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“Yayoi Kusama: Recent Work and Paintings From the New York Years”

At Baumgartner (7th Street)

To February 28

“Geometric Abstraction: Mel Bochner, Sol Lewitt, Imi Knoebel,

Andrew Spence”

At Numark to March 15

Local pundits who find themselves obliged to support a small-time scene under siege from big-gunning out-of-towners often indulge in a peculiar kind of provincialism, their protectionist impulses leading to an inversion of taste: Hometown goods are never all that sorry, while the offerings trumpeted by big-city sophisticates never live up to the hype. Witness guest Postie Ferdinand Protzman, who, with his dimwitted dismissal of Baumgartner’s Yayoi Kusama show last Saturday, took the lead in the Morning Paper’s latest dumbass-artcrit steeplechase.

At his most clever, Protzman bandied about some cracks about the libido and hygiene of Godzilla (he’s Japanese, remember). At his least, our most visible and reliable supporter of bad local art dismissed the show’s centerpiece with a glib pronouncement about its purported similarity to a mushroom cloud (nice image, that).

The rest of the time, he wouldn’t let go of Kusama as a persona long enough to focus on Baumgartner’s having delivered, for an admittedly personality-rich figure, a rather thoughtful, restrained show. While it’s tempting to interpret Kusama’s art through her illness (a resident of a Tokyo mental institution, she suffers from hallucinations and severe obsessive-compulsive disorder), it is the uncanny alignment of her concerns with the fixations of sane folk that commends her work.

Those conversant with art brut will find nowhere in this show the repetitive hermeticity that typifies most art of the insane and leads us to regard it more with respect for its reproductive willfulness than genuine affection for what it transmits. Instead, Kusama’s repetitions (her sausagelike soft-sculpted forms, her painted polka dots and fields) are more akin to those that characterize relatively mainstream expressions, from the serial positions of the modernist grid to chattering one-note Buzzcocks and Ramones lead lines.

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In Artforum’s February cover story, Andrew Solomon quotes Kusama as saying, “I painted boredom, which is more important than the sunlight the impressionists painted.” And now that virtually everyone in the industrialized world has been changed from a sun-watcher to a clock-watcher, does that statement really seem so unreasonable?

How about repetition as survival—is that alien to us? Kusama is acutely aware of the human organism’s machinelike dedication to sustaining itself, of the banality of the will to live: “Think if you saw all in one space the food you eat during a whole lifetime, how terrifying it would be, that you are eating your way through all that, and that you have to go on, every day, and eat….It is like continuing to drink thousands of cups of coffee served in an automatic cafeteria….The consciousness of living in continuation sometimes drives me crazy.” Me too.

In her field paintings, Kusama makes these themes poignantly clear. 1960’s No. A consists of thousands of small, black, jagged shapes, each reminiscent of the work of a leaf-cutter ant, tightly grouped across the picture plane and separated from one another by a thin, red web. The point is not the paint handling, which is ordinary, but the composition, the way patterns radiate through the uneasy proximity of shapes from one section of the canvas to another, animated by the eye. Obsession establishes the effect, but doesn’t overwhelm it.

Although the paintings in this show are of moderate size, they give the impression of covering much larger areas. Still, they remain down-to-earth, concerned not with the “cosmic voids” fashionable in ’60s artspeak, but the psychological form of existence as endurance.

Like her installation work, Kusama’s paintings also imply that her talent is best not hemmed in. And a series of small, boxed constructions from the ’80s, which house varieties of small, stuffed phallic forms and are placed along the gallery’s longest wall, confirms this. Again the facture is unexceptional, but the pieces feel unnecessarily confined, as if someone couldn’t handle the big stuff here and had ordered some Kusama to go.

The most successful work in the show is the one for which Protzman reserved his tasteful “mushroom cloud” comment. The Door to the Twenty-First Century consists of an upright square frame on a steel stem covered in all sizes of roiling, writhing, silver-painted snake forms (Kusama’s signature shapes also call to mind things fetal and fecal).

The rococo mass of snakes overflowing the frame again evokes the horrifying irrepressibility of the biological. But here the shapes play off the vacancy in their midst, balancing virulence with wit, seeing tomorrow as deliciously unfilled. If this is the only door to the future, we’ll all have to jump through its hoop like circus tigers.

Viewed more abstractly, the form of the piece is as much a key as a door. Taken less literally still, it is a ridiculously ornate thought balloon, grandiose in its portent, into which the present squeezes its visions of a future that is still a void.

The best pieces upstairs at Numark similarly concern themselves with circumscribing an emptiness, though it’s strictly a formal one. Within the rarefied confines of geometric abstraction, that might seem old hat, but the gallery has found a foursome that demonstrates a perverse taste for developing complex compositional ideas within restrictive formats.

Rectangular pieces of paper screenprinted solid red and white orbit and intersect the off-whiteness of unprinted sheets in Imi Knoebel’s suite of 16 prints, Rot-Weiss (Mappe II), a coolly dazzling exercise in regularity and asymmetry, proportion and balance, that remains tantalizingly unresolved. His less ascetic untitled works play brilliant Romper Room hues off slightly irregular quadrilaterals, resulting in admittedly familiar illusions of bending straight lines and right acute angles.

Mel Bochner’s larger prints get their scale by butting together four individual sheets around a central square of space. They get their interest not from this device, however, but from the saturated colors, deep embossing, and slight “imperfections” in their repeated scenes of cubes tumbling across a perspectival grid.

“Flaws” similarly intensify Andrew Spence’s reinterpretations of familiar real-world shapes (a ball court, a TV and table, and a window), which hover between stylization and idealization, their balancing act honed by the push-pull of slight misregistrations and dead-on sharp-soft color combinations.

But it’s Sol Lewitt’s Stars Portfolio that vies against Rot-Weiss to steal the show. Lewitt’s idea is simple: Each print features a series of concentric stars, the number of points (from three to 10) on the stars corresponding to their position in the series of prints. But as is his wont, Lewitt mucks up the algorithm, intentionally giving the three-pointed star a unique configuration. And though the others fall in step, some are peculiarly allusive, among them conjuring three world religions and a country that virtually makes itself a fourth. Each concentric set is united by cool, rich, dusky colors radiating from its center. Like Knoebel, Lewitt has long excelled in getting the answers wrong in just the right way.

Lest I be accused of withholding my affection from locals, I should confess that the one thing that literally stopped me in my tracks was a piece of public art near the H and 7th Streets exit to the Gallery Place Metro station. In one of the light boxes was a picture that read “LiFE” in large, brushy black letters over a spattered, dirty-pink background, which was underlined by a swath of burnt orange strewn with greenish-black coils. In the lower right corner, in much smaller lettering, almost pushed off the edge, it read, “NOT ViOLENCE.” Between the F and the E was a sticker, practically, casually placed, announcing that the piece was a “public service advertisement from the Children’s Anti-Violence Art Project” and that it was “created by the Children’s Neighborhood Trust Initiative.” It’s an ideal piece of public art, accessible but not pandering, meaningful but not condescending, simple but not slick, with a graphic punch, like that of good graffiti, that forces you to linger.

I have no idea who specifically made it, and I don’t feel a real need to know. I entertain no delusions of art actually turning back violence or talented children necessarily growing up to be good artists or better citizens, but the child (or children) who made this is producing real art right now. And that I’ll take wherever I find it.CP