The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Strong Woman with Child” (1925), oil on canvas (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

WASHINGTON, DC — In 1948, Yasuo Kuniyoshi was the first living artist to receive a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and that was the last time his career was thoroughly explored before this year’s exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi chronologically retraces his art alongside the story of his life, as a Japanese immigrant in the United States restricted by xenophobia and labeled an “enemy alien” following Pearl Harbor.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Self-Portrait as a Photographer” (1924), oil on canvas (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY) (click to enlarge)

“Even now, eighty or ninety years later, we must search carefully to find those points of apprehension in his art and life, but like dots on a graph they chart the backstory of this immigrant’s experience,” Elizabeth Broun, director of the museum, writes in the catalogue.

Arriving in the United States as a teenager in 1906, he soon adopted the country as his permanent home until his 1953 death in New York from stomach cancer. However due to immigration laws he was never allowed to receive citizenship. Despite not stating directly how being considered an outsider in the place he felt most at home impacted his art, The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi examines the parallels between the later more grotesque shapes and caustic colors as representative of this anxiety. Curator Tom Wolf writes in his extensive catalogue essay:

The many American writers who claimed there was something ‘Oriental’ about his art were right: he incorporated elements from Asian artistic traditions, in terms of technique, composition, and subject matter, into his art in many inventive ways. And he was right when he said, ‘Except for my physical appearance and my name I am just as much an American in my approach and thinking as the next fellow. I’m as American as the next fellow.’ But the fact he felt he had to exclude his physical appearance and his name acknowledged the dominant stereotype and suggests the pressures Kuniyoshi faced.

Kuniyoshi’s work was more widely known in the United States during his lifetime, with much of his posthumous interest shifting to Japan. The exhibition is a beautiful argument for celebrating him as one of the 20th century’s great American artists, in a museum devoted to that experience. He was a slow creator, with an estimated 350 completed paintings in his lifetime, and each of the 41 paintings and 25 ink drawings assembled from private and public collections is rich in detail and use of understated color palettes.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Boy Stealing Fruit” (1923), oil on canvas (courtesy Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Festivities Ended” (1947), oil on canvas (courtesy Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art, Japan, © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Early work in the 1920s, like “Boy Stealing Fruit” (1923), have dynamic contrasts between flat and dimensional perspective, distorting ordinary objects like a table and bowl, with some Americana influence. Cows graze through with gaping human eyes, possessing the kind of anthropomorphic personalities and sly humor of Chagall’s animals. Kuniyoshi also loved the circus, the strong ladies and other performers ready subjects for the playful proportions he gave his figures. Following the war, during which his movement was restricted and bank account frozen (although he avoided the internment camps for Japanese Americans by being on the East Coast), a darker tone permeated his canvases. In “Festivities Ended” (1947), a carousel horse is flipped over and a faded pennant garland twisted around its legs like a tripwire; a couple of people sprawled out in the distance by a deflated circus tent suggests a catastrophic collapse.

The exhibition is a lot to take in, but each work is rewarding, the modernism easily mixed with folk art and Japanese design in ways that are deceptively simple, and then there’s the  imagery that evokes the stuff of dreams. It’s hard not to read into his work because of the wealth of symbolism and allegory. Some see the boy sneaking a peach from a distinctly Americana bowl in “Boy Stealing Fruit” as a reference to his 1919 marriage to Katherine Schmidt — Schmidt subsequently lost her US citizenship because of a 1907 law that forced all women to acquire their husband’s nationality upon marriage. And the agitated colors of his later work could possibly evoke a personal conflict for the artist as he weighed his sympathy for a nuclear devastated Japan alongside his love for his adopted country. The exhibition is totally clear on one thing: his work deserves wider recognition, and another 65 years shouldn’t go by before the next museum pays attention.

Entrance to ‘The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Little Joe with Cow” (1923), oil on canvas (courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, photo by Amon Carter Museum of American Art, © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Fish Kite” (1950), oil on canvas (courtesy Fukutake Collection, Okayama, Japan, © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Maine Family” (1922-1923), oil on canvas (courtesy The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC)

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Remains of Lunch” (1922), pen and ink, brush and ink on paper (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Somebody Tore My Poster” (1943), oil on canvas (Collection of Gallery Nii, Osaka, Japan, © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo)

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “The Calf Doesn’t Want To Go” (1922), ink on paper (courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY)

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “This Is My Playground” (1947), oil on canvas (courtesy Fukutake Collection, Okayama, Japan, © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Upstream” (1922), oil on canvas (courtesy Denver Art Museum)

The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi continues at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, N.W., Washington, DC) through August 30. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

8 replies on “Yasuo Kuniyoshi Retrospective Places the Painter at the Center of Modern Art in the US”

  1. I like this guy’s stuff, but what does ‘the center of Modern Art in the US’ even mean? Did Modern Art have a center once upon a time?

    1. Well, writers don’t always get to pick their titles, but I’d say that while there’s no definite center, having a retrospective at the Smithsonian at least argues for not considering his art as an outlier.

      1. “…argues for not considering his art as an outlier.”
        What is that intended to mean? He was a New York artist for christsakes even if he was born in Japan and lived in upstate New York. It means his legacy as a nonwhite artist has been and continues to be intentionally diminished and obscured.
        Thank-you for the wonderful reproductions, however. Those at least demonstrate that it doesn’t require a museum or a gallery, or the myopic views of curators and historians to make or break a significant artist’s career.

        1. I’m not going to reiterate my entire article, but I’m not referring to his work in his lifetime, rather that it hasn’t gotten the museum/institutional attention it deserves posthumously.

    2. It’s true, Allison didn’t pick this. But the title came from the understanding that he was at all the “right” schools and places (I mean, being the first to get a Whitney retro as a living artist demonstrates how important his work was in the eyes of many people) and even studying with the influential people, etc.

  2. Ah narrative, paint, surprises . . . another world, just like a great book. Wish we could see it in NYC . . . where it seems to me the best shows this year — in the sense of offering up feasts unknown — have been at The New Museum.

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