Athenaeum greets summer with garden of 1,000 flowers


By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Artist Robert Kushner, whose influences include the tribal embroidery of Uzbekistan, Japanese calligraphy, and the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe, is a major proponent of decorative art.

In his current installation, “Scriptorium,” which opened at the Athenaeum June 22, he does what we as children were always warned against doing: he draws on the pages of books.

On display are 1,000 pages he has decorated with drawings of plants and flowers, in various colors and styles.

Actually, the pages were taken from discarded and damaged books, antiques dating from 1500 to 1920. By embellishing them with his flora, Kushner feels he is giving them a chance to live again.

“I would like to think that these superimposed flowers bring the pages back to life, make us wonder who owned and read these books, and allow us to ponder their varied histories,” he said.

Kushner, who has lived in New York for decades, grew up in Arcadia, California, and went to UCSD. Attracted to biology as well as art, he pursued both interests for two years before deciding that while he might be a good biologist, he really wanted to be a good artist.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said. “The art department was fantastic. They taught me how to think! I was in the first graduating class at Muir College, everything was new and unformed, and we were free to create all the templates. And we did!”

In 1972, a year after graduation, he headed for New York, and began making a name for himself with nakedly whimsical performance pieces like “Robert Kushner & Friends Eat Their Clothes.”

Though that may seem a far cry from his elegant botanicals, Kushner maintains that those youthful works weren’t really so different from what he’s doing now.

“I always want people to have something to look at,” he said. “Back then I was trying to be cutting-edge, now I’m doing something that looks sort of stodgy and old-fashioned, but I’m still trying to create something new.”

“Scriptorium,” which has appeared in different incarnations in New York, Denmark, Austin, Texas, and Huntington, West Virginia, is in its fifth and largest installation here. It’s an impressive assemblage of small delights.

Kushner is also a master of large-scale works, whose murals can be seen at international hotels and airports and whose monumental mosaics enliven a subway station in Manhattan’s upper-eastside. But it was his more modest flora that brought him to the Athenaeum.

“I met (Athenaeum director) Erika Torri in April 2011, when I had an exhibition in Santa Monica that was somewhat related to this one,” Kushner said. “I sent her some pictures of ‘Scriptorium’ and she invited me to bring the show here. It’s been fascinating being back in the area again after so many years. I hardly recognize UCSD, but La Jolla is surprisingly unchanged.”

The Athenaeum, with its focus on art, books, and music, seems the perfect place for “Scriptorium,” which includes many drawings on sheets of music.

“This is such a happy and exhilarating show,” said Torri. “People love spending time in the room with it!”

If you go

What: ‘Robert Kushner’s Scriptorium: Devout Exercises of the Heart’

When: On view through July 28

Where: Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla

Contact: (858) 454-5872