"The shapes I paint should move as though living and breathing."
One Eye (Yellow) by Yamaguchi Takeo is a quintessential painting by one of the most important pioneers of abstraction in the pre and post-war Japanese and Korean avant-garde. The striking piece is equivalent in style, palette and motif to three of the most prominent works by the artist, namely: Work – Yellow (Unstable Square [Fuantei shikaku]), 1958, held in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Taku, 1961, held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Yellow Eyes, 1959, the current record-holding work by Yamaguchi. In 1959, the same year the present work was created, Work – Yellow (Unstable Square [Fuantei shikaku]) was prominently displayed on the ground floor of the Guggenheim’s rotunda during the museum’s grand inaugural exhibition – attesting to Yamaguchi’s international status and importance within the global narrative of abstraction.
Yamaguchi Takeo was born in 1902 in Gyeongseong (present-day Seoul) in Japanese-occupied Korea. After studying oil painting at the state Tokyo Art School from 1922 to 1927, Yamaguchi spent three years in Paris before returning to Gyeongseong. In the 1930s Yamaguchi sent works to be shown at the annual exhibitions of the Nika-kai (Second Section Association), a pivotal avant-garde group in 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 defining artistic legacy 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.
Yamaguchi’s signature style reached maturation in the 1950s. Building on from his early landscape-based abstractions, the artist progressively pared down both form and palette, reducing his choice of colour to two distinctive hues of either russet red or ochre yellow upon a deep black background. According to the artist, the two colours represent the soil of Korea and China respectively; and just as a farmer would toil patiently on his land, Yamaguchi repeatedly 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” (Exh. Cat. Yamaguchi Takeo and Horiuti Masakazu, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1980, p. 243).
Works from the late 1950s to early 1960s are Yamaguchi’s most distinctive works and coincide with his rising international acclaim. Paintings from this period are defined by idiosyncratic geometric shapes suspended within black voids which, on account of their palpable sculptural presence, seem to float mysteriously like creatures from space. The illusory movement exudes a rich chromatic vitality that runs counterintuitive to the austerity of form and severe limitation of colour: with only a single hue of yellow against black, Yamaguchi was able to achieve depth via texture, illusion via structure, and movement via organic form. The final form floats up, buoyed and enlivened by the artist’s intuitive nurturing. Asano observes that the artist “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).
Yamaguchi’s quiet yet arresting aesthetic was a solitary voice within the Japanese post-war avant-garde, which was at the time largely dominated by Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel. Furthermore, in comparison to the flat surfaces of American Minimalism which developed in the late 1950s, Yamaguchi’s heavily impastoed monochromes carved out a distinctive space within the global canon of abstraction. Yamaguchi found recognition in the West as early as the 1950s and 1960s when he represented Japan at the Sao Paolo and Venice Biennales; while at home, unbeknownst to the international world, Yamaguchi played a direct role in nurturing – financially as well as artistically – the young frontiers of the Asian avant-garde. Amongst his protégé was Lee Ufan, who openly acknowledged Yamaguchi’s influence on his work and thought, as well as Kim Whanki, to whom Yamaguchi supplied brushes, oils and canvases during difficult times. Yamaguchi was also universally loved and respected by his Japanese students at the Musashino University of Art, where he taught for two decades. As such, Yamaguchi’s vision played a critical role in defining Asian post-war abstraction, paving the way for Mono-ha’s emphasis on nature and materiality as well as Dansaekhwa’s minimalist process-based aesthetic in the 1970s.