Connecting the Dots: Glass House Curator Irene Shum Allen Talks Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama's Dots Obsession – Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope, 2016. Photo by Matthew Placek.
Yayoi Kusama's Dots Obsession – Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope, 2016. Photo by Matthew Placek.

Curator and Collections Manager Irene Shum has been at the Glass House for a decade. Her impact can be felt in the renewed interest in architect Philip Johnson's legacy. The caretaker of a modernist icon, Shum, has been initiating new discussions of the mystical property by incorporating equally entrancing art. This year, she invited Yayoi Kusama to play house. Here, the multitalented curator speaks about these contemporary art interventions, architecture preservation and her role in the orchestration of the two.

What is it like being the curator of an estate? What drew you to the job? I first studied art history and architecture at Barnard College, Columbia University, then focused on architecture at Yale University. In between my studies, I worked at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and Whitney Museum of American Art. During my second year at Yale, I knew that I wanted return museum work. In particular, I was interested in career as a curator specializing in art and architecture.

My career as a curator began in earnest when I joined the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Architecture and Design, the department founded by Philip Johnson in 1930. MoMA provided professional curatorial training, and it is where I learned to organize all aspects of an exhibition - the exhibition itself, catalog, website, and symposium.

At MoMA, I organized Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape, the museum's first survey on landscape architecture with Peter Reed, Senior Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs. Groundswell received critical and popular acclaim. It travelled abroad to Germany and was included in Entry 2006, an large-scale design exposition at UNESCO World Heritage site Zeche Zollverein, funded by the European Union, the German state of Westphalia, and the city of Essen.

When the curator position at the Glass House opened up in late 2006, I jumped at the opportunity, as I clearly saw the position's potential. I was especially drawn to founding a new museum snd shaping its collection and exhibition program.

Irene Shu
Yayoi Kusama's Dots Obsession – Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope, 2016. Photo by Matthew Placek.

What do you consider your biggest professional accomplishment? Introducing temporary exhibitions has been the most exciting initiative that I implemented at the Glass House. As a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, brick and mortar preservation projects were the primary priority, so championing exhibitions as integral to the history of the Glass House and the legacy of Philip Johnson as an art patron was a major achievement. Narcissus Garden is the Glass House’s most ambitious project yet.

As the inaugural curator, I have been deeply invested in the Glass House’s success. It is rewarding to have been intricately involved in founding this museum, and it is exciting to imagine its future. This experience has truly been a labor of love. Over the past ten years, we have steadily built the site’s capacity, and it now serves as successful case study of creative place making.

What in your opinion does having a contemporary installation add to a modernist institution? History is a dialectic, and it is always being challenged and rewritten. Contemporary art keeps the Glass House relevant and vibrant.

How does research for a show like this begin? The Glass House is a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. As the inaugural curator, I try to subtly align our preservation projects and initiatives to our exhibition program.

For example, in 2014, Fujiko Nakaya: Veil wrapped the Glass House in fog for approximately ten minutes each hour. I first worked with artist to layout the fog system, then hired civil engineers to design the infrastructure, upgrading the electrical service from 120V to 240V in the historic core of the property where the Glass and Brick Houses are located. No longer a private residence, this was a necessary to accommodate the site’s increased usage as a public space. Moreover, the underground conduits that were installed for the exhibition to house the fog system’s high pressure hoses could be reused for high speed internet cable, among other future usages.

This year, Yayoi Kusama: Narcissus Garden highlights the landscape of the Lower Meadow and forest, that encompass more than half of the Glass House’s 49-acres. To draw attention to its recent conservation, “Narcissus Garden” was installed in the pond, the most prominent feature of the Lower Meadow. Comprised of 1,300 free floating stainless steel spheres, this installation required two public meetings and a permit approval from the municipal wetlands department. In September, the studio will polka dot the Glass House, creating a unique site-specific “infinity room,” Dots Obsession – Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope. This playful installation is the highlight of the exhibition, celebrating the Glass House’s tenth tour season and the anniversary of Philip Johnson’s 110th birthday.

What brought you to the work of Kusama? I first became aware of Kusama's artwork in high school when visiting The Museum of Modern Art, where I experienced one of her mirrored rooms with phallic soft sculptures.. The work, whose title escapes me, challenged me and made me uncomfortable. Yet, because she was an Asian woman artist, I was immediately intrigued. I wanted to know more about her. So, fast forward thirty years, it an honor to now be working with Kusama. and her studio.

What do you think Kusama’s installation will highlight at the Glass House? Alternatively, what do you think Johnson’s building will bring out in Kusama’s work? What is unique about this exhibition is that it is site specific: Kusama's artwork is fully integrated with Johnson's architecture and landscape design. The Glass House is a 49 acre estate with 14 buildings and structures. More than half of the acreage 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 of the property. When I was thinking about what artist and which artwork could hold that space, Narcissus Garden by Yayoi Kusama came to mind. Thus, discussions with the studio began.

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 a severe and pathological 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.

In particular, Dots Obsession – Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope allows the visitor to see and to experience the world through the eyes of both Philip Johnson and Yayoi Kusama simultaneously. It is where the two creative minds meet: Kusama’s polka dots envelop Philip Johnson’s architecture and superimpose on his thoughtfully designed landscapes. Its bright Pepsi red color and varying sizes helps us to establish a playful and celebratory mood for our tenth tour season and the 110th anniversary of Philip Johnson’s birth. Yet, the interplay of shade, shadow, and reflection is a sophisticated manipulation of architectural effects. It is very creative reinterpretation of the house.

What was it like working with Kusama? Keeping pace and working with Kusama is intense. She has a strong and specific creative vision, and her studio works to maintain her high standards. She and her studio are very hands-on. They review, edit, add, and refine everything until they are satisfied with the outcome.

IT has been an honor to work with Kusama and her studio. Quite honestly, I was reminded of when I was graduate student studying under Zaha Hadid. When working with a highly-regarded and widely recognized master, such as Kusama or Hadid, it challenges one to do more and ask more of oneself. It demands the utmost attention to detail. It also requires a level of humility: I was keenly aware that I was working in an artist of key art historical importance. It is truly awe-inspiring to witness genius in action.

As mentioned earlier, I started my career at the New Museum working under its founding director Marcia Tucker; so as a curator, my touch is rather light, and I allow the artist to take the lead: I simply provided Kusama the space to create, and that she did. Unlike a typical exhibition, where the curator develops the check-list of artworks to be displayed, Yayoi Kusama: Narcissus Garden at the Glass House has been more akin to an artist project, which slowly unfolds and showcases the creative process. Every aspect of the exhibition was determined in discussion with the artist. For example, for Dots Obsession - Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope, she designed the dot pattern, then we tested different vinyl materials before arriving at the final design and specification. For the custom merchandise which was developed with the studio, the snow globe went through five iterations before the final design; the tote bag was three iterations; and the postcards required finding the right photographer. It was a constant dialogue with the studio.

What is the installation process like, does every dot have a place? The studio installed Narcissus Garden and Pumpkin in April 2016, and during this time, they were clear that they wished to install the polka dot installation on the Glass House, that each polka dot had its own unique placement. The polka dot pattern and its title was not finalized until May 2016, and Kusama wrote the poem about the work in June 2016.

What would you like to see at the Glass House in the future? The Glass House is fortunate, because the site can draw from and interpret the rich legacy of art patronage of Philip Johnson and David Whitney. Johnson and Whitney advanced the art of their time. It is well known that Philip Johnson was a lifetime trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, who donated over 2200 objects to the museum. David Whitney was also a collector and art patron, who also donated works to the MoMA, but also served as a trustee of The Menil Collection. In fact, Whitney's bequest of 17 drawings by Jasper Johns allowed The Menil to initiate the catalogue raisin of the artist's drawings.

By advancing the art of our time, we keep the spirit of the Glass House alive. The site will always be a place where artists are encouraged to experiment, innovate and create. This commitment to the arts is as important to the site, as the preservation of its tangible assets - it's buildings, grounds, and collections.

The last two large scale art installation were by Asian women artists, so I am now interested in artists from Europe. Artists whom I would personally love to work with on the property include Olafur Eliasson, Wolfgang Laib, and Olaf Nicolai. For example, I would love Eliasson to create a geyser in the pond, reminiscent of the now defunct fountain in its heyday that once dramatically punctuated landscape and immortalized in Vogue's photographs of Merce Cunningham's Museum Event #5 performance. I would also love to invite Wolfgang Laib to collect the abundant tree and plant pollen one spring and create his signature pollen field or pollen mounds either in the Pavilion or in the Glass House, which would disappear like Tibetan sand mandala. Lastly, I could easily see Olaf Nicolai inserting small, subtle yet thought-provoking interventions throughout the property to help reinterpret the landscape.

An artist in the collection whose work I would like to more extensively exhibit is Julian Schnabel. He is an artist whom I feel has not received the critical acclaim that he deserves. I would love for the Glass House to present a survey of his work - paintings, sculptures, and films - to initiate that discussion.

There are so many things to be done at the Glass House. It is very exciting and it has truly been a privilege to be the curator of this important historic site, which has served as the nexus between art and architecture.