Transformer

Above: Artist Yoyoi Kusama at work.

As a young girl growing up in pre-war Japan, Yayoi Kusama began her artist’s journey using pastels, watercolors and oils to draw fantastical motifs with polka dots and nets. Her family—who were both culturally traditional and highly dysfunctional—dismissed her artistic inclinations. Nevertheless, despite this lack of support, she persisted. As a young woman, unable to control her compulsion to express herself with drawing and painting, she wrote to American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who encouraged her to come to the United States to pursue her passion. So she did.

The rest of her story has become an amazing trajectory, from a virtually unknown staging art “happenings” in New York in the 1960s to her acknowledged position at the age of ninety as perhaps the globe’s most famous contemporary female artist. Kusama was, after all, Japanese, a woman and, by her work and actions, an iconoclast with little encouragement from the cultural gatekeepers of the era in which she first appeared. However, over the next five decades she transformed what some might call a psychological obsession into an unsurpassed achievement in connecting her work to a worldwide audience. Tickets to view installations of her Infinity Mirror rooms and other Kusama works are sold out almost instantly wherever they are displayed. The opportunity for her audiences to interact with art in an experience that is unique and personal creates excitement wherever her work is seen.

Juxtapose this artistic sensation with a local institution—the Westport Arts Center—poised to mark a half-century of existence as a cultural reference point. Add to the mix an exciting new venue, with spaces appropriate for significant installations, performances and presentations. Top it all off with a new name, one that reflects an expanded identity. The result is something quite a bit more momentous than a birthday cake.

“This organization grew from the bottom up,” notes Amanda Innes, executive director since 2016. “It was founded in 1969 as the Westport–Weston Arts Council and it started with some local artists and a couple of patrons. Because of its homegrown beginnings, it has always had strong roots in the community.”

Those strong roots served it well, as the group has been transplanted several times in its history, most notably to the Greens Farms School from 1985 to 1999; a nomadic few years in multiple venues after that; and, finally, in 2002, to its Riverside Avenue location. Through all the uprooting and replanting, Westport’s creative DNA, its history as a mecca for artists of all disciplines, and its healthy population of patrons of the visual and performing arts kept the organization viable.

As it celebrates fifty years of programs that have included exhibitions, education and music from many genres, the organization’s growing base of support has achieved critical mass. It is poised to open the door to a larger cultural role, both in Westport and in the surrounding region.

On September 22, the local arts center will not only kick off a simultaneous showing of two seminal works by Yayoi Kusuma (a first on the East Coast), but also will do so in a new space that is three times the size of the Riverside Avenue venue, providing the square footage and spatial volume for exhibitions and other programs that were never possible before.

Above and below: The new arts campus and renovated building will allow the newly named MoCA Westport to produce large-scale exhibitions as well as other community-focused arts programs.

THE SPACE
“Last year, we were hanging a show and one of the key pieces, a Damien Hirst work, had just three-quarters of an inch of clearance from the ceiling,” recalls Innes. “We knew we were pushing the limits of what we could do in the confines of the Riverside venue. We wanted to move forward and then, almost out of thin air, came an opportunity with the makings of an art bomb.”

The new space, a castle-like structure on Newtown Turnpike, met all the requirements for a transforming move: convenient location, beautiful exterior, ten thousand square feet inside, a layout that provides for more than one dramatic gallery and plenty of parking. What once was a television studio had been available as a commercial space for quite a while, but it remained empty, almost as if it were waiting for something big. And it was. With the ink barely dry on the lease, and a grand opening scheduled for the fiftieth anniversary, the Kusama presentation would complete the “big bang” to introduce a new era in Westport’s art history.

THE ART
With her ingenious use of mirrors inside a ten-by-ten-foot polished stainless-steel chamber, pierced by pinpricks in its walls and ceiling, Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room: Where the Lights in My Heart Go provides visitors with a celestial experience when they step inside. The artist calls this work a “subtle planetarium,” with an intimate enclosure that at the same time provides the illusion of a continuously expanding universe. Once inside, visitors have likened the experience to being lost in space and to feeling at one with the cosmos. No one who enters the structure leaves unaffected by it.

The second work in the September show, Narcissus Garden, has a long history as well as a very interesting connection to the new space. Its first iteration was shown as an installation by Kusama outside the Italian Pavilion at the thirty-third Venice Biennale in 1966. The 1,500 small mirror-surfaced globes created a sensation—particularly when Kusama offered them for sale for $2 each (1,200 lire) to passersby. Encouraging the trade with a sign that read, “Your narcissism for sale,” it was a not-so-subtle slap at the idea of art as transaction. The Westport installation (not for sale) contains 1,200 mirrored metallic spheres and offers visitors the opportunity for reflection, both literally and figuratively. Kusama’s work is accessible art at its best.

“It’s really a perfect presentation to introduce this new space,” says Innes. “When we were exploring the move to Newtown Turnpike, we invited the neighbors to have dialogue with us about our plans. A few of them knew the history of the place, which turned out to have been originally built as a factory for precision metal industrial parts, including ball bearings. Those small metal spheres and Kusama’s larger ones create a nice bit of synchronicity and provide connection between the building’s past and the present moment.”

THE COMMUNITY
As the new space opens, the organization will also have a new moniker: MoCA Westport. Its new acronym aligns it with MoCA institutions around the country that have become centers for active interchange between artists of all disciplines and their communities. One could think of this organization as an incubator for artistic expression that includes music and education as well as the visual arts.

Local collector and board member Derek Goodman, who with his wife, Lauren, loaned the Kusama works to launch the new space, expressed his enthusiasm for the upcoming reveal. “Westport has a great arts history. As it opens its new home, we are pleased to support MoCA Westport and its mission of connecting the community through the arts. We hope everyone enjoys the exhibit as much as we do.”

Amanda Innes, who has spent her career both in banking and in art—before moving to Connecticut she ran a gallery in Santa Fe and served on the Arts Center board before taking the helm as director—notes the ideal position of Westport to become a pivot point for the arts in the region. “Art is everywhere in this town. It’s in civic buildings, in our schools and in the amazing collections of many of our local and area residents who support our mission wholeheartedly. We understand that art is not a trophy, and our job is to get it seen. With this new chapter, our organization can be instrumental in making that happen.”

Sept. 22: MoCA Westport opens at 19 Newtown Tpk.; Kusama tickets and viewing times at mocawestport.org.

Images courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. © Yayoi Kusama

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