Polka Dots Make Everything Better, Even Philip Johnson’s Glass House

As a part of an ongoing installation, the modernist masterpiece explodes into a bevy of fire-engine red dots.

The 49 acres in New Canaan, Connecticut, that host the Glass House, home of legendary architect Philip Johnson, also has a significant collection of 20th-century art. Among the pieces Johnson and his partner, the collector and curator David Whitney, acquired is Donald Judd’s site-specific concrete ring, one of the first structures visitors encounter when arriving to the property. Nearby, a subterranean art gallery designed by Johnson contains paintings by Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, David Salle, and many others.


The 1960s artist you may not immediately associate with the modernist architect and his minimalist, spare glass home? The joyously maximalist Yayoi Kusama, whose immersive polka dot installation has taken over the property this summer and fall. Visitors to the site will see mirrored Kusama orbs floating in the Lower Meadow pond, and an enormous steel pumpkin near the Brick House. And at the central Glass House: bright red polka dots speckling the pristine glass walls like cartoon measles.

The latter, titled Dots Obsession–Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope is the latest of Kusama’s infinity rooms, which have been systematically taking over corners of museums and galleries over the past couple years. Typically, the installation involves a darkened room mirrored on all sides and filled, alternatively, with LED lights, polka dots or pumpkins that appear to stretch on forever, ad infinitum. The appeal of these rooms–which attract thousands of visitors, and absurdly long waiting lines–are the completely immersive, otherworldly, playful experience of being surrounded by so many of the same thing, repeated over and over again, everywhere you look.

At the Glass House, the infinity room experience is a lot tamer: though the windows are slightly reflective, their aren’t any mirrors to make the dots feel infinite. But it’s no less joyful. From inside the house looking out over the property, the dots give the impression that Kusama somehow got her hands on the entire manicured landscape and reimagined it in her vision. Viewing the house from the outside, on the other hand, gives the viewer a mischievous thrill, like watching someone go up to the landmark with a dry-erase marker. Kusama took this austere, orderly modernist masterpiece and gussied it up in the most irreverently ornate manner.

All together, there are 1,200 fire engine-red dots that Kusama and her team drew onto vinyl and Irene Shum, the curator for the Glass House, and her team cut out once the sheets arrived from Japan. They covered one side of the dots with a low-tack adhesive and hired technicians to apply them to the windows with a squeegee. Shum describes the installation as “dynamic”–the sunlight changes the shades of the dots and tracks their shadows across the floor. Come September 26, the Glass House team will merely peel them off (the other pieces in the exhibition will be up until November), thanks to months of choosing an adhesive that wouldn’t leave residue on the glass. “We had to make sure whatever we did leaves the house absolutely as pristine as when we started,” Shum says.

The Johnson aesthetic and the Kusama aesthetic may seem like are polar opposites, but that might be why it’s so fun to see “where the two minds meet,” as Shum puts it. According to her, the two minds actually physically met in the early 1960s, after Kusama moved to New York in 1958. In addition to having a studio on 19th Street in Manhattan just below Donald Judd, for whom Johnson was a friend and patron, Kusama remembers knowing Johnson from the New York arts scene in general. By time she arrived to the city, Johnson was already a public figure and a supporter of fine art. In 1962 he purchased Kusama’s Accumulation of Stamps, 63 and donated it to MoMA, where he donated much of his art collection.

Still, it’s easy to wonder: What would Johnson think of this effervescent array of polka dots on his glass-and-steel modernist masterpiece? Shum says that she’s heard positive things from people who knew Johnson, like Terrence Riley, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator for Architecture an Design at MoMA. “He wrote and said Johnson and Whitney would be proud, which was very moving,” she says.


Ultimately, Shum says, Johnson and Whitney were active art patrons and loved the contemporary art of the time, and that’s the tradition the glass house is trying to carry on with its annual exhibitions, each of which show art that will work well in the context of the property. “I like to believe we’re maintaining the spirit of the place,” she says.

[Photos: Matthew Placek]


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.