The art installation Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity by Yayoi Kusama.
The art installation Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity by Yayoi Kusama is included in the McNay Art Museum's Immersed exhibition. Credit: Courtesy / Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama may have created her infinity rooms as spaces for contemplation and reflection on identity, but these enclosed, mirrored rooms, filled with lights and reflecting pools, have become social media sensations, with sold-out tickets and lines of people out the doors of The Broad museum in Los Angeles and the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C.

One of Kusama’s rooms is included in the McNay Art Museum’s latest exhibition, Immersed: Local to Global Art Sensations, opening June 7 and running through Sept. 2. The McNay requires reservations for a timed entry, made by visiting the museum website or calling 210-805-1783.

“We really want to get the word out about getting tickets ahead of time, because we’d hate for visitors to be disappointed,” said René Paul Barilleaux, the museum’s head of curatorial affairs.

Immersed features four artists: Kusama, local artist Chris Sauter, British artist Philip Worthington, and American Pop artist Andy Warhol. This specific combination of artists, each of whose work is experiential in some way for the viewer, is part of the museum’s local-to-global focus in conjunction with the San Antonio Tricentennial.

“The McNay, since the beginning, has really thought globally about modern and contemporary art, and San Antonio is such a vital part of that global story. By including artists from our own community in these global movements, we realize how far San Antonio has come in 300 years to become truly a global city,” McNay Director Richard Aste said. “We’re the first modern art museum in Texas, and we were created as the vision of a pioneer woman who wanted to constantly celebrate and advance the appreciation of the art of her time.”

Visitors will enter the Tobin Exhibition Galleries through a silver beaded curtain, a portal that takes them from the throbbing summer heat into a cool, shaded space with four different immersive environments.

“It’s very clearly stated in our mission that we engage with a diverse community, and what better way to connect than to include the community as part of the work of art,” Aste said.

Though it may give the impression of infinity, Kusama’s Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (2009) is actually 12 feet by 12 feet, so only two people are admitted into the room at a time to absorb the infinite-seeming reflected tiny lights that are meant to look like Japanese paper lanterns.

“You’re going to get 60 seconds in our Kusama infinity room, a very small space which will feel like infinity,” Aste said, “but still, one room to slow down and contemplate what you immediately see before you for 60 full seconds.”

In Pleasure Principle, which he created for the exhibition, Sauter has built a living room that includes his parents’ furniture. Sauter wows his audience with the inventiveness and
craftmanship of his sculptural, installation-based work. Barilleaux compares Sauter’s particular genius to how a sculptor can see what is inside the block of marble before he carves it.

Chris Sauter works on his installation Pleasure Principle for Immersed.
Chris Sauter works on his installation Pleasure Principle for Immersed. Credit: Courtesy / McNay Art Museum

“I’m drawn to the way Sauter cannibalizes one part of the work to make another part, the way he bores holes in the wall. It’s like using parts of the body for another part of the body in surgery,” Barilleaux said.

“We’ve wanted to work with Chris, but have been waiting for the right project. He’s well-known outside of San Antonio, and we wanted to help advance his profile, especially to the McNay audience. When we got the Kusama room, all of the parts started to fit together.”

Philip Worthington, a British artist who lives in New York, uses custom-designed vision recognition software in his installation, Shadow Monsters (2004). Worthington’s art processes visitors’ bodies and sounds into monstrous images and sounds, made visible on the surface of a giant light box. The museum will provide props like pool noodles and hula hoops to enhance the transformations, because the audience is needed to complete the work.

“We’re integrating more activity into the gallery space, and we’ll have participatory things like a huge Lite Brite board that allows visitors and families to make their own art,” Barilleaux said.

The work Shadow Monsters by Philip Worthington.
Shadow Monsters by Philip Worthington. Credit: Courtesy / Carrithers Studio / Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

A meditative room features Warhol’s Sunset (1967), exhibited in honor of the 50th anniversary of HemisFair ’68, on loan from the Warhol Museum. This unfinished film is a 33-minute loop of a sunset with Nico from the Velvet Underground doing the voiceover. Like Warhol’s 1968 film, Empire, which features an unchanging view of the Empire State Building, the image of the sunset is static.

“I think of it like a painting,” said Barilleaux, who first learned of the film while doing research for McNay’s Warhol exhibit in 2012. Warhol began making the film in 1964 for a commission by John and Dominique de Menil to be used at HemisFair, but plans for where it was to be exhibited were cancelled.

A still from the film Sunset by Andy Warhol.
A still from the film Sunset by Andy Warhol. Credit: Courtesy / The Andy Warhol Museum

Both the Kusama and Worthington installations are on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “We have a personal relationship with their director, Gary Tinterow,” said Aste, who spent five days shadowing Tinterow as part of a training program at the Center for Curatorial Leadership, which empowers curators to take on more leadership.

“Both he and I put as much of an emphasis on community and community impact as we do on artistic excellence,” Aste said. “We share core values and a similar vision for our museums, which is to be vital, integrated relevant community centers in our cities. Immersed really reflects that commitment. We want the McNay to be immersed our community.”

Wendy Weil Atwell is a writer living in San Antonio, Texas. She received her MA in Art History and Criticism from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2002. Atwell is the author of The River Spectacular...