My motif is always cosmic. In other words, man, beast, plant, wood, earth, stone and other things in existence are all comprehended and epitomized in the life of the cosmos.
Soul of the Earth
Exquisite and deeply meditative, Shū and Ryū are archetypal examples of Yamaguchi Takeo’s iconic mode of abstraction that was instrumental in shaping the post-war Japanese and Korean avant-garde. Instantly recognizable even from a distance, Yamaguchi’s distinctive works are cherished for their heavily organic textures and severely pared down palette of either black and ochre yellow or black and burnt russet red. As early as the mid-1950s, Yamaguchi was already exhibiting internationally at the world’s most prestigious platforms, including the São Paolo and Venice Biennale Biennales. In 1959, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s grand inaugural exhibition, a work by Yamaguchi was displayed prominently on the ground floor rotunda next to Constantin Brancusi’s totem King of Kings, attesting to the artist’s international status.
Born in 1902 in Seoul, then under Japanese rule, Yamaguchi returned to Tokyo at the age of 19 to study Western painting. Upon graduation in 1927, Yamaguchi was amongst the first generation of contemporary Japanese artists to study abroad in Paris. He returned to Tokyo in 1931 and became involved with the Nika-kai, also known as the Second Section Association – one of the most pivotal avant-garde groups of Japan’s formative pre-war period. Later in the decade Yamaguchi co-founded the progressive Kyūshitsu-kai (Ninth Room Association) alongside Saitō Yoshishige, who influenced several students who originated the Mono-ha movement, as well as Yoshihara Jirō, who established the eminent Gutai group after the war.
Pre-war Yamaguchi creations were semi-abstract, with figures and landscapes morphing into thick black lines and coloured expanses that contained traces of Fauvism. By the time the Japanese avant-garde re-emerged in the 1950s, Yamaguchi’s style had evolved into pure abstraction. Using a palette knife instead of a brush, Yamaguchi combined thick impasto layers with austere compositional reduction, fashioning geometrical forms in Venetian red or ochre yellow against dense black backgrounds. These forms expanded gradually from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, progressing into vast rectangles of monochrome colour that filled up more and more of surrounding black void. In spite of the uniformity in colour, each monochrome field possessed unique character and charisma, each exuding a rich cosmic serenity.
Yamaguchi’s philosophy of colour, which pays tribute to the soil of the Korean peninsula, the artist’s birthplace, differs from that of the New York Colour Field artists in two ways. First, his textured impasto possesses a palpable materiality and sculptural presence wholly distinct from their flatness. Second, for the Colour Field artists, colour was freed from form and objective context to become a subject in itself; while for Yamaguchi, colour remained inseparable from subject, object, medium, and form. His 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.
Yamaguchi’s legacy is all the more astonishing when considered within the context of the global post-war scene. In the 1950s and 1960s, the prevalent avant-garde was boisterously expressionist and gestural, dominated by European Informel and American Abstract Expressionism. Yamaguchi was the most prominent and successful individualist of his time – countering gesture with the monochrome, impulse with process and repetition, and boundless expression with a measured search for spirit and truth. Notwithstanding the international acclaim, 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 proved to play 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.