Whitehot Magazine

Empathic Abstraction: Hisako Kobayashi’s Buddhist Paintings by Donald Kuspit

Hisako Kobayashi, Billions of Years, 72x60 in. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Hisako Kobayashi: Realms of Gold

Georges Bergès Gallery

Opens May 5, 2022

By DONALD KUSPIT, June 2022 

Man can no more survive psychologically in a psychological milieu that does not respond empathically to him, than he can survive physically in an atmosphere that contains no oxygen.                                         

-- Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (1)

The ancient cultural aristocracy of the Orient has always looked down with superior contempt upon the European upstarts of the spirit.  Their deep-rooted instinctive knowledge of the problematic nature of phenomena and the unfathomableness of existence prevents the emergence of a naïve belief in the values of the physical world.                                                                     

-- Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy (2) 

In 1936 Alfred Barr, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, famously distinguished between geometrical and non-geometrical abstraction, the former grounded in Picasso’s Cubism, the latter grounded in Kandinsky’s Expressionism, both triumphs of European creativity.  For Barr they were the ne plus ultra of art, avant-garde innovations that essentialized art rather than used it as a means to the end of representing objective reality, which is the way it was traditionally used, rather than regarded it as an end in itself as well as a way of conveying feeling, as Kandinsky said.  With them what the art historian Ernst Gombrich called experimental art was born—the numerous movements which “experimented” with a variety of colors, lines, forms, materials to fresh aesthetic and emotional effect.  But as the social historian Eric Hobsbawn pointed out avant-gardism had run out of stream, lost its novelty, become cliché-ridden and institutionalized, its innovations popularized and  commercialized, the basis of what the economist Bernd Schmitt famously called “marketing aesthetics,” with the advent of Pop Art, more broadly, of postmodernism, which regarded avant-garde experimentation as “nihilistic frivolity” and more broadly “taking the arts ‘seriously’ was just one more relic of the obsolete past.”(3)  Some theorists ironically regard Pop Art as the exemplary postmodern art, for it mocks modernist styles by treating them as fashionable mannerisms, subversively assimilating them as manufactured clichés rather than creative achievements, mass produced rather than ingeniously individual.  And some theorists think that abstraction has become empty formalism, at best a clever manipulation of clichéd forms, at worst mechanically redundant, and as such decadent. 

Hisako Kobayashi, Shi-o-n, 52x48 in. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

So why continue to make abstract paintings, as Hisako Kobayashi does?  What makes hers distinctive, authentic?  What do they have to offer us that neither the typical geometrical nor typical expressionistic—formalist or gestural—abstract painting offers us?  A basic change in attitude and with that in style:  where Picasso’s Cubist abstractions were a “sum of destructions,” as he said, and Kandinsky’s Abstract Expressionist paintings were charged with cataclysmic violence, as the art historian Klaus Lankheit said, noting that the theme of his first seven Compositions was the Apocalypse, that is, the destruction of the world and its objects—similar to the nihilistic destruction of the figure in Picasso’s Cubism, another apocalyptic “style” also dead-ending in demoralizing chaos--Kobayashi’s new oceanic abstractions remind us that the goddess of love arose from the depths of ocean, a symbol in the collective unconscious of the unfathomableness of existence.  I am arguing that Kobayashi’s abstraction is a creative rather than destructive abstraction, a healthy rather than pathological abstraction, a restorative rather than subversive abstraction.  

There are no images or objects in Kobayashi’s paintings, they are all vibrant surface, a resonant end in itself, a creative flux, a Heracleitean stream indicative of the changeableness and unpredictability of existence.  Sometimes dark with strands of passionate color, the flourish of passionately red gestures in Never Been, 2022, sometimes flooded with light, with hints of darkness, as in Oceania, 2021, they seem alive with unfathomable feeling.  The title of that work alludes to “oceanic feeling,” or what the critic Roger Fry called “cosmic feeling,” for him the ripe emotional fruit of the purest abstract art, that is, abstract art without the slightest trace let alone hint of worldly phenomena.  More subtly, oceanic feeling is the ecstatic fruit of right samadhi, the final practice in the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment, involving meditative absorption in the infinite, union with the unfathomable.  It is the Buddhist path to salvation, liberation from worldliness by way of mystical experience.  It involves “a sense of expansion of the self beyond its customary temporal-spatial limits, leading to a feeling of merger with the universe at large,”(4)  bringing with it a sense of what Wilhelm Worringer called the Oriental sense of “the unfathomableness of existence,” as noted in the epigraph.  Romain Rolland, who was a friend and biographer of the Bengali mystics Sri Rama Krishna Paramhansa and Swami Viveakanda, introduced the idea of oceanic feeling to Sigmund Freud, who regarded it negatively as a narcissistic illusion rather than positively as a liberating experience, that is, as a way of immunizing oneself against suffering and overcoming narcissism by realizing that one is a finite part of an infinite cosmos.  It is a meditative technique that echoes Marcus Aurelius’ meditation:  “You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos,” and with that an empathic embrace of its enigma.  Kobayashi’s aesthetically subtle abstract paintings are not conventional flatbed paintings, as such post-painterly works as Barnett Newman’s aesthetically indifferent abstractions have been called, nor maliciously manic paintings, as such painterly works as Willem de Kooning’s Age of Anxiety abstractions have been called—they’re both emotionally destructive, not to say nihilistic and pretentiously epic, rather than emotionally constructive, not so say aesthetically subtle and lyrically sublime, as Kobayashi’s mystical paintings are—paintings informed with what one might call a Buddhist sensibility rather than modern skepticism, eventuating in the depression, emptiness, and meaninglessness of the pseudo-mystical black abstractions in the Rothko Chapel.  They have been said to be evocative of the deus absconditus or the dark night of the soul, but they are as nihilistically “black as the devil,” to use the words of the great French diplomat Charles Maurice De Tallyrand.  

Hisako Kobayashi, Ananda, 58x40 in. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Kobayashi’s Ananda, 2022 directly signals the Buddhist character and import of her art.  Ananda was the first cousin and one of the principal disciples of the Buddha.  His “beloved disciple” and devoted companion, Ananda famously convinced Buddha to allow women to become nuns, that is, devoted Buddhists, dare one say brides of Buddha, overcoming his resistance—patriarchal attitude—to the idea.  Does Kobayashi’s painting imply that she is married to the Buddha, and as such an extraordinary rather than ordinary woman, a sacred woman rather than a profane woman, women generally regarded as profane because of their sexual appeal, that is, because they arouse lust rather than the love of God.  As the numerous paintings of the Temptation of St. Anthony and Susanna and the Elders make clear, every patriarchal religion treats woman as all soulless body rather than embodied soul, and as such as beyond salvation—unless submitting to man.  I am suggesting that so-called “feminine protest” is implicit in Kobayashi’s feminist abstractions, altogether antithetical to the masculinist abstractions of the so-called New York School.  Kobayashi’s Two, Not One, 2022 suggests that man and woman are irreconcilable however intertwined, a Gordian knot that dissolves in the cosmic atmosphere rather than is cut by an aggressive sword.  It is implicit in Wish and Survivor, both 2022.  I suggest that the thin gestural strands that move across the works, sometimes intersecting, sometimes isolated, are the shadowy remnants of the ties that bind, indicating that they no longer bind, that they have unraveled, the dregs of a relationship that has lost its purpose.  But the chaotic flurry of thin lines appears in front of the richly luminous and color-filled cosmic atmospheres, in which the shadowy lines will eventually dissolve and disappear.  If these relational dregs remained they would undermine the Buddhist sublimity of Kobayashi’s enlightened art.

Hisako Kobayashi, Two not one, 48x40 in. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Two other works, Akari and Yoshino, both 2022, make the Buddhist character of Kobayashi’s abstractions quintessentially clear—her idealistic wish for enlightenment and with that liberation from existence.  Akari or illumination, refers to a dim, soft light, or the place that such a light comes from.  It could be the light in a room, or from a small fireplace, or, above all, “light that comes through in the universe”—the light that is implicit in Kobayashi’s cosmic paintings, that informs their color, the revelatory light of her enlightened consciousness, the living painterly light that confirms that she has become a Buddha, that is, an Enlightened One, a Knower. Yoshino is “an ancient Japanese name meaning lucky (or good) field, taken from the scenic Yoshino region of southern Yamato, now Nara prefecture.  It is older than Kyoto,” “famous for its numerous classical Buddhist temples.”  Noteworthily, Yoshino is written with Japanese characters meaning “fragrant field.”  Broadly speaking, it means a “peaceful, good place,” that is, a sacred place, a paradise.  Kobayashi’s sacred art—her heavenly Buddhist abstractions, boundless skyscapes rather than distorted landscapes, as in the apocalyptic abstractions of Kandinsky and Pollock—are a welcome relief from the hellish destructiveness of profane modernist abstraction.  Kobayashi’s vitalizing light—the innate radiance of her oceanic cosmos—saves abstraction from the nightmarish violence implicit in the fatalistic nihilism with which abstraction began, but doesn’t have to end, as Kobayashi’s enlightening abstractions, inviting empathic immersion in the cosmos, make clear. WM   


1. Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (New York:  International Universities Press, 1977), 253

2. Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy (New York:  International Universities Press, 1953), 131

3. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes:  A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York:  Vintage, 1996), 518.  Chapter 17, “The Avant-Garde Dies—The Arts After 1950” analyzes the decline and death—more broadly decadence—of avant-gardism in detail.

4. Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London:  Karnac, 2009), 195

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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