Lot 1004
  • 1004

Yamaguchi Takeo

300,000 - 500,000 HKD
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  • Yamaguchi Takeo
  • Kukei Mie (Threefold Rectangle)
  • oil on board
signed, titled and dated 1959 in Japanese on a label affixed to the reverse, framed


Private Japanese Collection
The Harry Hoffman Estate (Acquired from the above in 1960)
Owens Auction Service, Dillsboro, Indiana, July 2013
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale

Catalogue Note

This work will be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist's estate

The Integrity of Pure Form
Yamaguchi Takeo

For me, the process of concentrating on the position of basic forms naturally gave me a compositional organization to my work. And it was at this point that I consider my art began. – Yamaguchi Takeo1

Yamaguchi Takeo, painter of the exclusive trio of colors black, ocher yellow and burnt russet red, was one of the foremost pre-war abstractionists in Japan. While his ascension to critical recognition only occurred in 1954,2 a period when abstract painting finally became a major movement in Japanese art circles, Yamaguchi had been quietly and steadfastly creating severe non-figurative forms in the two decades leading up to that time. Thus in the mid-1950s it was almost without warning that Yamaguchi found himself a sudden pioneer of a revolutionary trend: pushed to the very front ranks of Japanese abstract artists, his seminal 1958 painting Work – Yellow (Unstable Square [Fuantei shikaku]) was displayed prominently on the ground floor of the Guggenheim rotunda during the museum’s grand inaugural exhibition in 1959.

Created in that same year, Kukei Mie (Threefold Rectangle) (Lot 1004) represents the most archetypal and iconic of Yamaguchi’s distinctive paintings, where austere, sharply reduced geometric forms float within a deep black void. Notably, Yamaguchi painted with knives instead of brushes, usually layering on seven to eight coatings of paint for each piece. As the pigment becomes thicker the form organically evolves, and layering is repeated until the shape finally speaks for itself. Such an enlivening encounter between artist and work imbues Yamaguchi’s forms with a concrete palpability; as the artist once said: “the shapes I paint should move slowly as though living and breathing […] I am both conductor, separate from the actual performing of the elements in my painting; and the craftsman, completely involved in the process of creating […]”.3

The drive behind Yamaguchi’s idiosyncratic abstraction is the integrity of pure form; for him, the spirit of being, as in sculpture, lay in the essence of its stripped down configurations. “Confirm the subject’s existence by touch, then study its constituent parts”, he said. “In other words, approach the subject scientifically”.4 In both philosophy and method, therefore, Yamaguchi strived to interact with the innermost framework and structure of a subject, seeking to awake in his forms the soul and depth of nature. Such was his artistic project from beginning to end: unlike other Europe-bound artists who were swayed by new styles and trends from abroad, Yamaguchi stayed true to his own unique subject-based non-figurative mode of expression that found no direct inspiration from the contemporaries of his time.

It is this simple and steadfast determination that awards Yamaguchi’s works their subtle yet enduring allure. After the war Yamaguchi began to paint exclusively with the three colors black, ocher yellow and deep red tinged with brown, an homage to the Korean peninsula, and continued to do so for the remainder of his career. While his style remained consistent and markedly recognizable, his works maintained an “undiminished freshness”,5 with a characteristic breadth and scale that instill a quiet yet potent feeling of tangible existence. In the catalogue for his 1965 show at the Minami Gallery the artist writes: “Over these long years the various difficulties blur together […] from this confused jumble I stick out my neck and try something, forced to move only in a last desperate effort to breathe.”6

The artist cited in Miki Tamon, ‘Yamaguchi Takeo and Horiuti Masakazu – Two Distinctive Artists”, exhibition catalogue of Yamaguchi Takeo and Horiuti Masakazu, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1980, p. 18
2 In 1954 Yamaguchi received the top award at the First Contemporary Art Exhibition of Japan together with Yasui Sōtarō, and the momentous event instigated Yamaguchi’s pathway to critical international acclaim
3 Refer to note 1, p. 20
4 Refer to note 1, p. 19
5 Refer to note 1, p. 17
6 Refer to note 1, p. 20