at Garth Greenan Gallery
in the Chelsea 20th area
This event has ended - (2012-01-17 - 2012-02-25)
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Tadaaki Kuwayama and his wife, the artist Rakuko Naito, arrived in New York in 1958. Leaving behind the traditions of Japanese nihonga painting, they became part of the cutting edge of the 1960s American art scene. A contemporary of Minimalists such as Dan Flavin, Walter De Maria, and Donald Judd, Kuwayama soon developed his own distinctive style, typified by vivid fields of paint juxtaposed in horizontal and vertical compositions, as well as monochromatic canvases bisected by thin strips of chrome. Following two solo exhibitions at the renowned Green Gallery in 1961 and 1962, his work was included in the renowned “Systemic Painting” exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1966. More recently, his work has been characterized by factory-produced, modular installations of Bakelite and aluminum elements. In the past two years he has been the focus of three major museum exhibitions in Japan. Currently, he is exhibiting four site-specific works at Gary Snyder Gallery in Chelsea, including his first work in titanium.
You arrived in New York in 1958. What was your impression of the art scene when you arrived in New York?
At that time it was dominated by Abstract Expressionism, but the younger generation of artists wanted to break away from that. In my case, I’d had no access to information about American art before I came to the US. Japanese art magazines didn’t cover it. There had only been some basic coverage of Jackson Pollock. So I only learned about Abstract Expressionism once I came here, and with that Japan lost its relevance to me. I felt like I was ten years behind everybody else when it came to thinking about art.
How did you start to get involved with the New York art scene?
At that time, I wasn’t able to come here unless I had a student visa, so I joined the Art Students League of New York. But that wasn’t a very interesting place to be; it was where amateurs and bourgeois wives went, and the teachers were all conservative. So I hardly went to school at all. I would just sign in and go home. But I did make some friends there, and since it was on 57th Street, it was close to MoMA, so I’d often see the exhibitions there.
How come the Abstract Expressionist approach to painting using your whole body didn’t influence you? Did you feel driven to do something different from what everybody else was doing?
I really disliked their approach. But I was making more of a break from my background in Japan than a break from my peers in New York. In Japan I was studying traditional nihonga painting, using pigment, water, and animal glue. I’d never used oil paint before, so I didn’t know what techniques were involved. And yet I couldn’t bear the type of painting I already knew. It wasn’t so much nihonga materials as it was the institution of nihonga that I disliked. So when I came to America, I wanted to get out of that and create something on my own.
At your first solo exhibition at Green Gallery in 1961, you showed Untitled: Red and Blue (1961), Untitled: Red (1961), and Untitled: Black (1961). What inspired you create this kind of Minimalist work?
I didn’t make a conscious decision to create that kind of work; rather, I overwhelmingly felt that it was my surroundings that were pushing me to make it. It was only when I had that first exhibition that it dawned on me what I had done. My understanding of myself as an artist grew with each exhibition I did. Each time, I’d think about what it was I’d been trying to accomplish with that body of work.
At that time, Minimalism didn’t really exist as a term yet, did it? Was anyone else in your circle of friends working in that way?
People hadn’t got to that point yet. Green Gallery was showing work by George Segal and Claus Oldenburg, but their work was more in the realm of Pop Art—it had something “artistic” about it. It was through Green Gallery that I got to know Donald Judd. He initially became involved with the gallery as a critic; it wasn’t until 1963 that he started showing his work there. But he wasn’t showing the aluminum pieces that he’s now renowned for; he was making sculptures that looked like folded panels, like Japanese folding screens, and there were square boxes that he painted in cadmium red, which reminded me of Japanese bento boxes. His metallic box-like works came later.
So, in a sense, the beginning of the 1960s was still a time when people, myself included, were making “artistic” works. After a while I wanted to make work that would stand apart from the world of so-called “art.” My art education had only looked to the past, never to the future, so I think I was still working in that mindset. At the time, I was wrapping canvasses with the kinds of paper that are used in nihonga. That kind of material wasn’t suited to the abstract expressionistic dripping of paint, and so on. At the same time, the works I made in the 1960s were really big—that was the influence of America, of seeing work by artists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Seeing their work and how big it was had a huge impact on me. I’d never seen anything like that in Japan.
Frank Stella’s geometric abstraction was a major part of the Minimalist movement. Were you in any way inspired or influenced by his work?
I’d say his approach and mine were similar. He and I have been good friends for a long time now. We emerged at the same time.
How did your work develop during the 1960s?
There was a difference between my first solo show and my second in 1962. In the second, I started to explore three-dimensionality, and I made my first floor piece. Four-by-eight feet is a standard size for wooden panels in America, so I pasted thin strips of Japanese paper onto one of those wooden panels, painted the whole thing black, and stood it on the floor. It looked like a wooden door. There was no texture to it whatsoever.
In around 1965, I started to use spray paint. I created large, flat works composed of two panels of differing metallic colors. I stopped painting by hand, and I no longer used nihonga pigments or techniques. After a year, I stopped using paper and switched to canvas. I felt nihonga materials were too limited for this kind of work, and oil paint wasn’t suited to it either. All materials have their limitations, but when the aim is to obliterate something’s surface, a spray gun is better tool than a paintbrush. These large-scale works were included in the Guggenheim’s “Systemic Painting” exhibition in 1966.
You also started bisecting the middle of your compositions with one or more strips of chrome at that time too. What led you to do that?
I felt that color was something that everybody painted on by hand, and that artistic production was seen as an act of human creation. I wanted to deny that. That’s how my work started out. I wanted to obliterate all elements of what had come before, and to create multiple versions of the same thing.
There are five large works from that time that exemplify this. Untitled: Brown, Untitled: Blue, Untitled: Gray, Untitled: Purple, and Untitled: Beige (all 1966) are each composed of four panels, separated vertically and horizontally by strips of aluminum. They were included in my retrospective at the Nagoya City Art Museum in 2010, and they are now in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. Each piece is also framed by a strip of aluminum, and there is no trace of a brushstroke in any of them—they are flat expanses of color. They were completely different from the Clement Greenberg school of abstraction that dominated American art of the time. These five works were a kind of art that anybody could make. And there was no specific reason why I only made five; if given the space to exhibit them, I would have made ten or twenty. As for the color, I didn’t want to create any distinction between “good” or “bad” colors. I wanted to treat them as equivalent to each other. So I used some horrible colors—all on purpose. I thought of those works as the “cheap American apartment series,” employing exactly the kind of disgusting colors that you’d expect a cheap American apartment to be painted with—pink, pale blue, baby blue, and so on. Those so-called hideous colors and art are the same thing. I made all those pieces the same size and the same shape; it was just the color that differed from one to the other. Sometimes I’m asked what order the colors should be hung in. I explain that it doesn’t matter—there is no order. They can be hung in a different order each time they’re put on display. But, nobody appreciated them.
Why do you think that is?
The owner of Green Gallery, Richard Bellamy, told me that he thought I might not make it as an artist in America—that Americans might not get into my work. He suspected that it would only be after my work had been extensively shown in Japan and Europe that Americans would eventually understand it. Looking back at that time, I think Pop Artists and Minimalists didn’t succeed in getting their work to be seen as anything other than “art.” Their work continued to be perceived as an extension of traditional notions of art, ultimately. But I never thought of my work as Minimalist. Even now I think of it as a fact, a truth, a reality.
But there are people who have supported your work. It has been particularly well received in Germany. What do you think the reason for that is?
The Germans have a very theoretical way of thinking. The entire country has thought about what direction it should take since World War II. They have embraced art as one of the cornerstones of peaceful reconstruction, and they invested huge amounts of money into the construction of museums. In the 1960s, it was the Germans who were buying American Pop Art and Minimal Art. So many works from that period are now in the collections of German museums. America caught up with those movements relatively late.
In what respect do you think your practice differs from that of Minimalist artists?
In general, the Minimalist artists were fed up with painting. They were compelled to make three-dimensional, sculptural work. But I didn’t take that approach. I wanted to turn art into something visually pure.
One could say the Minimalists explored three-dimensionality because making tableaux-like forms could be interpreted as extension of the painting tradition. And yet, you made tableaux-like forms. How come?
When I think about it now, I did want to make use of that shape. Yet, while paints do have a flat surface, that’s just one of the criteria by which we have defined painting until now, right? That’s what I wanted to reject. I was aiming to create something with a different sense of spatial dimension. That’s why the works I was making in the mid-1960s were things that anyone could make.
If, at the time, you had been able to have other people produce them on your behalf, would you have done so?
I think so, but I didn’t have the money. Thinking about it now, that series of five paintings that was acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, should have been duplicated infinitely. When I was young, I did think of those paintings as my own work, but I was okay with that. It was enough just to say that my work was infinite in a conceptual sense—that conceptual premise alone was sufficient.
In today’s context, Damien Hirst seems to be working in a similar vein. His spot paintings aren’t “art.” I think it’s amazing that he’s taken that idea to such an extreme. That’s the kind of thing I wanted to do in the 1960s—to create works with no trace of touch that can be made by anybody and replicated endlessly. When I look at his work, I wish there were more artists like him. You can’t really say that any one of his spot paintings is better than another, can you? It doesn’t matter whether they’re round or square, large or small—they’re effectively all the same thing. Therefore, they have no value.
Though you had already been based in New York for quite a while, and you were working as an American artist, given that the Minimalists were all American-born, did the fact that you were Japanese limit you in any way?
To a certain degree, it did. At that time, I thought that having a foreign name might prevent me from being taken seriously. I sort of wished I had an American name. People would assume that because I’m Japanese, my work must be based on Japanese or East Asian thought. It even happened in Germany. I wanted to break down those assumptions. We are all humans, born on this earth as equals. All living things have feelings. I can’t bear artwork that is based on some kind of Japaneseness or Asianness. That said, while racial discrimination exists, I’ve never experienced it myself.
In his catalogue essay for your retrospective at the Nagoya City Art Museum, curator Satoshi Yamada quotes a statement you made in 1970. In it, you say “color, shape, and size must be clearly determined, and that is the starting point for the creation of my work.” Were those factors at the heart of your thinking from the beginning of your practice?
What I was trying to say was that there’s no point in me attempting to consider what art is; the only concern artists can have is how to make their work. I was also trying to say that you have to see the work for yourself; words alone don’t convey enough. So I was talking about the order in which I go about making my work. Take painters, for example: it’s through the process of adding and removing things that they create their work. I think that’s what defines painting. But in my case, I have to decide what I want to do before I begin. I think it’s wrong to begin creating a work without knowing what the end result will be. When I started my practice, I felt the age of painting was over, and I wanted to make things that had no trace of painterliness in them, things that existed in a different dimension. I wanted to create things that people who believed in painting wouldn’t understand. And I still do. The art scene is still dominated by the same conceptions of sculpture and painting. The world hasn’t changed much.
Japan has different ways of measuring length and area than America—centimeters rather than inches, rooms measured by the number of tatami mats in them, and so on. Given that dimensions are such an important part of your work, have these differences affected you in any way?
Nihonga painting measures everything in shaku, but one shaku is almost the same as one foot, so I didn’t feel particularly constrained by the change of system—in fact nowadays I prefer inches to centimeters. The scale of artworks is, in general, conceived in relation to scale of human beings and buildings, so I wanted to create works that weren’t bound by those ideas and suggested the infinite.
For example, at my solo exhibition at the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art in 1996, I exhibited 136 eight-foot-tall panels of Bakelite, alternately painted with metallic pink and yellow. That work has nothing to do with the realms of painting or sculpture—it exists in the realm of space. Each panel is eight feet tall because that’s a standard size for materials in America. Eight feet is slightly taller than an average human being, and it invites you to look upward. I think it’s the most comfortable set of proportions to look at. As for color, though that piece was pink and yellow, but I don’t even perceive it as having any color. The same goes for all my work: I think colors should be treated as equivalent to each other. The point is that they just exist.
Can you talk about why you progressed to using metallic colors?
You know, there are some colors that don’t assert themselves—one might think they don’t even have any character. It might sound funny, but I’m interested in intermediate or neutral colors, and that’s what metallic colors offer. In any case, I’m not that fussy about what colors I use.
I see colors in terms of the infinite, which is why I’m not concerned about what order they are displayed in. Yet, colors and materials do each have their own characters. But I don’t think that alone is particularly impressive. I want to give them a sense of inscrutability. For example, if one of them has a little scratch, the viewer’s eye will inevitably be drawn to it, and at that moment the sense of balance in the work is lost. You no longer feel the conception of space that the work provides. So that’s something I absolutely try to avoid. I want the work to send a shiver up your spine. It should have no “hook” for viewers to cling to. I want to make people feel like they’ve entered a world beyond “art.”
In your current solo exhibition at Gary Snyder Gallery, you are showing Untitled (1996/2012), a set of six small sheets of Mylar, each bisected by a thin line of red and blue graphite and mounted between to thin panes of glass. What is your interest in transparent materials?
I was experimenting with glass. I tried creating lines by sandblasting it until it became frosted, but the effect always ended up being reminiscent of craft. I tried really hard to avoid that. So I ended up using colored pencil on Mylar.
Untitled (2012), which consists of eight roughly one-by-two-foot panels of titanium standing vertically on the floor at alternating angles, is the first work you have made in this material. How does titanium compare to aluminum?
Titanium is completely different. It’s hard to shape, but the colors are permanent. You can put it out in the sun and it won’t fade, whereas colored aluminum does. Another thing is that the color of the titanium shifts depending on the angle and distance from which you look at it. Untitled (2012) is actually pink, but depending on the angle of the light and where you’re standing in relation to the piece, it can appear green. This is a result of the anodizing process, in which the metal is put in a bath of water and acid, and an electrical current is applied—the color changes with every second. And these color changes aren’t gradual, either: the metal will be purple for a moment and then suddenly it’ll become blue, and so on. You can choose what color you want, down to the precise second, though, as I said before, I think of them as all being the same. Aluminum has its own base color, and I dye it. Both aluminum and titanium are white inside—the surface color is just a thin layer. But you don’t need to dye titanium; the anodizing process makes the color inherent to the material.
Last year, in my exhibition at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, I showed Plan for Gallery 11 (Yellow and Orange) (2011), a set of sixteen cylinder-like pieces of anodized aluminum placed in a row on the floor. Originally, I had wanted to make that work in titanium, but it was technically too difficult to achieve. Those cylinders are each made out of a single strip of aluminum that has been bent into shape. But the subtle angle on those works is virtually impossible to achieve with titanium. So that’s why my first work in titanium is made up of flat surfaces. When I first made the aluminum cylinders, I found that adding a slight angle to it conveys a sense of weight. A pure cylinder feels too geometric to me, and I don’t like that at all. Adding even a very subtle angle gives the work a sense of otherworldliness.
Are you planning to explore any other metals than aluminum and titanium?
I’ve experimented with iron before, but it ends up being too reminiscent of conventional sculpture. I prefer the feel of titanium. There’s something unusual about aluminum and titanium that I like. I’ve been looking into making eight-foot-tall panels of titanium, but it’s going to take time because I’m told that it won’t be possible to keep the color even across the entire surface. I don’t want there to be many colors evident from the moment you see the work; the colors should change as you observe the piece from different angles.
You’re also currently showing Untitled (1992/2012), a set of twenty-two red aluminum elements hung on the wall in a horizontal line. In the event that somebody buys that piece—or any of your other modular works—do you wish to exert any control over how and where it is displayed?
I do. However, there are many times when I can’t. Eventually I won’t be around anymore, so I’m writing a lot of instructions for how my works should be installed. It’s only a relatively recent development that people buy my work. Twenty years went by before anyone bought my aluminum and Bakelite pieces.
When that happened, did you feel like everyone had at last come to understand your work?
I wouldn’t say everyone—experts are a lost cause. These supposedly educated art-history specialists don’t get my work. For example, the 136-panel pink and yellow Bakelite piece that I exhibited at the Kawamura Museum was my first modular work. I had given the factory all the specifications for color, material, and size, but I couldn’t be sure how the piece would look until the factory had made it and it was installed in the museum. I could calculate everything in advance, but it was only once they were hung on the wall that I understood what feeling they conveyed. On the day the show opened, members of the general public gasped when they first entered that room. They were curious about what they were seeing; they wanted to get close and study the work. Only those who are not part of the art world have that kind of sincere, emotional response to the here-and-now of the work. But art-history specialists tend to look at the work in terms of what it relates to in the past, and therefore they don’t get it.
You’ve been talking in terms of the past, present, and future, but your work feels very still. How do you perceive the concept of time in your practice?
My work represents a sense of existence. It endures—I have to make it endure. There would be no point in me making a work that can’t be seen five years later. Aesthetic values are bound to change—they always have. It can’t be helped if people make things that don’t endure. To put it another way, people don’t just live for the present; they live in the knowledge that there is a future ahead. I think art should be the same. Things can live on as art. Visually arresting works of art from the past often still evoke a sense of the future when you look at them today. Because they convey the future, they make you feel the present.
Then, there’s the issue of people asking me when I made each of my artworks. I’ve never felt the need to sign or date my works. Why should that information be on an artwork? It’s only done for commercial reasons. I get a bit confused when people ask me when I made my works, because there’s a difference between when the work was physically made and when I display it. For example, in my current exhibition, the aluminum and Bakelite pieces were made in 1992, but they’ve only become artworks now that they’re on display. As for my earlier paintings, I can remake them. If anything, it’s more interesting to remake them now. The only thing that changes is the material. If someone wants one of my past works, I’ll make another one for them. My work is supposed to be replicated by anybody at any point in time.
Many artists eventually increase the scale of their work, making bigger outdoor pieces—it’s often a natural evolution of their practice. Do you have any interest in doing this?
It depends on the setting. If I find an unusually interesting place, then I might do it. I’ve made an outdoor piece once before, for the 21st Century Museum last year. Plan for Courtyard (Gold and Silver) (2011) was a ring of twenty-four nine-foot tall panels. A New York collector wanted to buy it, so I’m working with architects and engineers to figure out how best to install it in its New York location, on Fishers Island. It’s not going to be in an enclosed courtyard; it’ll be more exposed. I’m working with a landscape engineer to make the appropriate setting for it. It needs to be firmly set in a concrete base, and we need to find a way to prevent sand from damaging the surface as it gets blown around by the wind. We can’t go so far as to construct buildings around it, but nor do I want it to be enclosed in a glass box. We’ll see what we come up with.
For more details about the museum exhibitions that Tadaaki Kuwayama refers to in this interview, see the following links: Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Nagoya City Art Museum, Gallery Yamaguchi, Osaka & Gary Snyder Gallery.
Interview: Kosuke Fujitaka
Transcription: Takayuki Fujii
Translation: Ashley Rawlings