Yasuo Kuniyoshi

November 10, 2009 - January 09, 2010

Selected Artworks · Press Release

Yasuo Kuniyoshi
Circus Performer with Plumed Hat,  1933
12-5/8 x 9-1/2 inches
Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953): Drawings, Prints, and Paintings

Leaving his native Japan at the age of 17, Yasuo Kuniyoshi arrived in the United States in 1906 (his age at the time is in dispute, and his birth-year is given alternately as 1889 or 1893; the year of his arrival has general consensus). He had not planned to stay longer than a few years, nor to pursue a career as an artist. As it was, he never returned to Japan, apart from a few brief visits, and over the next three decades he ascended to the forefront of American Modernism, in company, in exhibition and esteem, with Hartley, Demuth, Man Ray, Scheeler and others. By the 1920s, his mature style reflected his absorption of the lessons of Cezanne and Picasso, mediating traditional Japanese modes of depiction with the Western Modernist program. His impact was felt not only in his contributions to painting and printmaking, but as a popular instructor at the Art Students League, where he taught from 1933 on.

Kuniyoshi studied at the Art Students League from 1916-1920, remarking later that “At the League, my life began to take on real meaning.” Indeed, the social and artistic associations he made during his time there would inform the rest of his life. There he met Katherine Schmidt, whom he married in 1919, and studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller. Miller, most known for his renderings of women shopping, influenced Kuniyoshi in both content and form. Kuniyoshi’s work of the 20s is filled with festive themes: the un-nuanced mirth of the circus; women in furs at café tables, smoking cigarettes as their single avocation – Kuniyoshi felt and contributed to the mood of the 20s. A chance encounter at the Whitney Studio Club in 1922 introduced Kuniyoshi to zinc-plate lithography. Over the next ten years, he produced a number of lithographs, moving from transfer paper and zinc to working directly on stone.

By the 1940s, much of the gaiety of his earlier work had been exhausted – by the deaths of his parents (1931), his divorce from Katherine Schmidt (in 1932; he married again, to Sara Mazo, in 1935)—but most importantly, by the war. World War II put the artist in a bad spot. As a Japanese citizen, Kuniyoshi faced deep suspicion and persecution after Pearl Harbor. Shielded by the support of his many prominent artists, he was able to maintain activity despite house arrest. Kuniyoshi’s rancor, at least publicly, was reserved for the Japanese military. Undoubtedly he felt some pressure to affirm his allegiances to the United States, but equally clear was his contempt for Japan’s brutality. To these ends, he produced propaganda posters for the Office of War Information and radio addresses condemning the Japanese aggression.

The impact of the war went beyond Kuniyoshi’s overtly political work. “The war for the past few years,” he wrote in 1947, “has been the backdrop for a great number of my works. Not necessarily the battlefield, but war’s implications: destruction, lifelessness, hovering between life and death.” This hovering pervades his later work. Though he continued to depict women, circuses, and still-lifes, they were underpinned with a sense of disturbance. Where previously he had treated fruit as a relatively harmless, now there were over-turned tables, hints of ruins; a carnival mask now indicates the absence of its wearer, the irony of a smile in a bleak world.

Kuniyoshi enjoyed the first one-man exhibition of a living artist at the Whitney Museum in 1948, as well as regular shows at the Daniel Gallery from 1922. He taught at the New School for Social Research from 1936 -1948; received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935; directed the Salons of America, 1922-38; co-founded the ACA Gallery; Chairman of the Exhibition Committee of the American Artists’ Congress, 1937. Kuniyoshi’s work is in major museums and collections in both the United States and Japan. Yasuo Kuniyoshi died in 1953.This is the fourth one-man exhibition at Zabriskie Gallery.