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THE KENZO KAGAMI COLLECTION WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF JAPANESE POST-WAR ART HISTORY
I. Inception of Fine Art
Art has always existed in Japan, but until the late nineteenth century, the formal concept of fine arts was foreign to her. In fact, the word “art,” bijutsu is a product of the fast modernisation during the Meiji period (1868–1912). The speed in which Japan Westernised almost all aspects of life during the period now referred to as bunmei kaika (opening of civilisation) was remarkable. The insemination of Western artistic styles and movements also happened in such a compressed timeframe that academic realism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Post-Impressionism and Post-Expressionism all practically came at once. During the following Taishō (1912–1925) and early Shōwa periods (1925 – 1989) before World War II, there was another influx of new styles and ideologies mainly in the form of Dadaism and Surrealism. Their influence proved to be particularly long-lasting, giving an impetus to the post-war reemergence of avant-garde art.
Since its beginning in the mid-1970s, the Kagami Collection has uniquely narrated what followed this fast inception and evolution of modern art in the first half of the 20th century in Japan through the acquisition of key works by significant post-war artists. Moreover, the collection’s conscious focus on many works that carry international relevance, for example, by being shown in exhibitions abroad, makes it a rare proof of contemporaneity of post-war Japanese art in the global art scene.
II. Reemergence of Abstraction
Although there were many avant-garde art movements and artists prior to the outbreak of World War II, the wartime years saw an almost complete halt in experimental activities. The oppressive militant government persecuted liberal artists who rejected propagandistic collaboration and the whole nation suffered from suppression of freedom of expression. As if a weir had expired, almost immediately after the end of the war in 1945, artists’ creative energy resurged and they resumed or newly formed many art associations and study groups.
Among those revived associations are Jiyū Bijutsuka Kyōkai (Free Artists’ Association) and Bijutsu Bunka Kyōkai (Art and Culture Association). While the former was established by artists who followed the principle of abstraction, the latter was formed by those who worked in the Surrealist style. These two associations typically exemplify the divided artistic trends in post-war years between abstraction and figuration. Artists such as Tatsuoki Nambata (1905–1997) and Masanari Murai (1905–1999) were active members of the Free Artists’ Association from before the war, but it was during the 1950s and early 1960s when they reached their strongly individual styles. Nambata is well known for his fervent experimentation in various painting methods including scratching and pouring paints on canvas that resulted in images of passionate physical interaction. Murai, on the other hand, leaned toward more stabile balance in geometric abstraction, incorporating thick black lines simultaneously acting as outline and form.
Kenzō Okada (1902–1982) is another artist of the same generation who had a modest success in the late-1920s and 1930s, but his artistic success came later in his life, after he moved to New York in 1950 at the age of 48. Represented by the Betty Parsons Gallery since 1952, Okada became one of the first post-war Japanese artists to have become integral part of the American art scene and inspired other artists to travel to New York as the cultural centre of art was shifting then from France to the United States. Okada’s subdued colours and mysteriously suggestive motifs often taken from Japanese traditional Noh theatre fascinated the international audience.
The Kagami Collection also holds works by the next generation born in the 1910s who continued abstract experimentations. Zenzō Sakamoto (1911–1987) presents a stark contrast to Okada by his architectonic austerity in composition and a stoic, limited palette. Minoru Kawabata (1911–2001) was another dedicated abstract artist, having established, with future Gutai Art Association founder Jirō Yoshihara (1905–1972) and others, Nippon Abusutorakuto Āto Kurabu (Japan Abstract Art Club) in 1953. Loud Red (Rouge Puissant) from 1961, shown at the 31st Venice Biennale of the following year, shows him as a brilliant colourist, which prefaced his later transition to hardedge and colour field paintings. Another Biennale-featured artist Toshinobu Onosato (1912–1986), although having some affinity to Kawabata’s bright colours, created a distinctive style using geometric patterns of circles, squares, and rectangles, which he continued throughout his career. The Untitled work from 1961 is particularly notable as the first acquisition to the Kagami Collection in 1975. From this generation of artists, one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic is Yae Asano (1914–1996), a self-taught artist who, until much later in his life, consistently focused on monochromatic expression in black and white. His best-known works were created by scratching the surface of canvas painted black. Free from all academic doctrines, Asano infused his work with strange and stubborn naïveté like Paul Klee’s.
III. Art Informel and the Defiance of Post-War Avant-Garde
As experienced strongly by Kenzō Okada who made his fame abroad, many post-war Japanese artists inevitably faced the issue of cultural differences between East and West, and the temporal dichotomy between the old (tradition) and the new (modernity). This topic was crucially important to Sōfū Teshigahara (1900–1979) who personified the amalgamation of East and West. He was the founder of the Sōgetsu School of kadō (the way of flowers, or flower arrangement), a revered form of cultural practice, and a highly progressive avant-garde artist who created junk metal sculptures reflecting the angst of the post-war milieu. His extreme cursive calligraphy also bridged Japan’s classical gestural art and French-originated Art Informel. When Art Informel’s theorist Michel Tapié (1909–1987) visited Japan in 1957, thus instigating what is now called “the Informel Whirlwind,” Tapié gave Sōfū’s hand the highest applaud.
Tapié’s encounter with Japanese artists gave him strong cultural validity to his global promotion of Art Informel that was purportedly severed from the Western artistic conventions. From the viewpoint of Japanese artists, his theory opened a new horizon in reexamining their cultural roots. Kumi Sugai (1919–1996) was one of the key artists of this movement and the Kagami Collection includes some of the best examples from various points of Sugai’s career; from his early works with pictographic motifs in thick impasto to his later hardedge colour field paintings. While many artists were heading to the United States with their ambitions during the 1950s, Sugai, along with Hisao Dōmoto (1928–2013) and Toshimitsu Imai (1928–2002) chose to test their individualism and cultural identity in Paris; both Sugai and Imai moved there in 1952 and Dōmoto joined them two years later. All of them were, at some point, either directly affiliated with or within the close circle of Informel movement. In particular, Imai accompanied Michel Tapié and his top representative artist George Mathieu (1921–2012) to Japan in 1957, thereby playing a major role in its introduction to the country. While Mathieu’s gestural paintings clung onto a pleasing compositional balance, Imai’s late-1950s to early 1960s paintings reveal his unrestrained physical energy thoroughly concentrating on capturing the primordial power of nature. Dōmoto, on the other hand, remained close to the movement and its artists but calmly distant from the heat of gestural abstraction. Growing up with the legacy of his uncle and highly respected Nihonga (Japanese style) painter Inshō Dōmoto (1891–1975), Hisao pursued to integrate the airy lightness of Japanese ink painting and calligraphic brushwork and the sense of movement he found in Informel.
IV. Rise of Conceptual Art
If the Informel Whirlwind that swept throughout Japan during the late-1950s to part of the 1960s was a reflection of après-guerre psychology and the Existentialist crisis in each individual, the rising awareness of unspoken social rules, taboos, and the critique of institutions from the late 1960s onward coincided with the maturation of the generation who were born in the 1930s. Most artists from that generation, although certainly burdened with dark memories of wartime turmoil, were too young to engage in actual destructive acts. The recovery, rebuilding, and ensuing economic boom thrust them into the environment that were industrialising and urbanising in an inhuman pace. The civil rights movement and the antiwar protest against the Vietnam America War affected the generation of Japanese, contemporaneously turning the decade of 1960s Japan’s seiji no kisetsu (the season of politics). A new adversary in this period remained the old conventions, but this time, with the philosophical influence of Structuralism, they were understood as a system within which our perception of the world was controlled. One of the most iconic Japanese conceptual movements of the time was the Mono-ha (the School of Things), whose idea of not making art but offering a chance of encounter with the world through various arrangements of things in space was a radical departure from the traditional concept of fine arts, and it is often seen as a counterpart to Italian Arte Povera. The group’s ideologue was Lee Ufan whose essays published since the late 1960s became key theoretical discourse built upon the combination of Eastern and Western philosophies. In his minimalistic paintings and sculptures that ley their materials bare, Lee Ufan offers a place and time for ephemeral encounter with the things as they are left in their surroundings.
Mono-ha’s focus on the experiential process is tangentially related to minimalistic works by Shūsaku Arakawa (1936–2010). Initially engaged in a Neo-Dadaist movement of late 1950s Japan, Arakawa began shedding all emotive expressions from his work after he moved to New York in 1961. Heavily influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s anti-retinal attitude, Arakawa’s paintings from the 1960s focus on shadowy traces of objects indicating, but not representing, them as well as diagrammatic markings of space and language on canvas. In a completely opposite sensibility of whimsy, Ay-O (b. 1931), who had also been living in New York since 1958, followed his pursuit of untangling human perception of the world from predetermined viewpoints by using the explosive nature of humour and by presenting a nonsensical and rainbow-colored system of being as he instructed the reader in his 1966 Rainbow Manifesto. While Arakawa remained separate from any group activities, Ay-O joined international artist collective Fluxus in 1963.
V. The 1980s New Wave
Japan continued its growth as the global economic power in the 1980s and foreign travel became much easier and accessible. Although the internationalisation of Japanese art began already in the 1950s, the phenomenon accelerated with the increasing number of travelling artists to Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world. Many artists who lived through the 1970s began sensing the dead-end in art as if everything that was worth doing—including not making art—was done in the past decades. The first sign of post-Mono-ha generation emerged toward the end of the 1970s as site-specific installations by Tadashi Kawamata (b. 1953). Many works by Mono-ha were also site-specific and ephemeral but in Kawamata’s case, his installations, which may initially appear to be temporary scaffoldings, are not only site-specific but also audience-specific. His work is created in and for a certain locality, for the locals who are given a degree of ownership in deciphering many layered meanings specific to that particular spot, location, region, or environment. In Kawamata’s work, art began to embody social-engaging aspects and his work is understood not as an object but as a project that entails communications, modifications, executions, celebrations, and documentations. During the 1980s, the format of installation art was firmly established as a new genre that moves beyond the realm of painting and sculpture. Transgressing the conventional genre of fine arts was of particular interest to many of the artists who came into the scene during this time and they were loosely characterised as the New Wave movement. Kenshi Yamakura (b. 1956) began extending the field of painting by interacting with his own body through performance associated with his canvases, or literally adjoining cast sculptures of his body to the paintings. His approach was both an ironically resurrection of the tradition of painting and literal appropriation of action painting and Art Informel of the 1950s.
1980s Japan also produced new images of women both in popular culture and in the high-art world. Although serious debate on gender politics was still lacking, a handful of dynamic female artists appeared more frequently in exhibitions, publications, and critical reviews from the mid-1980s. The popular moniker identifying those artists was chō-shōjo (super girls). Shōko Maemoto (b. 1957) who is best known for her paintings incorporating actual dresses and strong female images was crowned with that term. Without any specific feminist doctrine, and yet perhaps appropriate in the decade of bubble economy, the 1980s super girls left a memorably bright flash of colours both literally and figuratively.
Miwako Tezuka, PhD
Consulting Curator, Reversible Destiny Foundation Co-Director, PoNJA-GenKon
THROUGH A COLLECTOR’S EYE: THE KENZO KAGAMI COLLECTION OF POST-WAR JAPANESE ART
The extraordinary collector and patron of modern and contemporary Japanese art, Kenzo Kagami began working as a young man for an insurance company. In 1964 he was relocated to Zurich for a six month secondment, followed by further time in Stockholm and London. During his free time in Zurich he spent time walking along the Limmat River and visiting art galleries along the way. This inspired an interest in collecting works of art and he started buying affordable lithographs by artists such as Picasso. He returned to Japan in 1966; coincidentally the same year that Masuo Ikeda (1934-1977) won the first prize at the Venice Biennale, and so Mr Kagami began collecting prints and small oil paintings by Masuo Ikeda – thereby beginning his collection of contemporary art by artists already appreciated internationally.
In 1975 Mr Kagami acquired Untitled, 1961 by Toshinobu Onosato (lot 11), which can be considered the first integral painting of his current collection, and thereafter he continued to collect other works. From 1980 to 1982 he worked in Toronto, Canada where he observed that Canadian artists’ works (such as Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002) and Jack Bush (1909-1977)) were hung in the boardrooms of companies, and he came to the realisation that he wanted to collect “Japanese” contemporary art, rather than “International” contemporary art. This was a turning point and his approach to collecting found true purpose and direction, with a focus on contemporary Japanese art. On his return to Japan he visited the artists’ studios, purchasing sometimes large-scale works by contemporary artists — Kenshi Yamakura’s A Bride and Pigman (lot 25) joined his collection at this time, as well as work by Tadashi Kawamata (lots 23 and 24).
A core component of the collection is a significant group of works by Kumi Sugai and Shusaku Arakawa; the quality and range of works by these artists must be unique in private hands. Another notable characteristic of the collection is that many works have been exhibited both in Japan and internationally, and also that many artists have lived and worked outside of Japan for long periods of time - such as Kenzo Okada, Minoru Kawabata, Toshimitsu Imai and Hisao Domoto.
A true pioneer collector, the determination of Kenzo Kagami to support contemporary art in Japan, combined with an astute eye and impeccable taste, has resulted in a truly extraordinary collection – the quality and scope of which could rival many museums.