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I am looking forward to writing the second half of my post about minimalism (which I promised in my angry Marie Kondo post), but first, let’s take some time out to celebrate National Polka Dot Day–which is (evidently) observed on January 22nd.  I love polka dots for footwear and neckwear (and I seem to recall a special childhood blanket with beautiful kelly green polka dots on it), but, as we already know, polka dots are not merely for decorative use.  Dots occur again and again in nature, where they are critical for mimicry, display, and camouflage. Likewise, art returns again and again to the dot, not merely as a design motif, but as a formative abstract building block.  Certain artists did not merely utilize polka dots in their works–they utilized nothing but polka dots, which became the entire focus of illustrious art careers. Here are three polka dot theme paintings to mark the holiday.  Let me know if you have other favorite works.

First, at the top of the post is one of Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin works (Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin (2000), Acrylic on canvas, 53.3 x 65.4 cm).  Kusama is the undisputed doyenne of polka dots in this age…and perhaps in all other eras as well.  Focusing on the dots has kept her sane and brought her unprecedented international fame.  Yet beyond the hype and the relentless obsession, there is a relentless exploration of visual phenomena and ultimately of ontology within Kusama’s artworks.  All things can be reduced to dots…or perhaps to atoms (which are after all another even more abstruse sort of dot). Yet, even if it Is made of circles, still the pumpkin exists.  And there is an enormous formal beauty in its mysterious gestalt.

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Roy Lichtenstein is also famous for making works out of polka dots.  His work is less metaphysical in its subject than Kusama’s, but instead addresses the extent to which humans recognize and respond to iconography.  The above painting, (detail below), takes a panel from a serial-style cartoon strip and blows it to enormous size.  Although the work is instantly familiar from countless anonymous Sunday newspaper strips, it is alien too.  The anxious woman is as strange and inhuman as a Byzantine mosaic (and she is likewise made of innumerable tiny unrecognizable pieces).  Yet because of a lifetime of habituation she is instantly familiar, as is her melodramatic situation (even if we lack the particulars).

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Finally, we close out the post with the oldest painting of the three (below).  This is Georges Seurat’s masterful “Parade de Cirque” completed in 1887-1888.    Like Kusama, Seurat composed his entire world of dots, but he seeks a realistic figurative impression in a way which she does not.  The figures of the circus midway indeed seem real: they wriggle and shimmer like people seen in the footlights during a misty evening.  The subject—a carnival sideshow—has ancient roots which snake back into medieval history.  Yet, like Lichtenstein’s woman they are instantly familiar to everyone.  The cultural touchstone asks pointed questions about reality and our enjoyment of it.  The carnival folk and musicians are not wizards or celebrities, they are humble performers. Yet through the magic of art they have an otherworldly mystery and presence which captivate the bourgeoisie crowd ).  This illusion exists on other levels as well:  after all the artist is a member of the troupe– another illusionist who has made entertainment and mystery out of dabs of paint and showmanship.  These long-vanished Parisian performers are made of thousands of individual spots of paint, agonizingly applied.  Indeed this whole post is just dots on your computer screen and we are just little dots too.  Maybe EVERY day is National Polka Dot Day…

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I was sent out of the office to deliver some financial papers in midtown the other day, and, as I came back, I spotted this amazing autumn garden featuring a magnificent Yayoi Kusama statue of a pumpkin covered with polka dots.  It really spoke to me in the gloomy gray day and it made me realize that we need to write about Kusama, who has been a mainstay of Japanese art since the sixties, (although she has a biography and artist-creation story which stretches back to before World War II).  Kusama took up residence in the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in the mid 70’s and she has lived there ever since, even though she is a wealthy international art celebrity. She makes no secrets of her emotional troubles–but she has surmounted them through polka dots and gourds. Kusama is often quoted as saying: “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.”

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The unexpected appearance of her work out in the real world brightened up my November outlook and I hope it will cheer you up too (here is a link to actual details written in the insufferable language of real-estate developers).  Additionally this particular manifestation is seasonally appropriate and needs to be put up before autumn fades away and winter begins.  However don’t be anxious, we will be sure to return to Yayoi Kusama’s work and talk about colors and polka dots when winter’s monotony is too much to bear.

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It might seem hard to believe but before Europeans discovered America, pumpkins were unknown in the old world. The familiar orange gourd-like squashes are native to North America. They belong to the Cucurbitacea family, which includes cucumbers, honeydew melons, cantaloupe, watermelons and zucchini.  The oldest pumpkin seeds discovered date back to 5500 BC and were found in Mexico—so the people of the Americas have been planting and harvesting pumpkins for a long time.  This makes perfect sense since pumpkins are low in calories but high in fiber, Vitamin A, the B vitamins, potassium, protein, and iron.

Today pumpkins are a huge agribusiness and US farmers alone grow more than 1.5 billion pounds worth (which is about the equivalent mass of eight aircraft carriers—although the pumpkins would be less handy in a naval engagement). Annual contests are held around the country to see who can grow the largest pumpkin—a record currently held by Chris Steven’s 821 kilogram (1,810 pound) monster pumpkin grown in Minnesota in 2010. Ninety five percent of canned pumpkin puree is grown in Illinois, the home of Libby’s (a giant vegetable canning company currently owned by Nestlé, the world’s most profitable company in 2011).  Strangely the pumpkins canned by Libby’s are a sort of buff colored variety which look very different than the orange jack-o-lantern pumpkins which are sold at produce-stands.

A field of commercial pumpkins in Illinois

Speaking of jack-o-lanterns the tradition of carving faces in vegetable to ward off evil spirits goes far back into the depths of medieval Irish history, however since pumpkins were unknown in Ireland until the 16th century such face-lanterns were originally carved out of turnip, mangel-wurzel, or swede.  It was not until the nineteenth century that such lanterns acquired their name and came to be associated with Halloween.

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Since I like to write about colors as well as farming, there is a handsome medium orange color named pumpkin, which, as you can imagine, is a staple hue for plastics and confections manufacturers as October and November roll around.

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