“Improvisation In Wood: Kawamata X Munakata” Exhibition

Japan Society Gallery

poster for “Improvisation In Wood: Kawamata X Munakata” Exhibition

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Japan Society presents Improvisation in Wood: Kawamata x Munakata, an ambitious exhibition of major artworks by two preeminent Japanese artists from different generations: Tadashi Kawamata (1953–) and Shikō Munakata (1903–1975). Each artist made significant contributions to their respective media with unconventional and individualistic approaches to working with wood. The new installation features pointed juxtapositions of artworks and archival material by Kawamata and Munakata that raise questions and foster dialogue, revealing the ways in which the presentation of art and history are shaped by context and perspective.

The exhibition celebrates the occasion of Japan Society’s 50th anniversary of its landmark building, completed in 1971. Designed by Junzo Yoshimura, it was the first permanent New York City structure completed by a Japanese citizen. For this exhibition, contemporary artist Kawamata pays homage to Japan Society’s building as well as to Munakata’s legacy through a newly commissioned installation that engages works by the prominent 20th-century woodblock artist. These prints form the core of Japan Society’s collection and were donated in 1971 by the artist and by Mrs. Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller. Kawamata’s site-specific installation—made with Munakata’s signature materials of wood, paper, and ink—draws inspiration from prints by Munakata, and sets up a dialogue between the artists to explore traditions and innovations in employing wood as an expressive material.

Known for his architectural interventions on public spaces and carefully constructed scaffoldings of reclaimed wood, Kawamata reexamines and renegotiates the history and memory of a specific place in time. Kawamata was the first Asian artist-in-residence in 1984 at MoMA PS1, New York City, where he fostered his early career with a dynamic scale of projects, including his seminal Project on Roosevelt Island (1992). Munakata, an internationally renowned artist associated with the sosaku hanga (creative print) movement and recognized by leaders of the mingei (folk craft) movement, revolutionized the concept of the woodblock print, shifting its understanding as a traditional craft to neo-traditionalism. Having won several print awards, including first prize at the 1955 São Paulo Biennial and the Grand Prix at the 1956 Venice Biennale, Munakata was essential to redefining postwar Japanese cultural identity.

Like Kawamata, New York City also held particular significance for Munakata. He first traveled to the United States in 1959 at the invitation of Japan Society through its fellowship program, which invited artists—including Munakata and Yayoi Kusama—to build an international dialogue and exchange cultural ideas. This relationship between Munakata and Japan Society has an enduring legacy through Japan Society’s collection of Munakata prints, including a complete set of his noteworthy series, The Two Bodhisattvas and Ten Great Disciples of Buddha (1939/1948), and Tōkaidō Munakata Hanga (1964), among other works. For the first time in the United States, Munakata’s masterfully carved woodblocks will be on display in this exhibition.

For both artists, wood acts as the conduit for communicating ideas, and is a material with history and time embedded in its raw form. This two-person exhibition aims to reexamine their achievements, and to reevaluate their improvisational practices working in wood within a global context. The resiliency of their practices particularly resonates today. Munakata resumed artmaking after the devastation of World War II when nearly all his woodcuts were lost in an air raid. Kawamata’s early practice began during the AIDS crisis. Both artists turned limited opportunities and materials into creative inspiration.

“This exhibition is an attempt to create a platform bridging two artists, Kawamata and Munakata, who are active in two different generations. It aims to broaden their sphere of activities globally, and to demonstrate their unique artistic practices in wood even though they never met. New York was the crucial place that fostered their ambitious attempts in each of their careers. Their major material, wood, often represents Japanese culture, however the two transcend the conventional notions of cultural representation,” says Yukie Kamiya, Director of Japan Society Gallery.

The accompanying catalogue interprets the exhibition’s central themes and provides scholarly research in an exuberant celebration of the connections and diversions between the two artist’s practices. It features essays by Yoriko Ishii, a scholar and Munakata’s granddaughter; Yukie Kamiya, Japan Society; and an interview between Tadashi Kawamata and Claudia Gould, Director of The Jewish Museum, New York and curator of Kawamata’s Project on Roosevelt Island (1992).

Improvisation in Wood: Kawamata x Munakata is curated by Yukie Kamiya, Gallery Director, with Tiffany Lambert, Assistant Curator, and organized by Japan Society.



from September 30, 2021 to January 16, 2022

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