took the name of his wife’s family and moved into the family home.  This situation, though not uncommon in Japan, weakened Kamon (now-) Kusama’s traditional position as the head of the household.  By all accounts, it was an unhappy marriage; Kusama’s parents fought every day when her father was home and Kamon Kusama had many affairs, including assignations with prostitutes.  Shigeru Kusama, Kusama’s mother, became angry and domineering, even sending her daughter to spy on her father and his lovers and report to his wife.  This experience began Kusama’s simultaneous obsession with and fear of sex that has lasted her whole life.

Kusama’s father eventually left the family to live with a geisha in Tokyo.  Increasingly embittered, Kusama’s mother became emotionally and physically abusive of her younger daughter.  The artist recounts that her mother told her every day that she regretted bearing her daughter and regularly beat and even kicked her.  “There were some very dark, unhappy moments in my childhood,” said the artist later, and not a day went by, she’s confessed, when she didn’t contemplate suicide.  At 10, Kusama started being plagued with recurring hallucinations of dots, nets, and flowers—images that would later dominate much of her art.  She sometimes saw the dots and other images spreading all around her, essentially enveloping her world.

The feeling of being engulfed in patterns gave rise to a phenomenon Kusama called “self-obliteration.”  It would become a guiding impulse for her art, especially the polka dots that have become her signature image.  She defines self-obliteration as “obliterating one’s individual self, [so] one returns to the infinite universe.”  (In 1967, the artist, then living in New York City, made a 24-minute film called Kusama’s Self-Obliteration which won prizes at the Fourth International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium, the Second Maryland Film Festival, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival in Michigan.)  She explains her fixation on dots in terms of this impulse: “Painting bodies with the patterns of Kusama’s hallucinations obliterated their individual selves and returned them to the infinite universe.  This is magic.”  The artist states with absolute definitiveness: “Polka dots are a way to infinity.”

The notion “that we’re all just specks in the universe,” as Elizabeth Blair, Senior Producer on National Public Radio’s Arts Desk sees it, has been a goal for Kusama since her early childhood.  The mirrored rooms have something of the same point, as I myself experienced.  The rooms seem to go on forever and you can’t tell what’s tangible and what’s incorporeal.  Hirshhorn director Chiu asserted that they make “you feel as if you’re a speck in amongst something greater.”  “Our Earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos,” wrote Kusama almost half a century ago. 

(The artist also formed the Church of Self-Obliteration in a SoHo loft in New York City.  Designating herself “High Priestess of Polka Dots,” she officiated at a wedding of two gay men in 1968.  The couple dressed in a single large bridal gown for two designed by Kusama.)

The hallucinations impelled the young Kusama to draw what she had seen.  “I don’t consider myself an artist,” she says; “I am pursuing art in order to correct the disability which began in my childhood.”  Kusama began seeing a psychiatrist who was the first to encourage her to pursue art.  She once told an interviewer, “I don’t want to cure my mental problems, rather I want to utilise them as a generating force for my art.”  The artist, though, has never depicted her mental illness in her work; she draws artistic inspiration from her experience of her condition.  Her mother, though, was so adamantly opposed to Kusama’s interest in art that she took away her daughter’s materials, one time warning, “If you continue to paint, don’t come home.”  Her mother wanted nothing more for her daughter than that she marry a man of her family’s choosing, almost certainly older, and become an obedient, subservient wife.  A career in art was out of the question—it was unladylike and led to poverty and social isolation.  Be a collector instead, Kusama’s family demanded. The artist, however, has called her father “a gentle-hearted person” who had encouraged her drawing, buying his daughter her first art supplies, but his absence, stemming from his wife’s constant bullying, left Kusama resentful.  When he was at home, however, Kusama felt she was caught between her constantly warring parents

At 13, when Japan became engaged in World War II, the young artist, like many other children in Japan, was drafted into the workforce, sent off to sew parachutes for the imperial military.  She recalls that time as one spent in a dark and frightening place.  After the war, still determined to paint despite her family’s pressure to become a good little Japanese wife dressed in kimonos and dresses her mother bought, Kusama left home in 1948, against her mother’s wishes, to study Nihonga painting at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts & Crafts, 200 miles from Matsumoto.  Nihonga (“Japanese-style painting”) is a formal art style that employs traditional Japanese materials and techniques, as opposed to Yōga (“Western-style painting”), which uses European materials and techniques.  Kusama the Nihonga tradition constraining and “the school too conservative and the instructors out of touch with the reality of the modern era” and seldom went to class, preferring to stay in her dormitory room and paint. 

The young art student became interested not just in Western art, but specifically in the European and American avant-garde which was just then gaining prominence on the U.S. art scene and critical attention abroad.  She picked up this influence from illustrations in magazines and books, so her painting was largely self-taught.  Working on paper in non-traditional media like watercolor, gouache, and oil, the rebellious art student began depicting the polka dots that would come to dominate her art.  In spite of her defiance, Kusama graduated from Kyoto Arts and Crafts in 1949 and in 1952, had her first solo exhibit in March at the the First Community Center in Matsumoto, followed in October by a second show.  In 1954, the emerging artist had her first solo show in Tokyo and the following year, she was selected to exhibit in the 18th Biennial at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in May, her first international show.  With this event, she conceived the dream to go to New York.  Even in this ambition, Kusama broke with convention: as Calvin Tomkins, chronicler of the New York art scene since the 1960s, asserted in the New Yorker 21 years ago, “For a hundred years, it had been the tradition for Japanese art students to go to Paris.”

At around this time, Kusama’s psychiatrist “encouraged me to get away from my mother,” she recounts.  “If you remain in that house,” she remembers his warning her, “your neurosis will only worsen.”  She began to think seriously about going abroad.  Having seen some of her work in a second-hand book, Kusama began a correspondence with American artist Georgia O’Keeffe in 1955, who gave her advice about advancing her nascent career.  The “lowly Japanese girl” also sent along some of her watercolors, sending some to Kenneth Callahan, a painter based in Seattle, as well.  This bold action landed Kusama a solo exhibit at Seattle’s Zoë Dusanne Gallery in 1957, and, despite not knowing a soul in the country, the Japanese artist made plans to come to the United States for the opening in December.  Upon her departure from Matsumoto, Kusama’s disapproving mother gave her daughter 1 million yen, worth then about $2,800 (the equivalent in 2017 of $24,000), and told her “never to set foot in her house again.”

Kusama stayed in Seattle for six months, coming to New York City in June 1958 to take classes at the Art Students League.  This is the period when she started working on her Infinity Net paintings.  Her first New York solo show, after following O’Keeffe’s advice and peddling her art for over a year to anyone who’d take a look, was in October 1959 at the Brata Gallery, a well-regarded artist’s cooperative on East 10th Street in the East Village (preceded in April by The International Watercolor Exhibition, the Brooklyn Museum’s Twentieth Biennial and followed in November by Recent Paintings by Yayoi Kusama at the Nova Gallery, Boston).  Unable to bring more than a small amount of currency legally out of Japan with her—she smuggled out bills sewn into the linings of her clothes—Kusama lived in poverty, and speaking no English, the artist was not naturally equipped to make acquaintances, even though she’d trained herself in the un-Japanese practice, especially for a single young woman, of putting herself in the spotlight and making waves. 

In one way, though, she was fortunate: she arrived in New York City in the era of Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella (who bought one of her paintings), and the recently-deceased Jackson Pollock, the very start of the avant-garde art movements that would dominate the scene in the coming decade: Minimalism, Pop Art, Op Art—and her work fit right in.  (Action art and Happenings, which would shortly become signature forms of Kusama’s art, arose at this time, too, when Allan Kaprow staged 18 Happenings in 6 Parts in 1959 and others, including Claes Oldenburg, joined in the following year.)  The young artist soaked up everything she could about the world of American art around her.  She became friends with Oldenburg and Andy Warhol—whose styles she presaged and whom some critics say she influenced—and Donald Judd, an artist who also worked as a critic for publications like Art World, in which he wrote a laudatory review of the Brata show, and lived at one point in the same building as Oldenburg, painter Larry Rivers, and sculptor John Chamberlain.  As the ’60s dawned and blossomed in the art scene, Yayoi Kusama emerged with it like Athena from the head of Zeus—fully formed and ready to astonish and impress.

As the new decade began, after her first European group show, Monochrome Malerei (“Monochrome painting”) at the Städtisches Museum in Leverkusen, West Germany, in March 1960, Kusama had the first of two shows, Yayoi Kusama, at Washington, D.C.’s Gres Gallery in April.  This was the show that featured the artist’s Infinity Net canvases (one of which, as I said earlier, my parents purchased).  I’m a little loath to quote the review of the Gres show at length, but Leslie Judd Ahlander describes very articulately what I recall, even as a 13-year-old boy who was art star-struck from the experience of hanging around the gallery and meeting real artists.  So, at some little risk of overstating my case, here’s what the Washington Post art critic wrote about Kusama’s introduction to the Washington art world:

The work of Yayoi Kusama at the Gres Gallery is a far cry from the traditional modes of expression.  A self-taught artist who has evolved entirely alone, the artist has moved from pastels which are delicate interpretations of nature to her present group of large abstractions, based entirely on the repetition of a simple, circular brush-stroke.

The overall tonality of each canvas is a single color, red, orange or white, but the color had been given great interest and variety by the manipulating of the underpinning, the contrast of a flat or raised technique (often ending in a heavy impasto) and a rhythmic pattern that goes through each canvas, giving a feeling of movement.  Where at first glance the work may seem static and limited, it slowly reveals its riches as you study it further.

Little remains of the traditional Japanese approach except the scrupulous attention to detail and the discipline and controlled technique.  Only such an artist as Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock in our  country has gone so far in making each single and minute thread of paint count in overall composition, which must rely for its interest on infinite variety within a single unity.

It is difficult painting since it takes a great willingness on the part of the observer to stay with it, to relax and contemplate at length until the message comes through.  Its exquisite and refined delicacy is not for the hurried.

The canvases were huge (one was reported to be 14 feet long) and the “little islands” I described earlier eventually evolved into Kusama’s iconic dots.  Her art is marked by psychedelic colors (which arose after the Infinity Net work morphed into the dot canvases), repeated images and shapes, and patterns, and manifests autobiographical and psycho-sexual references.  Kusama, always a prolific artist (one 2009 estimate put the career-long number of her works at 50,000—coming to about 715 pieces a year, or 14 pieces a week), painted the Infinity Nets “from morning to night.”

The Kusama Infinity Net painting, which another short review described perfectly the way I remember it: “Up close her drawings resemble delicate lace or crochet work; from a distance the viewer can pick out a seemingly endless array of patterns and forms swirling across the canvas,” hung in my parents’ home for over 30 years, usually in a location where we would be looking at it while we were at leisure—talking, reading the paper, having a family drink—so it was part of our down-time at home.  On the one hand, that meant it faded into our daily world as part of the scenery, but on the other, it meant I could—and did—look at it unrushed and undisturbed, across from where I was sitting.  What the anonymous critic wrote above is the way I remember experiencing the painting, and it mesmerized me.  It was one of my favorite pieces in my parents’ collection; I even tried to make my own version of it—miserably unsuccessfully—once when I was a kid.  (I didn’t say anything about this when my mother decided to sell the painting, though she asked me for my opinion; I said it was her art and she should do what she wanted.  Some years later, when I told her that the Kusama had been one of my favorites, she got angry with me for not saying so back then.  I just reminded her what I’d said at the time: that I hadn’t wanted to interfere with her choices regarding her possessions.  Part of me is sorry that I hadn’t.)

Into the ’60s, Kusama took on several other forms, including her much-photographed “Sex Obsession” sculptures, starting with an armchair which she completely covered with fat little hand-sewn tubes of fabric stuffed with cotton that looked like oversized fingerling potatoes but which the artist designated “phalli.”  That was 1962; soon she’d similarly covered “tables, chairs, kitchen utensils, stepladders, a rowboat, a sofa,” and all manner of other objects with which she was frequently photographed.  (The rowboat, complete with oars, was entitled Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, 1963.  Oldenburg had started his soft sculptures at the same time.)  It was at this time, too, that Kusama began a decade-long relationship with artist Joseph Cornell, 26 years older than she.  As you might expect with Kusama, it was a peculiar romance: though Kusama herself called Cornell her lover, there was no physical intimacy between them.  “I disliked sex and he was impotent so we suited each other very well.”  (Cornell’s mother, with whom he lived his entire life, was clearly a major cause of his sexual dysfunction, for, among other things, she forbad him to touch women and told him that “women are a disease,” according to Kusama.)  Nonetheless, Kusama characterized their relationship as the great romance of her life, and she remained with Cornell until his death of heart failure in 1972 at the age of 69.

While she was attracting a great deal of attention, even awe, her works were selling for as little as $150 or $200.  Her work was attracting more attention in Europe than in the States, and she had more shows abroad.  Her colleagues here, with many of whom she often exhibited in group shows, were being taken up by galleries to represent their work, Kusama couldn’t find a dealer who’d commit to her.  Some of this standoffishness may have been because she was a woman in what was still a man’s world (O’Keeffe, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Grace Hartigan, and a few others, not withstanding), some of it may be that even for the ’60s, Kusama was a little daunting, and some of it may have been influenced by the precarious state of her health, which often left her incapacitated by illness, either psychiatric or physical.  But certainly part of the distance the art world put between itself and Yayoi Kusama was the residue of what art-and-culture writer Andrew Solomon called “aggressive wartime prejudice against Japan.”  In any case, as Alexandra Munroe, an art historian who was in large part responsible for the resurgence in the West of interest in Kusama’s art in the ’90s, concluded, the artist “was too beautiful, too crazy, and too powerful” for the art scene in the U.S. to handle. 

As if to prove Munroe’s point, by the mid-1960s, Kusama turned from canvas and paper as the media for her art to room-sized installations, starting in 1965 in New York with Phalli’s Field, a 15' x 15' mirrored room filled with hundreds of her fabric penis sculptures covered in white cloth with red polka dots.  Ultimately, this led to 2002’s Fireflies on the Water (displayed again at the Whitney in 2012 as part of Yayoi Kusama, a retrospective) and the six mirrored rooms (including Phalli’s Field) assembled for the Hirshhorn’s Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors (running through 14 May).  By 1967, Kusama had moved entirely away from making any kind of art object and devoted herself to Happenings.  These were mostly improvised guerrilla street performances in which a group of young performers, some wearing masks of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, stripped naked and a usually-clothed Kusama would paint their bodies with polka dots.  They were purportedly protest demonstration, against the Vietnam war, racism, segregation, and for free love and expression, gay rights, and women’s lib—all the issues of the “flower-power” ’60s.  Most of the Happenings were performed in the street or open space in front of such establishment structures as the Statue of Liberty, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and New York Stock Exchange in 1968, where her hippie acolytes handed out flyers declaring, “STOCK IS A FRAUD!” and, “OBLITERATE WALL STREET MEN WITH POLKA DOTS” in a foreshadowing of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations 43 years later.  There was even an un-authorized invasion of the Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden (announced to the press in advance, but unknown to the museum) with Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA in 1969 in which the participants cavorted in a fountain, striking poses that mimicked nearby sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, and Aristide Maillol.  (Kusama returned to MoMA with the authorized one-woman show Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1972 in 1998.)

Like her penis sculptures, Kusama’s Happenings were always recorded in photographs, for the artist was nothing if not a master self-promoter!  She came to see publicity as a form of art in itself, and by 1968, she was more prominent in the press than even Andy Warhol.  “Publicity is part of my art,” she wrote in Kusama Orgy, her sexual-freedom newspaper which reported on her activities and promoted her ideas and opinions.  She was usually surrounded by a gang of hippies, among them the gay young men she dubbed the ­Kusama Dancing Team, who behaved like disciples, and started a gay social club called the Kusama ’Omophile Kompany (kok).  She’s boasted that she was “reported on almost as much as Jackie O. and President Nixon” and in 1968, the artist wrote President Nixon a letter offering to have sex with him if he’d end the Vietnam war.  By the end of the decade, however, the artist had become over-exposed and was seen by many as an attention-seeker who’d exceeded her Warholian 15 minutes of fame.

For someone with not a single tie to the United States or New York, except perhaps in her imagination, Yayoi Kusama not only found herself a viable niche in the art scene here, but reveled in it.  (There’s no doubt, of course, that she could never have lived the kind of life she was living in New York if she’d remained in Japan, even in Tokyo much less Matsumoto.  Back home, she was considered a “naughty girl” even off of the mildly rebellious behavior she exhibited in the ’40s and ’50s.)    Broke and depressed, however, Kusama’s health, both physical and mental, had deteriorated so badly by 1973 that she had to return to Japan.  (Furthermore, Kamon Kusama, the artist’s father, was ill and would die in 1974 after a long illness.  This came just two years after Kusama also lost Joseph Cornell.)  Her doctor in New York had missed a serious thyroid condition and fibroids in her uterus and she underwent surgery in Tokyo to correct the medical problems. 

Back home, Kusama’s avant-garde work attracted little attention from the galleries and art publications.  She mounted a couple of Happenings in Tokyo, but they were met with meager response and the press declared her a “national disgrace.”  What little coverage they got wasn’t from art journals, but from men’s magazines.  Eventually, Kusama essentially gave up all her art work and turned to writing a series of strange and surrealistic novels about New York’s downtown sex scene.  (She’d been writing poetry since she was 18.)  Between 1977 and 1990, she published 10 novels.  In 1983, Kusama was awarded the Yasei Jidai literary magazine prize for her novel Kuristofa danshokukutsu (“Christopher homosexual brothel”). 

In 1975, she voluntarily committed herself to the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo; in 1977, she moved into the private clinic permanently and has lived there ever since, writing and painting in her room.  The artist is free to come and go on her own volition and she has a studio in a building in walking distance from the clinic where she works for eight hours daily, returning to the hospital at night.  (She also travels to exhibits abroad, but her hospital room is her base of operations.)  In all the time she’s been in the hospital, the artist’s mother visited her only once; in 1984, Shigeru Kusama died.

Kusama eventually returned to painting and has amassed a large number of canvases which she shows all over the world even as she continues to create her mirrored rooms.  In the ’90s, she experienced a resurgence of interest in her work both in the West and in Japan and even in her ninth decade of life, she keeps up a crowded schedule of exhibits and the attendant interviews, appearances, and vernissages.  That’s what generated my mother’s decision to sell her Kusama Infinity Net, and it also generated coverage not only in the art press (Andrew Solomon’s “Dot Dot Dot: The Lifework of Yayoi Kusama” in ArtForum, February 1997, for example), but in such general-interest journals as the New Yorker (such as the four-page spread by Calvin Tomkins, “On the Edge,” 7 October 1996).  In September 1989, following 1987’s Yayoi Kusama at the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, Fukuoka, the first retrospective exhibit of her work in Japan, Alexandra Munroe curated the first retrospective of Kusama’s art in the United States, the Center for International Contemporary Arts’ Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective in New York, essentially launching the renewed interest in the artist, known in Japan as the “Kusama boom.”  Between that year and 1999, there were at least 59 solo Kusama exhibits around the world (plus many more group shows in which her work was included).  Of those, nine were abroad in either Europe (including the 45th Venice Biennale in June 1993) or Asia outside Japan, 15 were in galleries and museums in the U.S. (including Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958-1968 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), and 35 in Japan, the country that had previously turned its back on Kusama’s art and made her feel unwelcome.  A remarkable reversal of fortune.

In 1993, Kusama was designated the first female artist to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale, perhaps the most prestigious art show in the world, from 13 June to 10 October.  The Japanese pavilion at the 45th Biennale housed a retrospective of Kusama’s art reaching back to 1959, including examples of her work in all its variations (except, of course, her live art and Happenings). The highlight of the show was Kusama’s new creation, Mirror Room (Pumpkin) (1993), a mirrored room filled with small sculptures of pumpkins; she herself stayed in the room, dressed in a color-coordinated outfit modeled on a magician’s costume: a yellow witch’s hat and long yellow dress all covered with black polka dots.  Having been inspired to sculpt pumpkins because one of the plants her grandfather’s seed farm grew was that fruit and the color, shape, and appearance of them intrigued young Kusama when she used to visit the farm with her grandfather.  She went on to make scores of pumpkin sculptures, large and small—some of them mirrored themselves—and this object has joined the polka dots (which often appear on the pumpkins, too), Infinity Nets, and mirror rooms as iconic Kusama imagery.

At home, Kusama, who now seldom appears in public without her signature attire: a bright orange wig in a bobbed style, fiery red lipstick, and a vividly-colored one-piece floor-length dress of polka-dotted fabric (usually coordinated with the art on display or based on one of her paintings), went from national scandal to the most important living Japanese artist; in 2006 she received the Praemium Imperiale, one of Japan’s most prestigious arts prizes—the first woman to win the award.  In 2011, Kusama published her autobiography, Infinity Net (University of Chicago Press), which David Pilling, Asia editor of the Financial Times, characterizes as “better treated as artistic statement than faithful record.”  (In 2012, Heather Lenz, a documentary filmmaker, started work on Kusama: Princess of Polka Dots, a seven-minute version of which was edited for the Tate exhibit.  Still incomplete and retitled Yayoi Kusama: A Life in Polka Dots, the project explores the artist’s whole life and work.)

The artist has been designing clothes since the ’60s (some of which she called “orgy clothes” with holes cut in uhhhh . . . critical locations), but in 2012, she entered into an arrangement with the French luxury design firm Louis Vuitton and her iconic polka dots adorned the company’s high-end handbags, luggage, sunglasses, scarves, and coats.  The New York store on Madison Avenue in the East 60’s was decorated with a display of red dots and the company sponsors many of Kusama’s shows.  At her Tokyo studio, in addition to her paintings, “colorful and hieroglyphic, with repeating motifs—eyes, profiles, tendril-like fringes, things that appear to be cells or viruses,” she makes products from “fabric to clothing to mobile phones,” according to Tate Modern curator Frances Morris.  (Tate Modern held another well-received retrospective exhibit, Yayoi Kusama, from 9 February through 5 June 2012.)

Just like the young Kusama who came to the U.S. in the 1950s “in a quest to become the most famous possible version of herself,” as a New York magazine writer expressed it—and she made it for a while—the present-day Kusama still proclaims, “I want to become more famous, even more famous.”  The attention-getting naked Happenings, of which she staged some 200 in their day, and the penis sculptures may be behind her, but with a boost from businesses like Louis Vuitton and museums like the Hirshhorn, she may just do it again, too.  In a 2009 interview, she proclaimed: “As long as I have the energy, I will carry on. I’d like to live 200 or 300 years.  I want to leave my message to my successors and future generations.