oil on canvas
17 x 24 inches
signed and dated verso
When a young Japanese artist named Takeshi Kawashima moved to New York in 1963, he was already known back home for his bold abstract paintings of emblematic shapes encased within regular grids. These two color works, which generally involve sets of suggestive organic forms painted on flat grounds, vary in intricacy and internal definition. Sometimes they are also completely flat. In other cases, shapes can be discerned within them. Some even contain careful lines that bring to mind mechanical drawings and architectural diagrams.
In one of the paradoxes of transcultural influence, Japanese writers have tended to stress the American nature of this work, while western writers point to its Japaneseness. Some have seen the emblems as versions of Japanese mon, or trade guild symbols, or they have read them as highly stylized pictograms. Others have pointed to their eroticism and abstracted sexual forms, comparing them to the mechanistic reductions of the human form found in Western works like Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass.
Such works, which include the examples of Kawashima’s “Red and Black Series” on view here, quickly earned him recognition in New York. He was included in the landmark 1965 – 1966 “New Japanese Painting and Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which also purchased one of his paintings for its permanent collection. Inclusion in other museum shows followed, including MoMA’s “1960’s Selection from Museum Collection” exhibition the next year, as did a series of solo exhibitions at New York’s influential Waddell Gallery. These shows were accompanied by favorable notices from writers like John Canaday, the formidable New York Times art critic.
By 1990, Kawashima was ready to break out further, this time by experimenting with color in ever more complicated and layered paintings and wall reliefs featuring lines, circles and rectangles in exuberant shades of green, blue, purple, red, yellow and black. They often feature expanses of white ground over which the colored lines and shapes seem to dance. Some of these take the form of free standing walls or architectural murals. Kawashima has dubbed these works his “Dreamland Series”, referring to his sense that art can provide an imaginative realm of pleasure and happiness which is often denied by the external world.
Dreamland came to an end with the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and since then Kawashima has been engaged in a series of paintings, which he calls his “Kaleidoscope Series”. These works make reference to the belief, deeply rooted in Taoist philosophy, that the only stable principle is that of change. They are realized in related groups, each of which provides a set of variations on a particular composition. Alterations in palette and subtle shifts in the arrangement of lines and forms challenge the viewer to discern what has been changed and what has remained the same. They are less dimensional than the Dreamland works, but share those works’ graphic clarity. Despite the darkness of the events which inspired them, the Kaleidoscope paintings are infused with Kawashima’s irrepressible optimism, and they remain full of the joy which animates his earlier work.
While some may labor to discern traditional Japanese motifs and forms in Kawashima’s oeuvre, the artist himself stresses the enormous influence of his adopted country even before his arrival in New York, he was aware from art magazines of developments overseas. He emigrated in time to absorb such exciting new trends as Color Field Painting, Hard Edge, Pop and Op Art. Over the years, his kinship with such movements has remained clear, even as his work has expanded outward in complexity and depth. In certain ways, his progress from the restrained “Red and Black” works to the bursting, bustling “Kaleidoscope” series parallels American painter Frank Stella’s move away from the geometric austerity of his early minimalist work toward the raucous glitter-scattered reliefs of recent years.
But while Kawashima’s work reflects and communicates with the art of his own time, one can also detect in it echoes of Modernism’s earlier history. His paintings, reliefs and sculptures bring to mind such precursors as the sleek organic abstractions of Jean Arp, the dynamic equilibrium sought by Wassily Kandinsky, the playful constructivist reliefs of Charles Biederman and the complex layerings of geometric and careening shapes found in the “nonobjective” paintings of artists like Rolph Scarlett and Rudolf Bauer who were championed by the Guggenheim Museum’s first curator, Hilla Rebay.
But it is not necessary to have a degree in art history to appreciate Kawashima’s art. It is full of ebullient references to the surrounding world using forms and shapes that anyone can appreciate. And even more important, it reflects the sense of gaiety, hope and love of pleasure of the artist who has given it birth.
Written by Eleanor Heartney, New York based art critic and co-president of AICA/USA, the American Section of the International Art Critics Association