Japanese Art – on display and in books

Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker essay on the Guggenheim display of Japanese artist On Kawara – A Painting A Day – changed my perspective on conceptual art.  Staring at a piece of white canvas prominently on display in an art gallery always brings to mind one of my favorite plays, “Art,” with Alan Alda on stage justifying the exorbitant cost of his blank canvas to his skeptical friends.  If modern art is “all in the head,” Kawara’s Date Paintings fill that category.

Kawara_On_Oct_31_1978 The Guggenheim displays many of Kawara’s three thousand acrylic paintings, featuring only the dates on which they were made: the month, day, and year inscribed in white on layered backgrounds of red, blue, or dark gray.  In his obituary, the New York Times noted the artist, who died recently at 81 years old, found elegance in every day. Although some dates may remind the viewer of a war, an explosion, a death, a birth – other dates remain personal and dependent on the individual viewing.

Schjeldahl may not like Kawara’s work, but he admires it:

“…I like art works to be unique, and I want a sense that someone inhabits them. At the core of Kawara’s multitudinous production, there’s a wintry vacancy; the content is as uniform as death. But there is a term for the effect that it generates…the sublime. Kawara’s art evokes a cosmic perspective, by which his own life and, by extension, the lives of us all register as a negligible spark in time… Some art shows fill your spirit. This one empties you. You won’t forget it.”

I’d like to see Kawara’s art and decide for myself.  The artist, who used his mah-jongg winnings to support his family and his art, and who destroyed any work he could not finish by the end of a day, fascinates me.

9780062100689_p0_v1_s260x420Coincidentally, one of my book clubs chose Katherine Govier’s The Printmaker’s Daughter, a fictionalized tale of the nineteenth century Japanese artist – Hokusai – noted for “transcending time and space” in his iconic depiction of “The Great Wave.”

katsushika-hokusai-the-great-wave-at-kanagawa-from-36-views-of-mount-fuji-c-1829Hokusai preferred to work in paint, yet the Japanese woodcuttings that converted his art to prints made him famous. Govier’s book trudges along slowly, almost seeming to be a translation in its halting language, but her impeccable research reveals the possibility that Oei, Hokusai’s daughter, may have created many of his paintings – without credit. Both father and daughter were artists, and the mystery has never been solved.

Although I have just started reading this historical novel, I can already detect similarities in the Japanese artists – a century apart.  Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post said of Hokusai – “{he} explodes our most cherished clichés about how Japanese culture worships tradition and is bound by it…”  The same could be said of Kawara.

Have you been to the Guggenheim or the Sackler to see any of their work?

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