BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — All of the frustration and sense of dislocation the Second World War had caused Yoshishige Furukawa was visible in the self-portrait he made after all his works were destroyed in air raids that burned down his parents’ home. He was in Nagasaki then, a recent art school graduate enlisted in the navy. Over the next 15 years, Furukawa (1921–2008) established himself as an artist in Japan, making paintings that in retrospect bare deep imprints of the European avant-garde. Cézanne, Matisse, Klee, Léger, and Rouault were thick in his work.
This was to change in New York City, where he visited in 1963 and stayed, cashing in his return ticket. Within a decade — after first meeting Isamu Noguchi and Jasper Johns, and living at the YMCA, the Chelsea Hotel, and the Westbeth Artists Housing development — his investments in abstract painting hit a turning point. The powerful works that resulted, which we might call paintings, are the subject of Black Rubber Sheet, a solo exhibition of his works at Beta Pictoris Gallery/Maus Contemporary.
Using mostly canvas, rubber, metal grommets, stitching materials (often staples), and the stretcher frame, Furukawa took abstract painting forward by leaving the paint largely behind. Paint and gesso are reduced to flat stains. Sewing and stapling sheets of canvas together with swaths of black rubber, he created geometrically and chromatically simplified visual forms and picture planes that became palpably taut. We know that canvases are most often stretched, but Furukawa’s contain the “feeling” of it.
At Beta Pictoris, four large paintings occupy the front gallery, one featuring rubber and the other three patched-together canvas. Hanging in the back room are several smaller works, all of rubber and canvas; in this series, grommets frequently hold together the material’s cuts or accentuate its edges. Too formally locked-in to fit with Abstract Expressionism (which he called “American Action Painting”), too materially rough for Minimalism, and too psychologically agitated for Post-Minimalism, Furukawa’s tough “paintings” maintain a distinct independence while also folding themselves well into the Western canon. During his lifetime he enjoyed wider institutional success in Japan than in the United States, having solo exhibitions in several museums in his native country, where much of his work is collected.
These works have affinities to the late 1960s and early ’70s Japanese movement “Mono-ha” (or “School of Things”), which was largely ignored in the US until Blum & Poe’s 2012 exhibition Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha. The Mono-ha artists sought to elevate natural and industrial objects — wood, oil, wire, Japanese paper, leather, light bulbs, stone, cotton, etc. — as a way to not create art (in the traditional sense), but rather to allow the rearrangement and interdependency of materials speak for themselves.
In 1997, Furukawa said, “When I am out walking, I may see a window, a road, a construction site, working people, a tree, or the sky, and I try to incorporate the feelings of these visual physical things in my work.” In this statement we can see an artist’s commitment to build from the ground up, from things around him, to establish himself as an artist whose earliest works (and home) were reduced to ashes. All of the pieces in Black Rubber Sheet — sewn and stretched, forged together from the materials at hand — show how he accomplished just that. Build, destroy, and make the work again.