East looks West: Four Asian American Modernists

Matthew Kangas June 15, 1986 0

Modern art is here to stay. (The new schools of art) are a result of the complicated age in which we live. I hope people will come to understand new art.

—George Tsutakawa, 1950

 

Much has been written about the influence of Asian art tractions on non-Asian artists of the Pacific Northwest. This list is long: Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Irving Anderson were the earliest.

After World War II, they were joined by others like Leo Kenney, Robert Sperry, Hilda Morris, John-Franklin Koenig and Richard Kirsten. By the 1960s and 1970s, they were younger non-Asian practitioners who admitted debts to Japanese and Chinese styles: Charles Stokes, Charles Krafft, and Ralph Aeschliman, to name a few.

Little has been written about the reverse: those Asian American artists who were influencd by Western European art, chiefly Modern Art, or Modernist Art (as it is now called). The list is surprisimgly long, too: Andrew Chinn, Takuichi Fujii, Shiro Miyazaki, Kamekichi Tokita, John Matsudaira and Frank Okada.

Four other Seattle artist of Asian descent—Fay Chong (1912-1973), Paul Horiuchi (1906 – ), Kenjiro Nomura (1876-1956), and George Tsutakawa (1910-), are the subjects of this brief essay about the other side to the art of the Pacific Northwest—how it came about that Seattle’s visual arts culture synthesized two strong world-class traditions, classical Japanese and Chinese art, with that of a younger civilization: 20th Century French and European Modernism.

Today, many critics argue that Modernist Art is dead, that is, that the great avant-garde art movement of the early 20thCentury—Cubism, Purism, Neo-Plasticism, Constructivism—were played out by 1970 (at the latest) and that the time has come to reevaluate and reappraise the art of the Modernist period.

What has replaced Modern Art? A coalition or hodge-podge of annually changing styles that owe more to mass media or pop cultures as inspirations that to art history. They are all clumped together under the term Pluralism or Post-Modern Art.

The Asian American Modernists of Seattle were responsible for securing Seattle’s links to the centers of 20th Century art, primarily Paris. Though their backgrounds of national heritage and art training differed greatly, Chong, Horiuchi, Nomura and Tsutakawa each paid tributes in their art, their writing and in their public statements to the new West European heritage of Modernist Art that was shaping 20th Century visual arts/culture. If Modernism was an international movement, they were among the first artists anywhere to suggest how flexible and adaptable a style it could be.

Its chief characteristics—flattened pictorial space, abstracted and simplified forms, and an equal respect for all artistic undertakings from painting to graphic design and architecture—left their mark to the Seattle Modernists at work in Seattle, such as Walter F. Isaacs and Ambrose Patterson at the University of Washington School of Art, for example, that their mature styles developed one by one.

Over a 40-year period, each artists discovered the precise alchemy for creating his version of the International Style. Together, their achievements comprise a rarely appreciate chapter in both the art history of our region, and in that our nation.

Nomura, born in Gifuken, Japan, shared a sign painting business (No-To Sign Co.) before World War II with Tokita and was hailed by the late critic and painter Kenneth Callahan in The Town Crier (1930) as “undoubtedly the leader of the Japanese painters here.”

Three years later, Callahan reviewed the first Seattle Art Museum exhibit of a living Japanese artist, Nomura, proclaiming “Cezanne is a great master to him, “ and that “his art is essentially American and his own.” Callahan went to great pains to clarify the Modernists qualifies of Nomura’s street scenes arguing that the “dingy drabness” of old houses and streets of Profanity Hill “are not intriguing to him as ‘cute, quaint old shacks,’ but simply as parts of their essential character.” He went on further to say, “The details of mass, form, and color become part of the painting.”
The transformation of social-realist subject matter into an aesthetic totality dependent upon formal unity was Normura’s most important achievement as a Seattle Modernist and it is highly significant that, by 1946, after the regrettable experience of the internment camps, he completely renounced conventional representational art and turned wholeheartedly to “non-figurative” art with “dynamic linear rythms in reds and oranges with accents of white,” as a Seattle Art Museum commentator later described his art.

It is interesting to compare Nomura’s 1932 Street (Seattle Art Museum) to his 1955 Fishing Fleet. The direct frontality and two-dimensionality of the Depression Era picture still epitomizes the flat surfaces and strong forms favored by French master Paul Cezanne. The fishermen’s terminal scene, painted a year before his death and illustrated in the Seattle Art Museum 1960 retrospective catalog, bursts forth with brilliantly intersecting diagonal white lines which break up the space and create a shimmering, spatially uncertain set of planes.

The invitation to exhibit at the famed Sao Paulo Biennal in Brazil during the final year of his life in 1956 capped a lifetime of interrupted achievements and the gradual but decisive development of his own Modernist style.

Fay Chong was recently discussed at length in William Cumming’s memoir, Sketchbook (U.W. Press, 1984) and critic Mayumi Tsutakawa’s book Turning Shadows Into Light (1982) described him as having a style that was a “blend of East and West. He often used Chinese and Japanese rice paper, ink stick and brushes with American watercolors.”

It is not his cross-cultural art media that concern me but rather the manner in which his works become more and more abstract. Chong was, as critic Anne G. Todd of The Seattle Times puts it, “an Oriental Feininger,” referring to the German colleague of Paul Klee. Both captured the frail tenuousness of urban structures, and in typical Modernist fashion, Chong “submerged everything but the essentials.”

Shying away from social realism, he articulated the Modernist point of view clearly: “A mere recording of a landscape is not my objective. My aim is to try to capture a scene as I see it—within a rectangular piece of rice paper rearranging its forms within that given space. “

The critics are not always so kind to Chong though Tom Robbins conceded his “romantic orientalizations of the Seattle cityscape are straight-forwardly charming.”

More to the point, his mature work of the late 1950s and early 60s deserves a longer look. Roslyn (1956) and Northwest (1959, Bellevue Art Museum collection) present transparent groups of house rooftops against a pale horizon and mix and exquisitely delicate watercolor application with intersecting diagonals strongly reminiscent of Nomura’s comparable development during the same period.

As the 1976 Bellevue Art Museum retrospective demonstrated, Chong’s work as a naval draftsman in 1945 left him with an assured line that eventually predominated over any solid forms and imparted a dynamic linear rhythm that activate the pictorial space and operated completely within the confines of the “rectangular piece of rice paper.” His woodcuts of the late ‘30s (recently exhibited at Carolyn Staley—Fine Prints) better demonstrate his ability to compress volumetric forms and create condensed dark-and-light contrasts.

Horiuchi, born in Kawaguchi Ko, Yamanashiken, Japan, is a Cubist manqué. Like French master Henri Matisse, who turned exclusively to cut-paper collage in the last decade of his life, Horiuchi has enlarged the scale of his work, brightened the palette, and use simple formal elements to both accentuate the flatness of the picture plane and to emphasize the shallow ambiguous space of early Cubist collages.

Reviving a Heian Dynasty technique from te 12th Century, Horiuchi progressed from 30 years of oil painting to the sublime collages and screens of the last 20 years. Still going strong, Horiuchi’s work attracted great attention at the time of his two New York shows (1963,1964) at the Nordness Galleries. Herald-Tribune critic John Gruen commented on his “collages of great delicacy and beauty so sensitively manipulated as to render each layer nearly transparent (and) exquisitely suspended in an aura of palest lyricism.”

By 1968, however, Horiuchi seemed to be stalled, repeating himself as critic Tim Robbins pointed out in Seattle Magazine: “In his attempts to be poetically restful, he frequently deprives his paintings of vitality to the point where they fall numbly asleep. “Nevertheless, Robbins had earlier granted Horiuchi credit for having taken “a rather gimmicky structural hybrid form and reunited it solidly with the more direct and basic act of painting.”

If anything, Horiuchi is now more Cubist than ever. The way that he treats “surface and the composition of various planes” (R.M.Campbell) led to the expansive delicacy of the recent large canvases shown at Gordon Woodside/John Braseth Gallery.

It turns out the more Horiuchi simplifies his vertical forms, the more sophisticated—and Modern—a colorist he becomes. Greens and purples, blues and browns, reds and yellows are all united or balanced by charcoal and chalk lines (Reconstruction -1, 1984.)

If Chong was an “Orietnal Feininger,” Horiuchi is the Asian Matisse. Horiuchi’s move to cut-paper collage and his increase in scale moved him away form the incorporation of calligraphy of his earliest work (Matsuri) to the interlocking Cubist planes of Suggestion of Red (1985) and Separation in Blue (1985), both of which are over six feet long. He has steadily refined the abrupt and frontal pictorial activity of the first collages into the more ambiguous “floating, indefinite world of stellar space” Callahan so admired in 1958.

Recipient of many awards and exhibitions here and abroad, Horiuchi also executed the popular Seattle Mural in glass mosaic near the Space Needle. In 1976, he was named a Sacred Treasure, Fourth Class by Japanese Emperor Hirohito. His position as an intermediary between classical Heian Dynasty art and a Modernist convention, Cubist collage, is but one aspect of this artist’s importance, but worth mentioning in any discussion of Seattle Modernism.

The most highly educated of the four, George Tsutakawa (Professor Emeritus, University of Washington), came in direct contact with European Constructivist master Aleksandr Archipenko during this two legendary 1936 and 1946 stays in Seattle. Constructivism preached a machine aesthetic of sorts which elevated technology to a hallowed subject matter of its own. Ironically, Archipenko’s own work softened the movement’s harsh shapes and discouraged imitation.

Tsutakawa’s subsequent paintings, however, (Rescue Series, 1951-52) extrapolated the Constructivist technology-as-subject convention into abstracted hydroelectric power lines drawn from the artist’s sketching trips around Moses Lake and Grand Coulee Dam. Descent, 1952, also ranks high as a Constructo-Cubist painting with its shifting planes and essentially two-dimensional image.

Thirty six years after Tsutakawa’s plea to the public to accept “the new art,” his bronze fountains have probably done more than any other local artist’s work to make Modernists art familiar and acceptable. Though most are based on a stacked-volume form derived from Tibetan wayside shrines, (Obos series) and were the subject of a recent Seattle Art Museum exhibition, the artist gave equal credit to the teachings of Archipenko and Pual Bonifas, another UW instructor connected to the French engineer and Purist painter, Amedee Ozenfant, whom Tsutakawa also met in Seattle.

According to their student, “Bonifas stressed the interrelations of all art forms. I began to think of poetry, music, and art, all as one so, when I started to do fountains, I felt the same thing: the sound, the bronze and the water were all one. In that sense, I owe a great deal to Bonifas and his Bauhaus, or Modernist approach.”

Unlike Horiuchi, Tsutakawa seems to have renounced Modernist abstraction late in life in favor of sum landscapes. His paintings of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, however, comprise a sequence closest of all in roots and expression to the European Modernists. It may be that, in returning to representation, Tsutakawa has come full circle as an artist and entered the Post-Modern era. As such, he stands as a bridge across two important art-historical periods, Modern and Post-Modern.

It is as a Seattle Modernist painter and sculptor that he will be revered and remembered, in my opinion. The winds of Asian art traditions fleeted across his and others’ art, bit it was he who openly and eloquently demonstrated how non-objective art could reach a broader American art audience and still retain its link to the severity and formal restraints of this century’s predominant artistic movement.

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