Takeo Yamaguchi (1902-1983)
Property from an Important Japanese Collection
Takeo Yamaguchi (1902-1983)

Work No. 2

Takeo Yamaguchi (1902-1983)
Work No. 2
signed in Japanese, tiled and numbered 'Work No.2 1955 Takeo Yamaguchi' (on a paper label affixed to the reverse)
oil on board
35 7/8 x 35 7/8 in. (91.1 x 91.1 cm.)
Painted in 1955.
AJC Auction Company, Tokyo
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1999

Lot Essay

The compositions of Takeo Yamaguchi are like coded analogies for the artist’s practice as an entirety: a harmony of meditative Eastern minimalism expressed through a traditionally Western painting practice. Inspired by what he believed to be his own lack of formal skills, Yamaguchi chose to explore non-conventional modes of representation, concerning himself more with formulating the overall shape and tonal quality of an object rather than details and finer intricacies. This approach led Yamaguchi to embrace abstraction as his primary art form and associate with the artist group Nika-Kai, an independent painting organization developed in reaction to the strict and biased submission standards of Japanese government funded art-exhibitions that favored traditional Japanese painting over Western-influence.

Painted a year after Yamaguchi received the highest award at the First Contemporary Art Exhibition of Japan, Work No. 2 is placed somewhere between the modern, the minimal and the avant-garde. The dancing geometries that resonate across the surface of the work exemplify Yamaguchi’s signature color palette of saturated earth tones: a vibrant terracotta suspended in an inky black apparatus. These raw colors imbue the work with a corporeal earthiness, a presence that seems to occupy space with an almost sculptural capacity. A thick impasto enhances this effect, providing the work with body and depth. However, the texture also inescapably references the purity of paint as medium. The work’s composition possesses chaotic symmetry that lends a surprising sense of balance: a nest of intersecting rectangles, long and plank-like, crested by a central circular burst.

Despite Yamaguchi’s rejection of historic modes of Japanese painting, Work No. 2 exudes a graceful simplicity that feels pictorially appropriate for an artist shaped by axioms of Japanese culture. The structural interstices form a livelier pattern than much of Yamaguchi’s near-monochromatic works. Yet, the work maintains a simplicity of definition that allows for an almost logographic quality to emerge. The linear and punctual nature of Yamaguchi’s forms are not dissimilar from kanji, a Japanese writing system that expresses words and ideas through inscribed linear symbols. Work No. 2 interpreted as a kanji might represent a sunset over a landscape, or a crouching figure. In this sense, Yamaguchi’s overlapping figures also possess the purposeful simplicity that correlates with the avant-garde concept of Suprematism. Kazimir Malevich, the fore bearer of Suprematism, named the movement such because he sought to reduce the natural forms of the world to the purest plane of abstraction as a means of accessing the supremacy of pure feeling. The shared impulse of reducing concrete concepts into geometric and linear arrangements suggests a compelling intersection between Asian philosophies and the European avant-garde evidenced in certain modes of Japanese abstraction.

Born in Seoul in 1902, Takeo Yamaguchi enrolled in the Western Painting Department at the Tokyo Art School and developed an interest in the theories that inspired Cubism, Constructivism and the European avant-garde. This progressive proclivity drew Yamaguchi to Paris in the late 1920’s where he began to lean even more into instincts of abstraction and experimentation. Upon his return to Japan in 1931, Yamaguchi was an active participant in the Nika-Kai Group. He regularly submitted works to the Nika Exhibition despite having limited time to dedicate toward his own artistic production amidst maintaining his family’s agricultural business. After being drafted in the Pacific War, Yamaguchi found himself at an artistic crossroads having lost many of his previous works during wartime. He embraced the schism as an opportunity for a creative clean slate and referred to his prewar works as ‘studies’ or ‘sketches’ for his developing production, the generative paintings resembling Work No. 2. These works are identifiable by the application of thick paint over plywood and an interest in highly simplistic abstract forms.

Yamaguchi’s postwar transition was serendipitously in-line with the formal preferences of Abstract Expressionism and mid-century American painting. As testament, another Yamaguchi oil on board, Work - Yellow was featured in the 1959 inaugural exhibition of the Solomon R. Guggenheim. The clarity and weight of Yamaguchi’s geometric motifs place him within the aesthetic wheelhouse of celebrated figures of the Abstract Expressionist movement—Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, and Adolph Gottlieb. Additionally, the flatness of his shapes would have pleased the discerning eye of famed art critic Clement Greenberg, champion of the Abstract Expressionist movement, insistent that superior paintings are flat and medium specific, autonomous statements rather than allusions.
While Yamaguchi’s work is self-expressive – he considered his warm clay-like palette a reflection of his personality – he makes no claim that his works are paintings or that they belong to any specific medium. The multi-faceted ways in which Takeo Yamaguchi’s artwork can be woven throughout the narrative of Western art history is due to his singularity as an abstract painter, not some mimetic inclination. Yamaguchi and the artists of Nika-Kai Group objected to the categorization of their approach to painting as “Western” because they did not believe their inspiration to be founded in any specific style of a culture or region. Instead, these artists were driven by the desire to freely explore the unbridled territories of abstraction while maintaining a sense of individualism.

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