"Robert Kushner: On Location," Mar. 22-Apr. 21, 2007, at DC Moore Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019
Kushner, who has transformed the transient progression of vernal flowers into superbly opulent, conceptually sophisticated paintings. The show, titled "On Location," featured the simultaneously monumental and intimate works that Kushner has made since 2005 and proved convincingly that the artist is now at the top of his form.
Kushner has the ability to move effortlessly from naturalism to abstract forms. Now that modernist disdain for representation has become largely irrelevant, his maverick dedication to nature, his random placement of motifs, his mastery of materials as diverse as mica, gold leaf and the always contentious glitter, his geometric splintering of space and his assimilation of non-western esthetics, make his work increasingly pertinent in this era of baroque pluralism. Nevertheless, his initial role as a late 1970s leader of what -- as it nipped at Minimalism and witnessed the last autocratic gasps of abstraction -- was labeled "Pattern and Decoration" has turned out to be a mixed blessing.
Long accused of the sin of beauty, this exuberant artist has profitably ignored those critics who have confused the dazzling glamour of his work with frivolity or vulgarity. This basically puritanical attitude, which is now something of a mainstream art-world party line, resolutely rejects visual pleasure and condescends to devalue the "decorative." Begging to differ, let me emphasize that the decorative has been Kushner’s great and enduring source of stimulation as well as his connection to endlessly rich cultural traditions.
As he wrote in his recent book, Wild Gardens (Pomegranate Press), "Decoration, an abjectly pejorative dismissal for many, is a very big, somewhat defiant declaration for me. An open acceptance of the Decorative leads me to places no other approach can."
After a trip to Kyoto back in 1985, Kushner turned from figures to flowers, deciding to rehabilitate the subject from its modern Western demotion to insipid fodder for amateur painters and hacks. That was when he also became increasingly fascinated with Japanese art, especially its magnificent screens and sliding doors. Years before American art expanded its provincial esthetic consciousness and started going global, he began an intense study of Japanese and Chinese painting that has resulted in a profoundly thoughtful synthesis of Eastern and Western ideas and techniques.He is one of the few American artists to study Qi Baishi, the modern Chinese master whose mission was to capture the essence of nature in his poetically simplified brush paintings of birds, insects and flowers. From Sottatsu and Koetsu (founders of the 17th-century Rimpa School), their younger disciple Ogata Korin, and the Edo Period painter Jakuchu, Kushner absorbed into his work a variety of Eastern techniques: multiple perspectives, asymmetrical cropping and extended horizontal formats as well as the gold-leaf backgrounds and dramatic zigzag compositional structures that are unique in contemporary American painting.
On one level, Kushner’s floral landscapes, with their flatness, lyrical repeats and ornamental devices, operate as successful advocates of the decorative style (à la les Nabis and Puvis de Chavannes). These qualities are countered by a witty, layered interplay of contrasting, highly saturated colors and fluctuating illusions of movement and depth, plus a strict and sophisticated underlying geometric structure. As a result, these new works at DC Moore present a symphonic evocation of renewed growth and fleeting beauty that reminds us flowers symbolize both mortality and cyclical rebirth.
This show demonstrates Kushner’s impressive ability to sustain huge visual fields. The modular construction of Japanese screens led him to understand how to construct paintings that can exist either as separate panels or as a unified whole. In 2005 he spent weeks composing the very large Spring Scatter Summation. It’s made up of ten modular panels that, when joined continuously, construct a painting that is 46 feet long and seven feet high. This grand evocation of spring’s bouquet, like a piece of music, demands time to absorb it.
You can’t see the whole painting at once; your eye must move serially across the sumptuous expanses of gridded gold and oxidized metallic leaf upon which the flowers, dispersed as if tossed in random arcs, are depicted in the order they appear in the spring. (The painting begins stage left with the earliest snowdrops, pussy willows and forsythia and ends with irises, lilacs and May peonies). Commissioned for the Wisteriahurst Museum in Mount Holyoke, Mass., the painting was installed there in summer 2005 as panels in separate bays. The installation transformed the austere great room of the Greek Revival house (formerly a museum of musical instruments) into a 21st-century equivalent of Whistler’s lavish Peacock Room.
Last year Kushner painted Seattle Summer Meadow for some West Coast collectors who will install it in a room of their Seattle house. Measuring 36 feet long in total, it consists of 14 eight-foot-high panels and incorporates with abandon the wildflowers indigenous to Washington State. Last spring Kushner also sat for days in a Long Island garden blazing with 3,000 red tulips and painted the conflagration of flowers in the 12-panel Red Emperor. Though he finished up the gilding and bold geometric background work in the studio, it was his first "plein air" painting. (At DC Moore, Red Emperor was hung as three separate units). Here, the stunning flamboyance of the tulips, the controlled spontaneity of the contours describing flowers ands leaves, play against a geometric background of gold leaf, oxidized metallic leaf, and black, purple, ochre and lavender stripes vertically divided into two-thirds and one-third of the canvas to amp up the visual velocity of the painting.
Kushner painted Trudy’s Garden" from a "midnight" garden in Providence, R.I. It is a wild visual fandango of the blackest flowers it’s possible to grow. Three Philodendron Monstera, 15 feet long, is the most recent painting in the show. In this work Kushner has jettisoned delicacy in favor of a gold, black and acidic green palette and slashingly lurid repeats of an abstracted leaf pattern. Matisse and Qi Baishi would understand completely.
New York museums are scandalously light in Robert Kushner’s work. But you can see more of it in other public places around the city. Recent commissions, executed in New York, Florida, Los Angeles and Tokyo -- at Danny Meyer’s Tokyo Union Square Café -- have brought arresting panache to contemporary mural painting and large-scale mosaics. In Manhattan, look for his mosaic of flowers in the entrance of the 77th Street and Lexington Avenue subway station. Kushner’s mosaics also lavishly embellish Tabla, Danny Meyer’s restaurant at 23rd Street and Madison Avenue. Another large, earlier mural of temperate-zone fruits and vegetables can be found at Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern at 20th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue, and there are three huge, vibrant floral paintings installed last spring at Chinatown Brasserie at 380 Lafayette Street.
Meanwhile, I urge the Museum of Modern Art curators of painting and sculpture to take a long hard look at Spring Scatter Summation. It’s the only contemporary painting I know that could actually hold its own installed in the arctic immensity of Yoshio Taniguchi’s museum atrium (which turned Monet’s Waterlilies into a postcard). Kushner’s monumental work hanging on that north wall near the Modern’s garden -- now that would be something to see.
After their appearance at DC Moore Gallery, paintings from "On Location" are scheduled to be exhibited in May at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C. Visits to the show require a 24-hour advance reservation, which can be made by calling (202) 452-3778.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a New York art historian and critic.