Whitehot Magazine

The Feminine Sublime: Hisako Kobayashi’s Abstract Paintings

Hisako Kobayashi, BHAKI, Impersonal Devotion, 25 x 36, Oil on Paper, 2017 

By DONALD KUSPIT, May, 2018 

          Hisako Kobayashi is a modernist painter, a painter for whom “surface becomes ground and background,” as the modernist critic Clement Greenberg wrote, a surface in which “the concreteness of color and shape relations” are fraught with “more ‘human interest’ that the extra-pictorial references of old-time illusionist art.”  That human interest has to do with the paradoxical fact that concrete color and shape relations have “unconscious and preconscious effects,” as Greenberg states, alluding to Freud’s topographical model of the psyche, that is, evoke and express repressed feelings, feelings beyond the ken of consciousness, and thus seemingly incomprehensible.  It is these feelings, repressed into namelessness yet resonant with meaning, that give the physical surface of the painting its expressive depth—the emotional resonance responsible for what Greenberg calls its “plenitude of presence.” 

Greenberg found that plenitude of presence in the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock, a male painter.  It is unlikely that he would have found it in the abstract paintings of Hisako Kobayashi, a female painter. With good reason: Pollock’s hyperactive confrontational gestural paintings, their all-over surface ferociously rushing like an uncontrollable rapids, embody what Kant called the dynamic sublime—a masculine sublime, an epic sublime, a heroic sublime. In sharp contrast, Kobayashi’s slower moving, more intimate paintings--their more tender surface drawing us into the sensual depths, luring our psyche rather their overwhelming it, their calmer gestures softly touching the canvas rather than brusquely thrown down on it, their refined painterliness at odds with Pollock’s raw painterliness—embody the feminine sublime, the lyric sublime, the sublimity of the graces. Pollock’s all-over paintings are off-putting and intimidating; Kobayashi’s all-over paintings are irresistibly inviting. The masculine sublime and the feminine sublime are irreconcilably at odds: the plenitude of presence in Kobayashi’s sublimely feminine paintings is fundamentally different from the plenitude of presence in Pollock’s sublimely masculine paintings. If to abstract is to epitomize and sublimate, then Pollock’s abstract paintings epitomize the aggressive masculine sublime and Kobayashi’s abstract paintings epitomize the erotic feminine sublime.    

Jackson Pollock at work, Lee Krasner looking on.

Painter Hisako Kobayashi 

The feminine sublime is a concept developed by the feminist scholar Barbara Freeman (1) to characterize woman’s creativity and distinguish it from man’s creativity, conveyed by the concept of the masculine sublime. Until Freeman came along the sublime was regarded as gender-neutral.  Analyzing the terms and examples of the sublime as it was developed by male philosophers, particularly Kant, Freeman convincingly demonstrates that it unconsciously conveys their sense of what it means to be a man--dynamically and authentically masculine. Thus the masculine sublime is an expression of phallocentrism and with that the consummate assertion of male narcissism and declaration of male independence--that is, absolute difference from woman, and with that indifference to her, implying that one can make art without being inspired by her. A real man does not need a woman to live well and a serious male artist does not need a muse to be creative--implying there is no reason to take woman seriously, and thus no need for her and no reason for her to exist. In contrast, Freeman’s feminine sublime is an expression of wombcentrism and with that the consummate assertion of female narcissism and declaration of female independence--that is, absolute difference from man, and with that indifference to him, implying that life and creativity are possible without him, and thus no serious need for him and no reason for him to exist. The sensibility and Weltanschauung of a phallic-centered man and a womb-centered woman are radically different to the extent of being incompatible, which may say something about the war between the sexes. 

Feminist scholar Barbara Freeman.

Freeman points out that for Kant the mountain, rising to great, seemingly unfathomable—immeasurable--heights, and exemplary of what he calls the mathematical sublime, is in effect a phallic symbol. It is a penis in a state of permanent erection, the penis in all its “transcendental” glory and majestic power. The totemic zips in Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (man, heroic and sublime), 1970-71 epitomize the masculine phallic attitude. Similarly, she points out that the ocean, ceaselessly moving and unfathomably deep, and mysteriously dark as one descends into it, and exemplary of what Kant calls the dynamic sublime, is in effect a symbol of the womb, all the more so because life originated in the ocean as it does in the womb.  The “dark, forbidding” cavities and holes in the sculptures Lee Bontecou made in 1959 and the 1960s, and, secondarily, the lush vulva-shaped plates in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974-79 epitomize the feminine womb attitude. 

Barnett Newman, (American, 1905-1970), Vir Heroicus Sublimus, 1950-51 1950-51. Oil on canvas, 7' 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4" (242.2 x 541.7 cm). 

More pointedly, Freeman argues that insofar as the sublime signifies “unrepresentable excess” or “limitlessness” and “unrepresentable difference” or “otherness,” the feminine sublime is more authentically sublime than the masculine sublime, for the mountain and penis are limited and representable compared to the ocean and womb.  One can see the mountain and note its height—it seems immeasurable and overwhelming at first sight, but one can climb and conquer it, taking its measure as one does so—but one cannot see the womb, making it seem all the more mysterious—thus the “mystery of woman”—and with that unrepresentable.  The deep down womb is thus more “other” than the upright mountain:  woman is thus more other than man, if man is the measure.  The womb is radically different from the mountain, and thus more difficult to represent, if to represent means to take the measure of something and with that see its limits—contain it.   

The boundless, generative ocean is an age-old symbol of woman:  she is identified with it, as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, ca. 1486 shows.  Just as the power of love enabled Venus to conquer Mars, so woman will conquer man with her love.  And just as woman is more capable of love than man, so she is more capable of what Romain Rolland called “oceanic feeling” than man, as Freeman suggests.  In a 1927 letter to Freud Rolland called it “the spontaneous religious feeling or, more exactly, that of the religious sensation…which is the simple and direct fact of the feeling of the eternal (which can very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible boundaries, and as if oceanic).”  Spontaneous religious feeling is ecstatic, and woman is more capable of ecstasy—dare one say orgasmic pleasure?--than man.  Ecstatic experience seems sublime, for it brings with a sense of the eternal, all the more so because it seems boundless and boundaryless, an overwhelming and limitless excess of undifferentiated, uncontainable feeling, not bound to any object and thus oceanic and formless.

Kobayashi’s paintings seem fraught with such excessive feeling, each and every detail pulsing with ecstatic emotion, the plenitude of pulsing circles and impulsive dots on many of them like goosebumps on a hypersensitive skin.  So-called goosebumps are “sensational” signs of “strong emotions,” especially “fear, euphoria, or sexual arousal.”  Such powerful emotions tense the muscles in the skin, producing “sensational” goosebumps.  I suggest that the skin—surface--of Kobayashi’s painting is sublimely intense because of the complex mix of deep emotions that inform it.  They bubble up from the depths of her psyche, flooding the surface of the painting, generating spontaneously to form an oceanic excess of sensations indicative of inescapable feelings.  The swirling gestures that unexpectedly streak across the surface of many paintings--most noteworthily in One and Only Force, where they are broad, shadowy, ribbon-like bands, and in Neither Yes Nor No, where they are thin luminous lines--seem like cathartic releases of the tension built up in the ecstatic feelings.  

    Hisako Kobayashi, Unknown Father #3, 36x24, Oil on Canvas, 2018 

Kobayashi is a master of brooding color, dense with desire and pathos, as in Yoshiki.  A tour de force of dialectical process painting--one half the canvas in pinkish twilight, the other half in sullen darkness, punctured by bits of pulsing light; the colors sometimes massed together in oddly organic clusters, at other times flowing freely, as though steadily seeping out of the canvas—the work conveys the feminine sublime in all its majestic depth.  The Symphony of Color series indicates that Kobayashi  thinks of her paintings as music, reminding us of the tradition of musical painting that began with Kandinsky.  What she adds to it is a unique sense of expressive intimacy.  She also regards her paintings as poems, as Pilgrim to a Thousand Years Ago There Lie Upon Soil of the Poetry indicates—tone poems.  She is remarkably sensitive to the tone of each color:  the tonal quality of her colors imbues them with subtle emotional depth.  For her the over-all tone of the surface of the paintings is as important as—perhaps more important than--the choice of each color.   Enlivened by her touch, the colors deliriously flood the canvas, giving the work as a whole its emotional tone, its atmospheric intimacy.  Kobayashi’s paintings are cosmic tone poems, the tonal colors so many rhythmic stanzas in infinite space, the flickering bits of light cosmic dust, or perhaps new stars in the timeless sky.  The ocean of tonal color that floods Kobayashi’s canvases gives them the plenitude of presence that Greenberg said is characteristic of the best abstract painting.  It is aesthetically exhilarating, he added, that is, Kobayashi’s paintings flood the eye and psyche to ecstatic excess, so that they become oblivious to the representable world, even transcending it through indifference, but gain access to the unrepresentable feelings that inform the self of which they are parts.    

Kobayashi’s colors are profoundly personal, and the limitless space they create subjective—a so-called inner space, as I Want To Be In The Same Space With You suggests. The personal character—and melancholy import—of Kobayashi’s paintings is self-evident in her Unknown Father series.  (Is he unknown—unknowable?—because he is male, and as such profoundly “other” to her, a female?)  She seeks to overcome the sense of loss and isolation—abandonment and apartness—by BHAKI Impersonal Devotion, as one painting tells us—impersonal devotion to painting.  More particularly, to abstract art, which lends itself to feeling, for feelings cannot be represented only suggested, confirming that they are inherently unrepresentable, and as such abstract by nature. 

Hisako Kobayashi, I Want to Be in the Same Space with You, oil on canvas, 18 x 24, 2016

Whatever the personal problems Kobayashi is dealing with in her sublimely abstract feminine paintings (paintings that quintessentialize femininity)—and whatever personal therapeutic purpose they serve—the fact that she is a Japanese artist living and working in the United States suggests that she is dealing with her unconscious feeling of being a stranger in a strange land by making abstract art, art that is estranged from socially given objective reality, which the representational artist acknowledges and addresses.  Driven by “internal necessity” rather than “external necessity,” to use Kandinsky’s terms, and as such more of an introspective introvert than an extroverted observer, Kobayashi is forced back on “soft” feeling to deny “hard” fact, however much the feeling is a response to the fact.  However unpleasant the facts, the feeling is peculiarly pleasant, for it escapes from them by being true to the self.  For Kobayashi making abstract art is consolation for real suffering. 

Hisako Kobayashi, Pilgrim to a Thousand Years Ago There Lie Upon Soil of the Poetry 48 x 38, Oil on canvas, 2018

The fact that she did not “know” her father, perhaps because he was remote and never showed his feelings, or lacked affection for his daughter, made him mysterious—hence the shroud of mystery that hangs over her paintings, so that they seem uncannily self-conscious and laden with excessive meaning, they becoming as much of an enigma as her father.  I suggest that she was unable to know her father because she was alienated from him—and he was alienated from her—because they lived in a staunchly patriarchal society such as Japan.  A patriarchal society assumes the innate superiority of men and the innate inferiority of women, suggesting that their relationship is at best a compromise formation.  Nonetheless, Kobayashi survived her father and Japan, as the Survivor Tree, a self-symbol, suggests.  And it is why her “inner reality,” as she calls it, became more important and meaningful—however much it can only be suggested rather than represented—than outer reality.   

Hisako Kobayashi, Survivor Tree 36 x 25, Oil on Paper, 2017

Hisako Kobayashi, Symphony of Color 2, 18 x 13, Oil on Paper 2016 

A final speculative thought:  if Kobayashi is conveying the tenderness that was lacking in her life by magically creating it in her art—for her painterly touch is always full of tender feeling however firm-- then she is acknowledging that tenderness is rare in modern art and human life.  Is this because it is associated with woman, more particularly the mother, the Madonna who tenderly holds the vulnerable, innocent Child in so much Christian art, or the Madonna who tenderly holds the body of her dead Son on her lap, her mournful tenderness a sign of her profound humanity? The untender treatment of woman in so much modern art—in Picasso and de Kooning she’s often a grotesque monster, to mention two major examples—suggests as much.  Marilyn Monroe is a vacuous image—an empty signifier of manufactured glamor—for Andy Warhol, and for Philip Pearlstein the naked female body is a depersonalized waxwork.  All of this—and there are many more examples of the artistic use and abuse of woman—suggests the male artist has to defend himself against woman:  his machismo would be subverted by her ministrations.  Surrendering to Venus, Mars loses his raison d’etre—to make war, often enough in the case of the male modern artist war against woman.  It is why so much tough-minded aggressive masculine abstract expressionism is an emotional failure in contrast to Kobayashi’s tender-minded caring abstract expressionism. WM


(1)Barbara Freeman, The Feminine Sublime:  Gender and Excess in Woman’s Fiction (Berkeley and London:  University of California Press, 1995)  

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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