A Colossal World: Japanese Artists and New York, 1950s – Present

A Colossal World : Japanese Artists and New York, 1950s - Installation view. Courtesy WhiteBox.

March 6 – April 14, 2018
329 Broome Street (Between Bowery and Chrystie)
Curated by Kyoko Sato

By MARK BLOCH, April, 2018

In 1977, a publication AQ16 from southwest Germany appeared. It featured short writings by several of the Fluxus artists, in those waning moments of the life of Fluxus founder George Maciunas, who died unexpectedly a year later. AQ stood for “Anti-quarian” and the now-rare Number 16 of this “journal for literature and art” with a George Brecht work featured on the cover was subtitled, How We Met or a microdemystification. In it, some fourteen first-person artist stories recounted tales of how various personages had become interconnected with other members of the Fluxus “collective,” starting in the early 1960s or in some cases, even before. By reading these texts, including one from Mieko Shiomi and a charming, illustrated centerfold by Takako Saito, some of the origins of the tangled, often confusing Fluxus web reveal themselves. The links and introductions to other artists were actually very comprehensible in this context, often friendly, sometimes random, but always with a dominant connective tissue that was extremely human.

A Colossal World. Opening. Photo by Mark Bloch.

The same could be said of the anthropological networks created by the engrossing exhibition “A Colossal World” at WhiteBox. The interconnections between the myriad New York-based Japanese artists and the work they have created are everywhere, and together they create a complex and thought-provoking human story transcending countries, genres and generations. But in the end, it is a story of people connecting with people.

The resourceful curator Kyoko Sato has assembled these connections between video, sculpture, murals, installation, and two-dimensional media works by over fifty Japanese artists who emigrated to New York at key moments in their careers, each uniquely demonstrating the absorption of New York’s culture into their artworks as they enriched the NYC community and NYC artists in return. It is a remarkable show, not to be missed.

A Colossal World. Opening. Photo by Mark Bloch.

The look and feel of the exhibit is more Central Tokyo than Zen rock garden. Spanning the depth and breadth of WhiteBox’s two-leveled exhibition space, “A Colossal World” zig zags from mid-century avant-gardes to contemporary art and media. Sato explores the consistent pushing of art boundaries from Japan to New York and back—from the wake of World War to the eighties—when globalization and international art movements meant artists could truly be bi-cultural. Then, in the post-economic bubble of the 1990s, more waves of emigration meant more change. The loosening of social and economic constraints in Japan allowed the emergence of pioneering artists like Shiomi, Yoko Ono, and Ay-O through the burgeoning Fluxus movement while Arakawa and Ushio Shinohara entered American consciousness via Neo-Dada. Even the Gutai group, which influenced Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School from afar, had an eventual transplant to New York, Minoru Yoshida, originally a painter working in 1960s Kyoto. Yoshida, the only member of the Gutai Art Association to live in New York—from 1970-78—performed at Charlotte Moorman’s 11th and 12th Annual Avant-Garde Festivals as well as Artists Space. 

Epicurism of Space featuring Synthesizer Jacket #2 by Minoru Yoshida. Video still. Photo by Mark Bloch.

A recently discovered video from his studio, shown here for the first time since its unveiling in 2017, was inspired by mid-‘70s art currents in which Yoshida developed the Epicurism of Space Universe, exploring the plight of foreigners from the point of view of an alien. Yoshida donned his “synthesizer jacket” and emitted electronic sounds on a street corner in SoHo in 1974.

At this crucial moment in our nation’s history when 11 million people currently fear deportation, this exhibit is the first of WhiteBox’s presentation of four celebrating the spirit of émigré artists and international collaboration with its series “Exodus,” showcasing artists from China, the former Yugoslavia, Latin America, and here, Japan—who have resided in New York City, with many still here and making the “great” USA ever stronger and more innovative as a result.

A Colossal World. Opening. Photo by Mark Bloch.

The California-born composer John Cage’s friendship with painters Morris Graves and Mark Tobey during his time at the Cornish School in Seattle enhanced his own appreciation of art and Asian philosophies. After arriving in New York in 1942 bursting with ideas, Cage was standing at a bus stop on Madison Avenue, having just left an exhibition of Tobey’s calligraphy-influenced, abstract paintings at the Marian Willard Gallery. The composer looked down at the pavement and saw something reminiscent of Tobey—the sidewalk as art—without intention, motive or ego. Cage began studying Zen Buddhism with D.T. Suzuki at Columbia University by ’46 and ’47, where he eventually met Yoko Ono. That led later to more collaboration with her and her first husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi, in Japan, shortly following Cage’s meeting Nam June Paik at Stockhausen’s studio in Darmstadt, Germany in 1958.

Thus, John Cage’s interest in Asia combined with the subsequent union of the Korean Paik, and Shigeko Kubota from Niigata Prefecture, a link to the Japanese art groups Group Ongaku, Hi Red Center, and Zero Jigen, can be seen here as pivotal influences on the eventual cross-pollination of Japanese artists in New York. Both Paik and Kubota arrived here in ’64 and married a year later.

John Cage (top row, third from left) and Merce Cunningham (top row, right) visit Gen'ichiro Inokuma's home.Courtesy of Marugame Gen’ichiro Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art and WhiteBox.

The inclusion of an untitled print on paper from 1966 and related documents by Gen’ichiro Inokuma underscores this idea. After spending the preceding years in Paris where he knew Picasso and got advice from Matisse, Inokuma became a New Yorker from 1955 to 1975. This teacher of younger artists was represented by the Willard Gallery, where Cage had seen the show by Tobey and which introduced the work of Graves and later Richard Lippold, another Cage friend. A photo postcard and a 1956 photograph of Inokuma’s first solo show with the Willard accompanies a photo of John Cage and Merce Cunningham visiting Inokuma’s home.

The work of Tom Haar, a photographer working in New York 1968 to 1983, also solidifies the cultural interplay as soon as we enter the gallery. Several powerful 1971 photos of Yayoi Kusama, Paik and Kubota, Ushio Shinohara, Ono with her third husband, John Lennon, and others, were recently also exhibited at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii.

Nam June Paik (left) and Shigeko Kubota (right) in their Westbeth studio. © Tom Haar, 1974. Courtesy of Tom Haar and WhiteBox.

Kusama, now represented by David Zwirner, arrived in New York in 1958, soon becoming an instrumental contributor to the New York avant-garde. A Zwirner-provided photograph depicts Kusama with two 1962 works "Accumulation No. 1" and egg-carton relief "No. B.3," while another captures a Happening—Kusama in kimono, painting in the middle of the road.

Like Gutai in Osaka, the “Neo-Dada Organizers”, in early ‘60s Tokyo, preferred gesture and vitality over images, exemplified in violent public demonstrations or by founder Ushio Shinohara’s famous “boxing paintings,” created by punching canvas with boxing gloves dipped in paint or sumi ink. A 1972 silk print in day-glo colors is one of many Shinohara’s here.

Noriko Shinohara drawing on garment. Detail. Photo by Mark Bloch.

We also see Kunié Sugiura’s contact print portrait of Shinohara gracing the cover of the April ‘02 Art in America with a six-page spread about her work inside. Sugiura’s visit to Carolee Schneemann’s studio upstate that year is documented with her gelatin silver photogram of Schneeman silhouetted in the sheep horns used in Ask The Goddess (1993) while holding the folded paper from Interior Scroll (1975). Sugiura is also represented by a 5 x 7 foot closeup photograph nearby of a couple fully engaged in the sex act.

To see New York was once Shinohara’s dream. Instead of a short visit after a 1969 grant from the John D. Rockefeller III Fund, he stayed, loving the city's spirit and ethnic mix. A jean jacket belonging to WhiteBox founder and artistic director Juan Puntes, spontaneously drawn on in 2010 by Ushio and his wife, Noriko Shinohara for a WhiteBox benefit auction, adorns a corner. Noriko also created a drawing For the future, for hope, for love for a charity auction at the Ise Cultural Foundation in New York to benefit the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, seen here.

Another Neo-Dada Organizer, (Shusaku) Arakawa created a print based on his 1976 painting Flash Gravity, including several favorite motifs from various fields of inquiry ranging from mathematics, physics, biology to philosophy. Arakawa and his wife Madeline Gins spent more than four decades dedicated to the use of architecture to extend the human lifespan indefinitely. Arakawa died in 2010 and Gins in 2014.

A Colossal World. Opening. Installation view. Photo by Mark Bloch.

George Maciunas’ 1964 Fluxus Newspaper is actually a poster for a Fluxus event performed at the Cinematheque on the Lower East Side. Japanese artists Hi-Red Center, Ay-O, Takehisa Kosugi, Ono, and Kubota are among those listed on it. The size, breadth, and importance of Fluxus, originally conceived as an anonymous collective, expanded quickly via word of mouth, first in the form of ideas, beginning with ideas at Cage’s Composition class at the New School in 1958; then among “members,” handpicked by Maciunas, reaching into Europe and especially Japan, with many emigrating to join in with the new style of loft living in New York’s Soho district.

Yoshi Wada’s Alarming Trash Can (1989), a siren in an industrial trash can shows his clever facility with idiosyncratic objects such as a high-volume electronic sound devices when the lid is opened here, lent by the Emily Harvey Foundation. Wada met Maciunas in 1968 then made homemade instruments out of metal plumbing and bagpipe-like reed apparatuses in his sound installations.

Ay-O's Finger Box Kit, 1991 Edition, 20 of 20 (top). Takako Saito's Untitled, 1965-66, Wood (bottom). Installation view. Photo by Mark Bloch.

Ono introduced Ay-O to Maciunas in ‘61. One of his famous interactive Finger Box Kit’s, shown here, expands the possibilities of art for other senses by inviting “viewers” to insert a finger.  Another pair of works, Pig and Rooster, representing a series of animals done in another classic Ay-O style, the rainbow, overlap colors from red to purple.

Also in ‘61, George Maciunas invited Ono to hold a solo show at his AG Gallery uptown, for which she produced Painting to be stepped on from a piece of cut canvas. A version seen here on paper was stepped on by Ono and John Lennon, a part of a multiple This is Not Here (1971) that also contained a glass key, plastic slide boxes, an edition of Grapefruit, a scroll painting, a painting of “1/100 part of the Mona Lisa's Mole,” another painting slept on by John and Yoko, as well as a folded catalogue and instruction sheets, all in a wood and vinyl cloth box. The framed paper version of the “painting” is displayed in the center of the gallery.

Installation view featuring Yoko Ono's Grapefruit (bottom right), 1964 and Fluxus Balance by Mieko Shiomi (top right), 1993. Photo by Mark Bloch..

Ono’s Grapefruit, first published in Japan in 1964 and later in the USA, was an early popular-izer of Henry Flynt’s Concept Art, containing a series of "event scores," sets of instructions replacing art as a physical object that were developed by George Brecht in Cage’s Composition class and which exhibit a very Japanese sensibility. Yoko gave this particular sample of the first edition of her book in ‘65 to Kubota in New York, calling her “humid and warm like land” in the inscription.

Fluxus Balance is Mieko Shiomi’s 1993 conceptual game that plays with texts or drawings to make both sides of a printed scale “balance.” 68 artists affiliated with Fluxus contributed.

One of the highlights of this exhibition is a new score, Direction Event created for "A Colossal World" with Shiomi and the curator utilizing red strings to extend towards the coordinates of various global locations, unifying the basement of the WhiteBox gallery and then the entire planet Earth as one conceptual installation. Shiomi first performed this piece as part of her important Spatial Poem No. 2, in 1965 in New York City but this version situates New York as a nexus for both natural landmarks and artistic culture, uniting indigenous birds in Madagascar, active volcanoes in Iceland, and the Amazon rainforest with the Centre Pompidou in France, the Sydney Opera House, and research stations in Antarctica.

Mieko Shiomi's Direction Event, 2018 (two installation views). Photo by Mark Bloch.

Another uniter of this show is Yasunao Tone’s 22 minute composition Geography and Music from 1979, that permeates the gallery space as performed by Cage, David Tudor and others, including vocalist Takehisa Kosugi, who, like Tone, was part of Fluxus. Kosugi’s usual instrument is the violin, often processed with echo and other effects. Since 1995, Kosugi has served as music director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and lives in Osaka. Meanwhile, Tone, a New Yorker since 1972, creates sound installations and music including this collaboration which set music to Merce Cunningham's Roadrunners piece. Tone’s score is for viola and piano, or for two pianos and electronics, plus the recitation of ancient Chinese tales both in Chinese and translated English.

The late On Kawara (December 24, 1932 – July 10, 2014) was not Fluxus, but like them, used the mails in his work. He is known for his Today series which began on January 4, 1966 and followed him in his travels. Regarding MoMA's 1970 Information catalogue, Kynaston McShine, titled it "an international report" of the activity of young artists like Kawara and Yutaka Matsuzawa, part of that era’s scene that also included Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, John Baldessari, Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, Sol leWitt, Bruce Nauman and others.

Due to Kawara’s refusal to participate in group shows, his estate loaned no works to this exhibition but the two books and the prominent display of his multi-volume Silence catalogue of his 2015 Guggenheim Museum show allowed the curator Sato to cleverly allow him to silently take his place among the important but playful Japanese artists who called New York home.

Shigeko Kubota's Duchampiana: Bicycle Wheel, 1983 at A Colossal World. Opening. Photo by Mark Bloch.

Filmmaker Takahiko Iimura, who also had many overlaps with Ono over the years, had a two-person New Video show of Shigeko Kubota and Iimura at the Whitney Museum as part of Japan Today, a two-month celebration of arts and culture of modern Japan in 1979, represented by a booklet.  

During the artist’s first visit to the US from 1966 to ‘68, Iimura shot a 16 millimeter film portrait projected across this gallery, called Filmmakers of his friends Stan Brakhage, Stan VanDerBeek, Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, and Andy Warhol, borrowing their respective techniques for 5 minutes each, with an added one minute self-portrait. Iimura created these studies with only in-camera editing, and without looking through the viewfinder.

Also seen here is a four-minute single-channel, black and white video Self-Identity, made 1972-1974, inspired by Derrida’s 1967 essay “Speech and Phenomena,” in which Iimura both affirms and negates himself by using the pronouns “I” and “you,” “he/she,” and use of in-sync and out-of-sync audio to imply multiple identities.  

Taka Iimura's Back to Front, 1986. Photo by Mark Bloch..

Finally, Iimura’s Back to Front is a 1986 silkscreen print on Plexiglas, a video installation for a 13 inch TV monitor in which the image of the back of the monitor is positioned over the screen, which is turned on and displays white noise as a background for the silkscreen.

Just as Iimura’s work straddles conceptual art and video, his colleague Kubota has created a work of moving time-based “video sculpture” that provides one kinetic centerpiece of this show and employs the Fluxus artist Dick Higgins’ concept “Intermedia.” Her rotating Duchampiana: Bicycle Wheel is a 1983 homage to Marcel Duchamp that was successfully revved up by her estate for the first time in many years for its exhibition here, a rare treat.

A Colossal World. Opening. Photo by Mark Bloch.

Kubota and Duchamp met during a flight to Buffalo in 1968 for the opening of Walkaround Time, a dance by Merce Cunningham. Later in the same year, Kubota photographed Duchamp and Cage playing chess at an event in Toronto, seen in her photo from a book Japanese Contemporary Art, here in a vitrine.

Also provided by the Shigeko Kubota Video Art Foundation is a mysterious and profound undated piece utilizing calligraphy. Kubota’s has handwritten the name of her husband, Nam June Paik, repeatedly in blue paint. Her own name appears bottom left in Chinese characters.

Shigeko Kubota's "Nam June Paik," n.d. Photo by Mark Bloch..

When conceiving Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, a groundbreaking response to the 1984 author on New Year's Day, 1984, the video art master Paik could not afford to pay participants like Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel and others for their participation in that first international satellite installation, broadcast live on PBS. And so, courtesy of printmaker Masaaki Noda, we can enjoy a set of 1983 silkscreens on paper, given out to contributors, parlaying poetry by Allen Ginsberg, choreography by Cunningham, and art by Joseph Beuys, Cage and Paik, himself, into an elegant portfolio on paper.

These are only a few of the amazing works and artifacts to be seen in the enterprising curator Kyoko Sato’s WhiteBox show. When traditional works were not available, interesting memorabilia tells the story of Japanese artists living Stateside. The Estate of Paul Jenkins contributed a photo taken in the 1950s that accompanies a catalog "Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 1889-1953: A Retrospective Exhibition," a show that travelled the US and Japan in 1975, and Canada in 1976, in which Jenkins dedicated an essay to his mentor, Kuniyoshi, who began teaching at the Art Students League in 1933, and who has a drawing and a Japanese Noh mask that he gave to Jenkins hanging nearby.

The curator Sato arrived in New York, herself, in 2002. “I had really loved my job in Japan,” she pondered, “ so at first I wondered if I had made the wrong decision.” But the three tough years before she received her green card in 2005 eventually transformed into a love of this city. “The best of the best come together in New York,” she says.

A Colossal World curator, Kyoko Sato, with Yoshi Wada's Alarming Trash Can, 1989. Courtesy of WhiteBox.

Sato is now a single mom, putting two daughters through elementary school while cultivating a personal passion for art that developed being hurled into environments far from home when she was the age her Japanese-American girls are now. Sato’s interest in the art of woodblock prints and paintings of Kabuki actors and landscapes from Japan’s classic ukiyo-e period developed as a child transplanted to Costa Rica because of her father’s business travels. “I collected the Ukiyo-e cards that came with packages of a simple rice dish called ochazuke. I learned about artists like Sharaku and Hiroshige.”

When Sato was in the fifth grade in Mexico, she was attracted to the energy flying off the wall in the murals of Diego Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. Back in Japan, after attempting art herself, she studied art history at Waseda University’s School of Literature, specializing in the Italian Renaissance until a job at NHK, the country’s public broadcasting giant, propelled her into the staging of major exhibitions. “I was very lucky to find that job,” she says now.

Armed with a powerful memory for art information, and rising through the ranks in Japan, in 1999, aged 27, Sato began collaborating with leaders of the fashion business and “began to dream of a bigger world” and moved to the USA. After obtaining her green card, Sato’s fortuitous encounter with a former boss led to her assisting in bringing the “Ancient Egyptian Queens and Goddesses: Treasures from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,” show to museums in Tokyo and Kobe City in 2014.

A Hundred Monsters Night Parade: Summon the Skeleton by Motoko Wada, 2016. Video still. Courtesy of Motoko Wada.

Since then, she has worked for many galleries and institutions and curated an exhibition of photographs that documenting the lives of Japanese earthquake victims for the Nippon Club in New York. She later helped the permanent collections of the International Center of Photography acquire some of the photos. “I wanted to do what little I could, to help Japan.”

Sato’s show at WhiteBox is not only about history. There are many contemporary works of art and many that weave Japan’s past with its future. Inspired by Kyosai Kawanabe (1831-1889), Sekien Toriyama (1712- 1788) and a "night parade" of “one hundred monsters,” Motoko Wada, an artist who works in the film industry, shows two brief videos of kaleidoscopic 3-D animation. The curator Sato previously enrolled Wada to project video on the underside of the Manhattan Bridge in DUMBO.

Senbazuru, 2010, photograph on aluminum (left) and Mother's Love (right) by Toshiko Nishikawa. Photo by Mark Bloch.

A different type of contemporary art, a self-portrait called "Mother’s Love" by Toshiko Nishikawa, an orb with a tiny seated figure inside, also references her 2010 photograph on aluminum of a solo show aimed to support immigrants' contributions to American arts and sciences. Nishikawa conceived it based on a dream she had and standing at the site of the World Trade Center with the Mirrored Orb for Senbazuru taken from the original installation work.

The muralist AIKO’s Sweetheart Kiss in spray paint, acrylic, house paint, oil stick, and varnish displays her signature graphic style derived from the traditions of erotic Japanese shunga. She has displayed her work from the Meatpacking District to projects for Jeffrey Deitch and now installs it moodily  and slightly naughtily in the WhiteBox lower level.

AIKO’s Sweetheart Kiss, 2012-2017. Photo by Mark Bloch.

Nobuho Nagasawa's 1992 project The Atomic Cowboy: The Daze After video was covered on  the local news in Los Angeles. Conqueror, a 1956 Hollywood movie, directed by Dick Powell and starring a drawling John Wayne as Genghis Khan was shot at St. George, Utah in 1954, geographgically and chronologically close to atomic bomb tests in Nevada. A news anchor interviews the artist then explains that Wayne, the director and entire cast all died from cancer, presumably due to the radioactive fallout exposure during shooting.

Finally, two artists from this neighborhood’s Rivington School, an art movement that emerged in the 1980s, are represented. Ken Hiratsuka, an active carver of sidewalks in downtown NYC, including one in front of WhiteBox, also contributes the imposing Diamond Universe from 2005, a 750 pound bluestone sculpture. His work nearby at Broadway and Prince and on Bond Street have been visible for years. Rivington School colleague Toyo Tsuchiya, also one of the founding members of the No Se No Social Club in 1985 shows two mid ‘80s posters for Photographs from 99 Nights Performance and the Sculpture Garden News 1st Anniversary Show.

While many of these artists explored the convergences between art and popular culture, from anime-inspired aesthetics to collaborations with fashion labels and media companies, some, like Takeshi Kawashima, who arrived in New York in 1963, did not want to be influenced by the city. His solution? “He did not look around” the wall text by curator Sato and WhiteBox tells us. But that strategy is probably not why Sato was drawn to this subject matter nor does it explain WhiteBox’s passion for the immigration process. “Artists don’t simply make works,” Kyoko Sato said, “they sensitively absorb the environment around them and express it.” WM


Mark Bloch

Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at bloch.mark@gmail.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.



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