The Integrity of Form
Uncompromising and unyielding in its austere composition and palette, Obi (Sash) is a striking quintessential work from Yamaguchi Takeo’s pioneering oeuvre that is receiving revived global attention; the record price for the artist was achieved recently in May 2017, following a white-glove single-artist auction in Hong Kong in April 2017. Born in 1902 in Seoul under Japanese rule, Yamaguchi was a master of abstraction whose discreet yet far-reaching influence was critical in shaping the post-war Japanese and Korean avant-garde. In the 1950s and 1960s, a period when the Japanese scene was dominated by Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism, Yamaguchi was alone in his individualistic pursuit of formal minimalism – one that resulted in an arresting aesthetic of pared down shapes, thick organic textures, and a signature palette of black, ochre yellow, and Venetian red. Unlike the flat surfaces of the American Color Field painters, Yamaguchi’s heavy impasto possessed a palpable sculptural presence, articulating a profound emphasis on tangible perception and the structural integrity of physical reality. Marrying Minimalism’s formal reduction and Art Informel’s tactile materiality, his works found immediate recognition in the West in the mid-1950s; Yamaguchi represented Japan at the Sao Paolo and Venice Biennales in that period, and in 1959 one of his works was displayed prominently on the ground floor rotunda at the Guggenheim’s grand inaugural exhibition, attesting to the artist’s international status and importance.
Born in Gyeongseong (present-day Seoul) in Japanese-occupied Korea, Yamaguchi studied oil painting at the state Tokyo Art School from 1922 to 1927 and then spent three years in Paris before returning to Gyeongseong. In the 1930s Yamaguchi sent works each year to be shown at the annual exhibitions of the Nika-kai (Second Section Association), one of the most pivotal avant-garde groups of Japan’s pre-war period. Later in the decade, Yamaguchi co-founded the progressive Kyūshitsu-kai (Ninth Room Association) alongside several artists including Yoshihara Jirō, who established the Gutai group after the war; as well as Saitō Yoshishige, whose students later originated the Mono-ha movement. It was within this exciting atmosphere that Yamaguchi’s career, and defining legacy, first began. In these pre-war years Yamaguchi painted landscapes with hints of Fauvism, which soon evolved into an early form of abstraction with an aesthetic strikingly similar to – and which pre-dates by over a decade – the first of Clyfford Still’s Colour Field paintings that originated in the late 1940s . Such works used line, colour, and texture to call forth invisible essences and vibrations rather than conducting mere abstraction of representational form. In other words, Yamaguchi’s abstract works notsomuch “imitated” reality as “constructed” it. As Joseph Love observes, Yamaguchi’s abstractions “do not copy the details of a landscape, but rather depict landscape ‘landscaping’, i.e. the act of forming a particular stance or quality of being landscape” (Exh. Cat. Yamaguchi Takeo and Horiuti Masakazu, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1980, p. 20).
Yamaguchi’s signature fully abstract style reached maturation in the 1950s and 1960s. Defined by pared down forms, as well as the two distinctive colours of burnt russet red and ochre yellow which according to the artist represent the soil of Korea and China respectively, his works are imbued with profound materiality and tactility on account of heavily layered impasto. Yamaguchi layered on at least seven to eight coatings of paint for each work, responding intuitively to each layer and permitting each shape to evolve with a life of its own. Critic Asano Tōru writes of Yamaguchi’s process as thus: “As the thickness of the paint increases, the voice of the colour also increases. He listens attentively to that voice with his whole body and proceeds according to the demands of colour […] sometimes [also] suppressing them. In that process the form is reborn through colour” (Ibid., p. 243). Yamaguchi’s monochrome was a concrete one deeply rooted in the world: he painted with the soil of the earth, sculpting the bare bones of reality while being nourished by the soul of nature. It is small wonder, then, that Yamaguchi’s abstractions are severe in colour and form yet counterintuitively rich, abundant, and tranquil – a stark contrast to Piet Mondrian’s cool plasticity and Mark Rothko’s tragic moodiness. Through such attentive interaction with material that Yamaguchi is able to achieve – with a single chosen colour against black – depth via texture, illusion via structure, and movement via organic form.
Created in 1965, at the apex of the artist’s career, Obi represents the most archetypal and iconic of Yamaguchi’s distinctive mid-career paintings. From the mid-1960s onwards Yamaguchi's shapes expanded, progressing into vast rectangles that filled up more and more of the painting surface. In spite of the uniformity in colour, each monochrome field possesses unique character and charisma. Obi, which translates literally as ‘sash’ (of traditional Japanese kimonos), features six adjacent rectangles that are innocuous on their own, but which, seen together, resemble graceful origami folds or the folds of fabric in traditional Japanese costumes. The final form floats up, buoyed and enlivened by Yamaguchi’s patient nurturing. Asano summarizes: “If [Yamaguchi’s] work is judged to be somehow Oriental, that is probably because he does not try to impose man-made cleverness towards nature into his works. Rather he tries to give shape, in accordance with the laws of natural form, exactly like the farmer working the earth, to things taken from nature, things widely expanding and overflowing, things towering and soaring upwards, things stable and unshakable, things usually in movement, and so on” (Ibid., p. 244).
Comparable works by Yamaguchi are treasured in the world's most renowned museum collections, including New York's Museum of Modern Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Notwithstanding the international acclaim as early as the 1950s, Yamaguchi played a direct role in nurturing – often financially as well as artistically – the young frontiers of the Asian avant-garde. Apart from being universally loved and respected by his students at the Musashino University of Art in Japan where he taught for two decades, Yamaguchi’s influence extended to Korea: amongst his protégés were Kim Whanki, to whom Yamaguchi supplied brushes and oils during difficult times, and Lee Ufan, who openly acknowledged Yamaguchi’s influence on his work. Yamaguchi’s quiet yet trailblazing vision played a critical role in defining the decisive post-war avant-garde of the Far East, finding resonance in Mono-ha’s emphasis on nature and materiality as well as Dansaekhwa’s minimalist process-based aesthetic in the 1970s.