Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 4, 2002
Bert Winther-Tamaki Art in the Encounter of Nations: Japanese and American Artists in the Early Postwar Years Honolulu: University Of Hawai'i Press, 2000. 222 pp.; 45 b/w ills. Paper $32.95 (0824824008)
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Following the crushing defeat of Japan in World War II and the devastating destruction of its major cities by conventional and atomic bombing, the United States occupied the country for many years. It had a prolonged presence and deep effect on Japanese culture; at the same time, Japanese culture became prominent in the U.S., partially as a result of servicemen and women returning home after the war. Bert Winther-Tamaki’s Art in the Encounter of Nations: Japanese and American Artists in the Early Postwar Years addresses one aspect of this intersection: the changes in aesthetic culture or high art in Japan and the surprisingly convoluted relationship of that culture to its counterpart, Abstract Expressionism, in the U.S.

Hybridity as a subversive practice that challenges cultural divisions is one of the themes of this thoughtful book. Looking closely at just a few carefully selected topics, Winther-Tamaki provides new insights into the relationship of Japanese and American painting, the changing position and practice of calligraphy and pottery in Japan, and his primary theme, the multinational career of Isamu Noguchi. His real fascination is clearly with the contradictions of Noguchi’s career—the subject of his dissertation, “Isamu Noguchi: Conflicts of Japanese Culture in the Early Post-War Years,” completed in 1992 at New York University—and the book emerges from those contradictions as it expands the complexities of cultural nationalism to other media. Winther-Tamaki has carved out the early postwar years in Japan as his specialty: he contributed an important chapter on the subject to the major exhibition catalogue Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky" (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994). Artistic nationalism is the model for developing an alternative to the simplistic, out-of-date cold-war rhetoric of East and West. Winther-Tamaki claims that “the rubric of East and West was a heterogeneous and multivocal discourse” (11). His purpose is to demonstrate that art was challenged by various types of nationalism, which construct a more complicated model. He counters first with a brief discussion of early twentieth-century perspectives and the importance of Europe as a dominating reference for both Americans and Japanese until the advent of Ernest Fenellosa and Okakura Kakuzo.

During the war there was, inevitably, an increase in political and artistic nationalism in both Japan and the U.S.; turmoil was also prevalent in international cultural circles, as artists in Europe were chased from one country to another, with many of them ultimately coming to New York City. The synergy that resulted there between the émigré Surrealists from Paris and the abstract artists of the Bauhaus with the still-provincial American art scene set the stage for the confident outburst of Abstract Expressionism, a curious mixture of nationalism and imperialism trumpeted by the art critic Clement Greenberg.

During these same years, though, Japanese artists struggled to catch up with modernism after years of being cut off from international developments. As American soldiers occupied Japanese soil, their commanders sought to rebuild Japan according to the American capitalist and consumer model. Forms of negotiation and resistance to this second American invasion are an undercurrent of Winther-Tamaki’s book. One aspect of this is that Americans began to embrace Japan, both literally and figuratively, with interracial marriage and an increasing interest in Japanese literature, film, and other types of culture.

In the second chapter, “The Japanese Margins of American Abstract Expressionism,” Winther-Tamaki provides an important contribution to the ongoing process of expanding the readings of Abstract Expressionism beyond the rhetoric of Clement Greenberg’s declarations of the 1940s and 1950s. Scholars like Ann Gibson [see her Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997)] and others have demonstrated during the last decade that the movement included women and people of color, complex political agendas, and much more diversity than the original Greenbergian declarations suggested. Winther-Tamaki explores the career of Okada Kenzo, who moved to New York in 1950 and became an American citizen in 1960. In one of the many subtle discussions of the book, he deftly points out the artist’s negotiations with his Japanese identity after he arrived in New York: “The much remarked upon Japanese expressivity of Okada’s art was born not in Japan, but in the United States” (27).

In the context of revising Abstract Expressionism, its relationship to Japanese calligraphy is a crucial issue, and the treatment of this topic here emphasizes an erratic reciprocity between Japan and the U.S. For example, Hasegawa Saburo, an oil painter by training who had previously looked to School of Paris artists as the primary reference point in his work, embraced black-and-white ink on paper and calligraphic strokes. He was partly inspired by Isamu Noguchi’s visit to Japan in 1950. Saburo, in turn, served as Noguchi’s mentor into the Japanese past.

The artists Mark Tobey and Franz Kline’s interest in Japanese calligraphy is well known. What has not been carefully examined before is the way in which the rhetoric of abstract expressionism led the artists to deny their own sources. Both artists eagerly studied Asian culture early in their careers, only to assert their American identities in order to fit into the agenda of the hegemonic New York school of abstraction. Winther-Tamaki outlines this contradiction carefully, juxtaposing the facts of Tobey’s and Kline’s engagement with Japan and their declarations (51, 58). However, I was looking for a more emphatic analysis of the contradiction in the context of racism in both the U.S. and Japan. The analysis here is a little more detached than is really necessary, as we now all know that the Greenberg analysis was deeply flawed in so many ways.

While this nationalism is a predictable narrative, more unusual is the book’s discussion of the changing status of traditional calligraphic artists and pottery masters. The new emphasis on exhibitions, rather than day-to-day utility, left these artists without a logical reason for their work. While calligraphy has always been regarded as a great artistic expression, in post-World War II Japan, descendants of ancient calligraphic families began using images that suggested an interest in form and brushwork for their own sake. The debate was centered on whether the calligraphic character could be presented without completion of the meaning in the traditional sense. The author’s insights into Japanese culture are valuable here.

Likewise in the discussion of Yagi Kazuo—a leading pottery artist who initiated the idea of the kiln-fired object that was to be experienced visually rather than physically—Winther-Tamaki demonstrates his understanding of that art form in Japan. However, the fact that Yagi preceded a similar shift among potters in California under the leadership of Peter Voulkos could have been further discussed. Noguchi also worked with clay in a radical sculptural manner in Japan in 1950, although the clay that he used came from a traditional kiln site. He also leaped the distance between historic tradition and contemporary abstraction. This crucial position could have been further elaborated upon because it demonstrates Noguchi’s differences from Abstract Expressionism, a theme discussed in the book’s last chapter

There, the book finally focuses completely on Noguchi and his intriguing and contradictory negotiation of artistic nationalism; Winther-Tamaki’s work is carefully described in terms of the ambiguity of his artistic and national identity. Noguchi has been widely researched—Dore Ashton has written an important book on his relationship to Japan [Noguchi East and West (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)]—but Winther-Tamaki’s narrative peels away the surface events to reveal the underlying tensions. For example, in Noguchi’s visit to Japan in 1950, he offered to design the Hiroshima Memorial, but his proposal was rejected. In working in the U.S. and Paris, his work was subjected to criticisms from both Japanese and Americans. His ability to continue to work in the midst of rejections and racist insults like those of Alexander Calder (155) is remarkable.

On the one hand, this book takes the magnifying-glass approach to the subject. On the other, and because of this engagement with the Japanese side of the equation, the author does miss important opportunities to truly bring his subject into the mainstream. Moreover, there is only one brief reference to Gutai.

On another note, the exhibition catalogue for The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, includes none of the artists discussed in this book, except for the ceramic artist Yagi Kazuo. In fact, in looking at other U.S. publications on Japanese art from this period, there seems to be a significant disconnection with what is covered in this book. I would have liked a historiographical summary positioning his own research with respect to these early publications. Although Winther-Tamaki’s work was done theoretically, with his emphasis on nationalism, had he referred to earlier publications, as well as current scholarship on Abstract Expressionism, he would only have strengthened the importance of his book and this subject. Aside from these minor omissions, Art in the Encounter of Nations, Japanese and American Artists in the Early Postwar Years, is a valuable cross-cultural perspective on post-World War II art and a significant addition to the literature for scholars in both Asian and American art.

Susan Platt
independent scholar

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