These days, Japanese artists like Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami pull big crowds and even bigger price tags, but it wasn’t always so. Vibrant though it was, the Japanese avant-garde was relatively unknown to Western audiences for most of the 20th century. This began to change in 1996 when scholar and author Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator of Global Arts at the Guggenheim Museum, debuted the exhibition Scream Against the Sky, which featured work by Murakami, Lee Ufan, Cai Guo-Qiang, and others.
We are following the path that will lead to an international common ground where the arts of the East and the West will influence each other. And this is the natural course of the history of art.
—Yoshihara Jirō, “A Statement by Jirō Yoshihara: Leader of the Gutai,” 1958
In politics, totalitarianism fails; in culture, that which is unfree and akin to totalitarianism must be purged…. If you believe that your art has a spiritual meaning and it helps you develop yourself, such art will truly be on the cutting edge of global culture.
—Shiraga Kazuo, “The Establishment of the Individual,” 1956
Originally published inTriple X: Extended, Exploded, Extracted, Naoto Nakagawa, 1965–1975. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Nakagawa told me once that he used to eat live insects when he was a child growing up in the mountainous suburbs of Kōbe. I wondered naively if this was customary, or rather an effect of the dire poverty of the immediate postwar period. No, Nakagawa remarked, I ate them because I loved them.
As an adult, too, Nakagawa, who is one of the great recent practitioners of nature morte, devours nature. This urge to overtake his subjects, to visualize and execute his chosen forms with sensational intensity, marks his paintings as both extremely primal and extremely cerebral.
Originally in Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Yayoi Kusama arouses controversy in the art world. The qualities which make her original and distinct are appreciated by artists, but some critics and art historians tend to regard her work as peripheral, bizarre or derivative. The problem of how Kusama relates to the modernist critical canon can be attributed in part to a valid confusion about just how to assess her art, and where to place her.
There is little precedent for arguing a position in art criticism and history for an artist who is both inside and outside of the academic definition of a particular artistic movement or school. Recent studies of Lucas Samaras and Eva Hesse—both, like Kusama, eccentric, obsessional and foreign-born artists—offer an example of alternative attitudes for the appreciation of “independent” artists within mainstream of criticism. Like Samaras and Hesse, Kusama’s work shares certain formal properties with specific modernist styles, yet her use of those devices, like theirs, remains idiosyncratic and even at odds with the theoretical polemic.