Yuki Katsura: Fierce Autonomy
September 9 through October 30, 2021
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, September 2021
The 20th-century Japanese artist Yuki Katsura (1913-91) was a notably independent artist, as the small but fine exhibition “Fierce Autonomy” demonstrates. She is recognized in Japan, whose museum holdings usually include work by the artist, but not so well known in America now--this despite the fact that she lived in New York for nearly three years, in the late 1950s, where her friends included Yayoi Kusama and the gallerist Betty Parsons and her group. In her youth she studied both nihonga (Japanese-style painting) and Western painting and either founded or participated in a number of associations devoted to women. Her early work, highly skilled allegorical paintings with political implications, gave way to inspired abstraction in light of her travels to Paris, central Africa, and New York. The gallery, devoted to Japanese modern and contemporary art, is to be thanked for putting up a show that highlights the strengths of this highly independent artist.
Katsura was well trained as a realist painter. There are two earlier pieces in the show, Work (1940) and Still Life (1951), which have both a traditional still life compositional orientation and an allegorical bent. Work, done just before the start of the Second World War, looks innocent enough: a folded cloth of white with blue dots resting on a green oval; and a closely coiled length of rope set against a yellow shield-like form. On one level, it is an inspired study of differing objects, yet the rope, regularly used in Shinto ceremonies, is so twisted as to read like a warning, prescient, of upcoming violence. In Still Life, we see what appears to be an academic treatment of objects: a tan ceramic plate with decorations along its edge; a large leaf; a persimmon flanked on either side by flowers. One would think this is a simple declaration of forms, but the imagery, painted just after a treaty with America had been concluded, subtly points to discord: the orange persimmon is upside down and the large leaf on the right takes on the characteristics of a face, not necessarily benign. This was a difficult time in Japan, when the country was struggling to fully overcome the consequences of war. Katsura captures the spirit of the time extremely well.
In Towering Rage (1953), Katsura makes use of her interest in folklore. The fierce visage, with its spiky hair, horns, and outsize incisors, glares at us in the fullness of anger. It is a mythological figure bristling with aggression. One thinks of the guardian spirits in Japanese religious iconography; here there is no direct impression that would support so emblematic a reading, but of course the emotion of anger is something felt by all of us. By investing the feeling with the implications of myth, Katsura expands upon a demonization that her audience might easily identify with. In the later work, when the artist had gone to Africa to study textile design, and then to New York, where she experienced lyric abstraction, the work moves slowly but surely into the nonobjective. In Towering Rage, we see the painter rejecting her considerable technical skill for an emotional delivery. The image is memorable for its fierceness.
The two abstract works, one done in the years between 1958 and 1962, and the other in 1961, we can see the influence of Katsura’s stay in Africa looking at textiles, as well as her reaction to the New York School’s abstract expressiveness. In the work begun in 1958, the viewer looks at a large yellow squared image, with yellow fringe extending outward on three sides. The work consists of pigment on paper attached to canvas, so there is a degree of complexity in its construction, even if the image itself is simple and direct in the extreme. In the 1961 work, the painting contains a large, dark green rectangle that fills the space, with short green fringe occurring on the top and bottom of the image. Here too, the work has been constructed by applying oil paint on paper fixed onto canvas. Both images are slightly mottled and give off a moderately rough appearance. They might be idiosyncratic versions of color field painting, which began about 1950. The show demonstrates Katsura’s unusual proficiency in several styles, as well as a cultural openness that enabled her to make use of differing influences belonging to diverse places. To her credit, she never loses sight of her own esthetic, conveying an independence of mind even as she borrows from a different culture. This excellent show makes that very clear. WM
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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