A leader of the Japanese abstract art movement, Saito Yoshishige influenced a generation of artists. In the 1930s his controversial painted-wood reliefs did not easily win public acceptance as they seemed to be neither painting nor sculpture. They set the stage for a career characterized by great freedom of expression and led directly to the painted, gouged and drilled wood panels of the 1960s.
A native of Tokyo, Saito began working in oil as a junior high school student. He met Nakashino Toshio (1900-1948), whose work inspired him, and an exhibition of Italian Futurist painting further fueled his intention to become a professional artist. By 1930 he had joined an avant-garde, western-style painting group in Surugadai, where he studied with Koga Harue (1895-1933) and Togo Seiji (1897-1976). Saito began exhibiting regularly in 1936 and in 1939 helped establish the Bijutsu Bunka Kyokai, an association with which he was affiliated until 1953.
In 1957 Saito won an award for a painting entitled Oni (Demon) at the Fourth International Art Exhibition in Tokyo and the same year Work no. 1, shown in the exhibit New Artists of Today, established him as an abstract artist of note. In 1960 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 1961 Work no. 10 (sold in these Rooms, April 22, 1992, lot 143) won the International painting award at the Sao Paulo Biennale. This prize and the inclusion of four of his paintings in the exhibition The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture which traveled throughout the United States between 1965 and 1967, confirmed his international standing. (For a discussion of Saito's work see William S. Liberman and Dorothy C. Miller, The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture [New York: Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1966].)
Upon his retirement from Tama Art College as Professor of Fine Art in 1973, Saito traveled and exhibited in Europe and reconstructed pieces from the late 1930s and early 1940s that had been destroyed during the war. There have been two major restrospectives of his work. The first, Yoshishige Saito, was held at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo in 1978, and the second, Yoshishige Saito -- Time, Space, Wood, was held at the Yokohama Museum of Art and the Tokushima Modern Art Museum in 1993. Other major exhibitions include Yoshishige Saito at the Kanagawa Prefectural Gallery in 1977, Saito Yoshishige Exhibition 1984, organized jointly by the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, Hyogo, the Fukui Prefectural Museum of Art and the Ohara Museum of Art. Saito won the Asahi Prize in 1984 and in 1986, at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, he was included in Japon des Avant-Gardes 1910-1970. In 1989 at the Muse d'Art Moderne in Brussels he exhibited with Yamaguchi Takeo (1902-1983) as part of Europalia 89.