June 15, 2016

In the “Narcissus Garden”: Yayoi Kusuma Celebrates Philip Johnson at the Glass House

  • By: Julia Rocchi
  • Photography: Matthew Placek

Architect Philip Johnson, the visionary behind the Glass House (a National Trust Historic Site), the New York State Pavilion (a National Treasure), and much more, would have been 110 this year. So in honor of the anniversary of his birth—and the 10th tour season of the Glass House—the site is celebrating in the way it knows best: by showcasing bold, innovative art.

Irene Shum, the Glass House’s curator and collections manager, is the organizing force behind Yayoi Kusama: Narcissus Garden, a landscape installation on view from May 1 to November 30, 2016. That’s not the only piece Kusama is contributing, however; visitors will also be able to enjoy the steel sculpture PUMPKIN now and the special installation Dots ObsessionAlive, Seeking for Eternal Hope in September.

We had the chance to speak with Shum one-on-one to learn more about Kusama’s art, Johnson’s legacy, and Shum’s touching personal connection to the exhibit. Read on to learn more about this unique and immersive experience.

Yayoi Kusama at Philip Johnson's Glass House, 1

While the landscape surrounding the Glass House looks natural, it was in fact highly sculpted.

Why Yayoi Kusama, and why now?

Philip Johnson and David Whitney [Johnson's partner] were patrons of the arts. The difference between being a patron and merely a collector is that patrons support the artist’s career and creativity, allowing for exploration and experimentation. Johnson and Whitney advanced the art of their time.

This year happens to be our tenth tour season—and the 110th anniversary of Johnson’s birth. The exhibition program complements the preservation work that we do on-site.

We at the Glass House are on 49 acres, and more than half of that is the view to the west of the Glass House. That view is very picturesque. It’s a privileged view: from the promontory, the landscape dramatically drops down to the Lower Meadow and forest. It looks natural, but is in fact highly sculpted. The pond is central to this view, and we had recently dredged it, which is the first phase of the restoration of the pavilion. I wanted to draw attention and to highlight this area. When I was thinking about what artist and which artwork could hold that space, only a few came to mind.

This particular work, Narcissus Garden by Yayoi Kusama, struck me as something that could hold the space. Narcissus Garden was first conceived in 1966, [while] the pavilion here was added in 1962, and the pond (also designed by Johnson) was created in 1957. They’re all from that same period, so they’re very complimentary.

The entire exhibition grew from there, in dialogue with the artist and her gallery. In discussion, we were asked if we were also interested in something more recent. When I said sure, they mentioned PUMPKIN (2015), I asked, “What are the materials and dimensions?” Once they revealed, I said, “Super! I know exactly where it will go.” There was an existing sculpture footing that Johnson had constructed for an Ellsworth Kelly sculpture that he acquired in 1973 then later donated to MoMA in 1984. He never displayed another sculpture on it. It’s very prominently located in the historic core, and you can see it from the Glass House. The artist was very happy with that location.

In another conversation, their gallerist mentioned, “Well, recently she’s been doing these window works. How do you feel about polka dotting the Glass House?” I said, “I love it!” I’m really pleased that the National Trust approved it, because it’s a bold gesture by the artist, and it’s brave of the National Trust to go ahead with that in this site-specific commission.

“"Like Kusama who works out her issues through her art, Philip Johnson used the site to explore architectural concepts and to express himself creatively."”

Irene Shum

Tell me more about how Narcissus Garden “dialogues” with the Glass House.

Narcissus Garden was first created in 1966 in concept. The title of this work is an apt allusion to the Glass House, because Philip Johnson referred to the Glass House campus as his diary, “the diary of an eccentric architect.” Of course, narcissism is an illness; it’s a much more severe form of self-reflection and self-love, but in this regard, Kusama and Johnson as similar: Like Kusama who works out her issues through her art, Philip Johnson used the site to explore architectural concepts and to express himself creatively. Therefore, we extended the title of the artwork to the entire exhibition and to the site.

What makes the polka dot work “brave?”

Architects are funny people; they make pilgrimages. (I say this as a trained architect.) They go to places to study the design and construction details. The Glass House is considered a masterpiece of modern architecture, so to alter the house in any way could possibly offend purists.

This part of the installation recognizes the value of engaging artists and creative place-making. I think this was very brave of the National Trust, because essentially the artist is creating one of her signature infinity rooms [with Dots Obsession in September]. I personally think that it is not dissimilar to Fujiko Nakaya’s fog that engaged and wrapped the Glass House, but this one does so in a very different way. Fujiko’s artwork was gentle, as the fog would dissipate then disappear. Moreover, the entire fog system was located a safe distance away from the house, along the garden wall. This time, the artist will directly and deliberately engage the surface of the Glass House.

The whole planning process was a balancing act to satisfy both the artist and the National Trust. We’re still in the process of selecting materials, but I was able to source non-adhesive static-cling stickers, which leave no residue. There’s absolutely no harm that could come to the surface of the glass. This was a big consideration. We had to find something that was totally reversible, that would do no harm.

A fun fact: During the tests, we discovered that these vinyl films cast shadows, and so that pattern will be repeated in shadow all over the Glass House. It will be a fantastic and dreamy way to experience the Glass House. The visitor will get to experience the artist’s vision, as she sees the world as polka dots, while viewing Philip Johnson’s vision, his thoughtfully designed landscapes.

Yayoi Kusama at Philip Johnson's Glass House, 2

Philip Johnson's pond and Yayoi Kusama's "Narcissus Garden" were originally conceived within four years of each other.

Do you know if any particular elements of the house or the landscape, of the surroundings, inspired her?

Kusama and her studio did not visit the site beforehand, unlike Fujiko Nakaya who visited twice. Although the Glass House is well-known in Japan, it was a leap of faith on their part. Once they came, they fell in love. They understood and immediately agreed with the curatorial direction and proposed locations of the artworks. They were actually very complimentary; they thanked us for thinking of them, because it really is an elegant exhibition.

If you’re standing inside the Glass House, you can see both Narcissus Garden in the lower meadow and PUMPKIN at the same time. Once the Dots Obsession–Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope is installed, people will be able to see and to experience all three elements at once.

What’s nice about the exhibition is that it works on different scales. You can view it from near or afar. The new special exhibition tour is once a week, and it gives you access to the Lower Meadow, which is off our usual tour path. It offers an opportunity to access new areas.

What has this experience been like for you personally?

Kusama is an artist I’d known about since I was fifteen, and so when she said “yes,” it was an honor. Overall, the mood of the exhibition is celebratory. It is a milestone. In the past ten years, we have steadily built the site’s capacity, and it now serves as successful case study of creative place making.

Developed in 2007, the base operation of the Glass House is the guided tour program, that we have continuously fine-tuned. Following the opening from 2008 to 2009, there were private, invitational programs to help conceptualize the Glass House’s future. Public programs were introduced in 2011, exhibitions and music performances in 2012, and dance in 2015. These initiatives honor the site’s history and make the site relevant to contemporary culture.

We have incredible related programs lined up too. I think this puts the Glass House up there as a cultural site. I’m thrilled; it’s the culmination of ten years’ worth of work and good energy.

Yayoi Kusama at Philip Johnson's Glass House, 3

The new special exhibition tour of Philip Johnson's Glass House gives access to the Lower Meadow, off the usual route.

What do you think Philip Johnson would say if he toured these installations?

I have already received two comments. One was from Debbie Taylor, who is the widow of artist Al Taylor and who also was a close friend of David Whitney. She was actually on site on Tuesday. She said that this is exactly how they used the site, as per inviting artists to the site and talking about art. That actually made me cry a little bit; I teared up.

And architect Terence Riley, who served as the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the MoMA for fifteen years and whom I worked under before joining the National Trust, wrote to me, “Philip and David would be proud.”

In the last ten years, we’ve been doing a lot of brick and mortar preservation, but these types of exhibitions that engage contemporary artists are as important to history and legacy of the Glass House. It’s great to have reached the point where we do both.

Edited for length and clarity.

Julia Rocchi is the senior director of digital marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.


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