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“Sadamasa Motonaga and Natsuyuki Nakanishi: Counterpoints of the Japanese Avant-Garde” at Fergus McCaffrey

Sadamasa Motonaga and Natsuyuki Nakanishi: Counterpoints of the Japanese Avant-Garde, installation view. Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey.

Sadamasa Motonaga and Natsuyuki Nakanishi: Counterpoints of the Japanese Avant-Garde

Fergus McCaffrey

April 1 through June 12, 2021


Sadamasa Motonaga and Natsuyuki Nakanishi were painters known for their work during the later half of the 20th century. Taking a progressive outlook, they nonetheless were very different in their approach to art. Motonaga, extroverted, self-taught, at one point a ballroom dance instructor, came from the countryside. A member of the Gutai group, as notes indicate, he was best known for his colored water and plastic tubing installations. His paintings reflect a similarly cheerful, outgoing approach. Nakanishi was an intellectual; he grew up in Tokyo and studied at the National University of Arts and Music. His early works possessed a heavily textural quality, while in the Sixties, he made egg-shaped resin sculptures with objects placed within. The later paintings on show, from the early 1990s, are lyric abstractions, fully in sync with the international art scene. The two men were working at the same time, but their temperaments were quite different. There is not a lot of work up, but the pieces are strong examples of their later outlook

Sadamasa Motonaga, Big Square of Gray, 1981. Acrylic on canvas, 89 3 ⁄ 8 × 71 1 ⁄ 4 inches © Motonaga Archive Research Institution Ltd. Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey.

Motonaga’s Big Square of Gray (1981) is exactly that: a large square outlined in gray painting with an open black center and surrounding background. It feels like a Zen statement, in which typically a great deal is suggested with a minimum of means. By the year it was painted, this kind of implicative, often minimal abstraction was an international idiom. The stark power of the painting is deeply moving, and also philosophical--in contrast to the lighter spirit of his other two works on show. From Black Lines (1981) poses two arrows, one red and one black, in the upper left, contained by a square defined by a white line a couple of inches thick. To the right of the square, toward the edge of the painting, are two lozenge-shaped verticals; the upper one is red, while the lower one is white. Beneath the white square is a yellow splotch. It is an accomplished abstract painting. A third piece by Motonaga, called From Square of White Lines (1982), offers a similar white outline of a square dominating the center of the large painting. Various abstract forms embellish its left side, top, and bottom of the composition--a light green column on the left, a blue triangle topping the painting, and several random shapes beneath the square, including a black line with a slight bend upwards.

Natsuyuki Nakanishi, G/Z Hoho, 1993. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 76 1/2 x 102 inches © Estate of Natsuyuki Nakanishi. Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey.

Motonaga is an artist of immediacy and optimism, while Nakanishi turns to another place. The latter’s two abstractions in the show demonstrate a thorough acquaintance with a measured, but also expressionist, abstraction. The question, especially in the last quarter of the 20th century, whether a national spirit can be found in these nonobjective paintings seems a bit remote, even though the two artists were active in the Japanese avant-garde of the time. Nakanishi’s work here exists within the awareness of Western art, yet maintains a pluralist identity. In Middle--Swift White XII (1990), the abstraction is held by a central image, a light green pillar with rough edges and horizontal arms extending from it. Surrounding this thickish pole are all manner of abstract scrawling in black, with blots of the same light green taking place mostly in the lower half. In the other painting on view, G/Z Hoho (1993), made with oil and charcoal, is a complicated, messy work of art, with the charcoal creating inchoate areas of black. The painting is most active, in terms of markings, on the upper and lower left, but the right has numerous scrawls as well. Nakanishi is in both pieces a skilled purveyor of an abstraction we understand well, as this style of art continues into present practice. 

The larger import of the show centers on art history--Motonaga and Nakanishi were representative of an important outlook in Japanese art of the time, even if their sensibilities sharply contrasted. One hesitates to generalize about the artists, given that the number of works is few. But we can look to their work as evidence that the Japanese avant-garde was very much in the loop, aware of international movements--and at the same time, independent of over-infuence by either other Asian countries or the West. Still, by the final quarter of the 20th century, one can hardly escape the ubiquity of an international abstraction. That these artists maintained their independence in the face of an increasingly totalized art world shows their work to be meaningful and accomplished. WM

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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