Five Artists in Japan's Postwar Avant-Garde

Five Artists in Japan's Postwar Avant-Garde


J apan in the decades following World War II underwent a period of unprecedented expansion, and artists responded to the dramatic social changes in kind, unleashing an irrepressible creative spirit that was both provocative and innovative, opening to experimental movements, new trends in abstract artistic exploration and materialist aesthetics. From EYE-EAST, works by five leading avant-garde Japanese artists provide facets to the identity and expression of contemporary art in Japan after 1945.

Sofu Teshigahara

“The four principles of freshness, motion, balance and harmony. The three elements of line, color and mass.”
- Rule 49 of the Sōgetsu school of modern flower arrangement

Sofu Teshigahara, Ikebana master and founder Sōgetsu school, describes the core tenets of his philosophy of art, extrapolating from flower arrangement to sculpture, painting and avant-garde calligraphy. Teshigahara began creating diverse forms of art using forms modeled by nature. He first exhibited as a sculptor at Tokyo’s Bridgestone Museum in 1957, subsequently gaining acclaim in the West through French critic-curator Michel Tapié, the organizer of Teshigahara’s first European solo exhibition at Galerie Stadler in Paris in 1959. In personal notes written during his first trip to Japan in 1957, Tapié raves: “Upon meeting [Teshigahara] for the first time, I sensed that I was before one of those exceptional creative talents who could present his work to the world. That kind of creativity is rare. After Picasso, I have been overawed by such presence only before the work of Pollock."

Dragon (folding screen), is a majestic example of Teshigahara’s innovative and multidimensional oeuvre. Executed on a six-paneled folding screen, Teshigahara’s immense brushstrokes hover transcendently, with forms and lines inspired by the dynamism of nature. Simultaneously calligraphic, gestural and sculptural, the monumental piece is archetypal of Teshigahara’s unique Ikebana-inspired oeuvre.

"The recent sculpture of the master Sofu Teshigahara has served as a major step in establishing a new aesthetic. Until a new order is born, “adjacency” is the most abstract concept we have. The term “composition”, which now enjoys currency in aesthetics and art criticism, is too classical, and I am even of the opinion that it should be replaced with “arrangement”.
- Michel Tapié, 1957

Yuichi Inoue

Calligraphy is consonant with Western abstract art that, at its foundation, espouses a formal and conceptual rather than real or descriptive image. In post-war Japan, avant-garde Japanese artists led by Yuichi Inoue and Shiryu Morita re-conceived of calligraphy as “a metaphysical act which uses the character as a ‘site’ (basho)” to manifest “the dynamic movement of life” (inochi no yakudo), according to art historian Alexandra Munroe in Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky. Their works hover at the edge of painting and calligraphy, line and stroke, content and form, control and sensuality.

The colossal, bold strokes of Yuichi Inoue's Ai (Love) emanate a quivering ethereality – a classic and moving example from the artist’s celebrated avant-garde practice that revolutionized the ancient art of calligraphy. In the deep tradition of sho (calligraphy), the brushstroke is understood as “an imprint of the mind” – a sign of the artist’s intellectual, psychological, and spiritual state of being.

In the period following an obsessive, unprofessed affection for Mayuno Sato, a woman 30 years his junior, a great deal of romantic poetry was found in Yuichi's diary, coinciding with repeated calligraphic works with the characters ‘no’ and ‘love.’ Focusing intensely on a single character for a short, intense period of time, Yuichi's massive strokes tremble with sublime internal tremors and intricate rivulets of ink. In the present work, the character Ai crosses over the pictorial edge of the frame, defying traditional rules of calligraphy and evoking a subtly heart-wrenching sense of pathos.

Shigeru Onishi

“To know the conditions of the object’s formation—this is the purpose of my photography, which is founded on a desire to pursue metamathematic propositions such as ‘the possibility of existence’ and ‘the possibility of optional choice."
Shigeru Onishi

With early beginnings as mathematician, Shigeru Onishi arrived on postwar avant-garde photography scene in with a 1955 exhibition, and soon became part of the subjectivist photography movement. He approached photography with unorthodox, almost painterly printing methods to express what Onishi called the visual “formation of ideas” and what critic Shuzo Takiguchi called “curiously clouded dissolved states of time and space.” Not long after he garnered acclaim and attention for his photography, Onishi gradually moved away from the restraints of photography to embrace abstract sumi ink painting. His works earned him the plaudit “avant-garde calligrapher of art informel” from the critic Michel Tapie.

Hisao Domoto

Hisao Domoto first travelled to Paris in 1952. After this first visit, during which he was instantly captivated by contemporary currents in French painting, Domoto nevertheless decided to spend the next three years immersed in the arts of Japan and East Asia before continuing his artistic journey in Europe. Domoto’s intention was to solidify his identity and artistic heritage before venturing again to Paris, seeking strength in his culture’s long tradition in order to hold his own against the tides of Informel.

His ensuing signature aesthetic, exemplified by Untitled, was a philosophical and aesthetic mélange of Japanese sensibilities and Western expressionism, exuding a cosmic lyricism that immediately set him apart from European artists. Executed in 1958, the year following Domoto’s debut European solo exhibition at the Galerie Stadler in Paris, the piece evokes the vigour and grandeur of crashing waves and galactic winds, exhibiting deft and dynamic brushwork paired with poised compositional discipline. Compared to the heavyweight matière of European Informel painters, such as that of Alberto Burri, Jean Dubuffet, and Jean Fautrier, Domoto’s impasto possesses a nimble dexterity that recalls the precision and lightness of touch of Eastern ink calligraphy. Balancing the elegant symphony of colour is a vast expanse of white – one that occupies almost half the canvas, and which glows with a luminous mysticism. Apart from being a critical compositional element, Domoto’s white is imbued with a profound presence on its own that resonates with Oriental philosophies of emptiness and spatiality.

In 1966-167, Hisao Domoto moved to New York City for a year to prepare for a solo exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery. During this stimulating period in the new world capital of art, Domoto embarked on a new style, marking a turning point in his prolific and celebrated career. Having just represented Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1964, winning the Prix Arthur Lejwa, Domoto did not cease his quest for experimentation and renewal. Works in the mid-1960s feature a recurrent pattern reminiscent of tire tracks with an emphasis on primary colors, bearing a strong sense of materiality; and yet, when compared to the mere materiality of Antoni Tapies, Alberto Burri, etc., Domoto's creations forge a sublime tension between physicality and composition. A stark contrast from his earlier lyrical gestural compositions during his Informel period in Paris, these new works are yet another startling demonstration of Domoto's daring originality.

"In 1964, I started thinking of myself not as a Japanese person but as someone who had to have a form of my own, and I was searching for that."
Hisao Domoto

From 1966 onward he favored more geometric shapes, and began working with circles starting from 1967, paving the way for his later works in Japan in which circles were the major structural elements. Created in the special year in which the artist resided in New York in 1967 before returning home to Japan that same year, the present work features both the iconic tire track and circle motifs. 1967 was a major turning point in the artist's career - the year in which he closed his atelier in Paris and returned to Tokyo.

"For me, Paris was a place for thinking. New York was a place to work. Tokyo was a place to have a good time."
Hisao Domoto

Kumi Sugai

Originally part of the École de Paris (School of Paris) and the Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism) movements in the 1950s, Kumi Sugai was one of the first postwar Japanese artists to journey to Europe. Sugai became acquainted with the legacy of Surrealism and Abstract Impressionism, and began adapting traditional ukiyo-e woodblock forms and techniques with a unique painterly sensibility. The artist’s career took off almost immediately after his arrival in Paris. Employing a subtle, quiet palette, Sugaï's virtuosic use of color imbues warmth and humanity into his semi-abstract forms. At once foreign and familiar, the anonymous composition seems to murmur the mysterious language of tribal symbols or ancient dialects, evoking an enchanting, exotic lyricism. Untitled is a rare early work by Kumi Sugai, created in the year just after the artist moved to Paris in 1952.

Sugai shifted toward an original style in the 1960s. Moving away from his previously calligraphic, organic and lyrical imagery, he began creating more hard-edge geometric and typographic forms rendered in bright exuberant palettes. The present work is diminutive in size yet instantly iconic in terms of imagery, wholly representative of Sugai's signature mature aesthetic. After exhibiting in various one-man shows in Paris and Brussels, Sugaï held a defining midcareer retrospective at the Städtisches Museum, West Germany in 1960 and moved on to participate in important international biennales. Winning the Best Foreign Artist Prize at the São Paulo Biennial in 1965, Sugaï firmly established his international reputation with his distinctive aesthetic; thereafter his works were exhibited at and collected by important institutions around the world. His works from the 1950s are housed at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim.

Contemporary Art
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