Initially, I got dizzy looking at the two string constructions by Kazuko Miyamoto, an artist whose work I did not know of until I walked into her exhibition, Kazuko Miyamoto: Works 1964 – 1980 at Zürcher Gallery (September 7 – October 25, 2017). It was a strange dizziness, both pleasant and odd, which passed in a blink, as I was just as quickly mesmerized by what I was looking at. For all their calm, there is something agitated about these works — I could not stand still in front of them — and that paradox held my attention. Miyamoto’s constructions are made from two things: string and nails with large heads. In “Male 1” (1974 – 2017), the strings are white, while in “Female 1” (1977-2017) they are black.
The nails are driven into the floor (or, in these two works, a white board) and the wall according to a set pattern — an arc, for example — and the string is tautly stretched between the two sets of nails according to a second pattern. The result is a structure made of a string: stretching between two sides of a right angle, the layered, architectural structure is simultaneously airy and dense. The ambient light and soft shadows cast by the tightly pulled strings are all part of the experience; the open construction feels solid and ephemeral, strong and vulnerable, tough and delicate — I was captivated by the simple beauty of it all.
Along with these two string constructions, there were drawings and three paintings, collectively titled Progression of Rectangles (1969), and “Constructed Bridge” (1980–2017), which hangs between two ceiling beams, as well as a construction made of long cords of twisted brown wrapping paper and sections of tree branches, which is suspended from the ceiling. The key to Miyamoto’s work is repetition that never becomes routine, no matter how mechanical the process might seem. The string constructions, which are something all her own, remind us that our recognition of what happened in art since the late 1960s, and the rise of Minimalism and Pop Art, is woefully incomplete.
Miyamoto was born in Tokyo in 1942, in the middle of World War II. She studied art in that city after the war and immigrated to America in 1964, attending the Art Students League from 1964 to ’68. In 1968, she moved into her first studio on the Lower East Side and — as luck or fate would have it — met two of the other residents when the building’s fire alarm went off: Sol LeWitt and Adrian Piper. Soon after, she began working for LeWitt and was involved in the making of the open cube sculptures and first wall drawings. She also became friends with Ruth Vollmer, who introduced her to a number of artists, including Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins.
In 1972, Miyamoto and others artists formed A.I.R. (Artist in Residence), the first all-women artist collective in New York, which happily is still going strong. In 1986, she established Gallery onetwentyeight, a community art space that is the longest continuing space of its kind in the Lower East Side. Clearly, Miyamoto has been a longtime active member of the downtown art scene, whom the art world’s commercial side and tastemakers have largely ignored.
While it is clear that Miyamoto absorbed a lot from LeWitt, it is equally apparent that she made it into something all her own. That she has been slow to gain the respect that she has long deserved probably has to do with her sex and race. America seems to only like Japanese woman artists who make endless polka dots and are theatrical (Yayoi Kusama), but not ones who loop wire (Ruth Asawa) or make temporal constructions out of string (Miyamoto). Repetition is fine in an Asian woman as long as you are imbalanced and can be given a special pass.
The astute Lawrence Alloway recognized Miyamoto’s unique contribution in 1977 when he wrote:
She worked on [LeWitt’s] drawings at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971, for example, and LeWitt’s definition of the wall certainly influenced her. Hers was not a simple action of imitation, however: on the contrary she pursued, with relentless subtlety, a three-dimensional potential implicit in the drawings but not realized by LeWitt. Kazuko was originally a painter and she preserves a painter’s sense of spatial illusion within her sculptural constructions. Literal and illusive elements, sculptural means and pictorial effects, are brilliantly fused.
The exhibition includes three related paintings dating from 1969, before she met LeWitt and Piper. All the paintings are the same width but different heights, and each is filed with a tightly packed grid of earth-colored rectangles (or what might be read as bricks) edged with black peeking through spaces between them. In each painting, the dimension of the brick form echoes the dimension of the format, but not in an overly fussy way. Although the paintings do not seem to have any metaphorical intention, it is hard not to read them that way, even as they snap back into being abstract paintings of a grid filled with brick-colored rectangles.
The drawings in the exhibition are done in graphite and in ink. They are about intervals, spacing, and repetition. She will repeat the same line (notched or verticals paired closely together to become a repeatable unit, for example) or she will pack the surface of a graphite rectangle (like a controlled smudge) or she will make a drawing for a string construction. The lines can be faint and pale or solid and black.
It is the string constructions that I kept going back. They are straightforward sets of lines that form an aerodynamic shape, particularly in “Female 1.” There is no vantage point from which to see the sculpture: I just kept trying to see it from different angles. It seemed inexhaustible. That is not an easy thing to accomplish, especially through such bare means. Her persistence in the making of these pieces never becomes dull.
Kazuko Miyamoto: Works 1964 – 1980 continues at Zürcher Gallery through October 25.