Essay by Joann Moser

Online Gallery of The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889–1953) had no intention of becoming an artist when he came to the United States from his native Japan in 1906 at sixteen years old. Encouraged by a high school teacher in Los Angeles to pursue his artistic talent, Kuniyoshi went on to become one of the most esteemed painters in New York in the years between the two world wars. His contributions rivaled those of his well-known contemporaries Alexander CalderStuart DavisCharles DemuthMarsden HartleyEdward HopperJohn Marin, Georgia O’KeeffeCharles SheelerJoseph Stella, and Max Weber.

“Yas,” as Kuniyoshi was affectionately known, enjoyed a large circle of friends in New York and moved easily among artists who worked in a variety of styles. He was outgoing and congenial, whether interacting with his fellow artists professionally or socially. In the 1920s he began taking photographs of other artists’ work to help support himself. Over the following decades he actively engaged in multiple aspects of the New York art world and became increasingly involved with a number of artists’ organizations, often serving as an officer. When a group of four hundred artists met at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946 to create Artists Equity Association, an advocacy organization devoted to improving the lot of artists in the United States, based on the model of Actors’ Equity and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, they elected the popular and respected Kuniyoshi as its first president. For four years, from 1947 to 1951, he dedicated a tremendous amount of his time and talent to the organization.

Kuniyoshi had begun publically exhibiting his paintings in 1917 while still a student in New York at the Art Students League. A few years later, in 1922, writer William Murrell included Kuniyoshi in a series of small monographic books he published about contemporary artists. Over the next three decades, two of which he spent teaching at the League (1933–53), Kuniyoshi showed in numerous group exhibitions and garnered significant awards for his work. Starting in 1930 he was selected for inclusion in the prestigious international exhibition at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; he would show in that annual exposition on many occasions, and in 1944 win its first prize. In 1948, when Look magazine polled sixty-eight art critics, museum directors, and curators across the United States about the best painters in the country, Kuniyoshi was voted third—after John Marin and Max Weber but before Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper. That same year, Kuniyoshi was honored with the first retrospective exhibition given to a living artist by the Whitney Museum of American Art. The show was organized by his old friend Lloyd Goodrich, who had been a fellow student at the Art Students League. Four years later, in 1952, Kuniyoshi was one of four artists, with Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, and Edward Hopper, to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. 

After his early student work, Kuniyoshi made highly original paintings that incorporated the influence of American folk art, a popular avant-garde enthusiasm at the time, and melded it with elements from Japanese art, contemporary American painting, and European modernism. Following two extended visits to Paris in 1925 and 1928, he began painting from reality instead of imagination and memory. What resulted were lushly brushed images of sensual women, often shown deep in thought, and complex, personal still lifes, painted with refined, understated color that related to the small body of lithographs he made in Paris.

The years leading up to and through World War II were difficult times for Kuniyoshi. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the US government classified Kuniyoshi and other Japanese Americans as “enemy aliens,” and they were subjected to prejudice and harassment. Kuniyoshi wanted to become an American citizen, but immigration laws made it impossible for someone born in Japan to do so until 1952, the year before he died. Although Kuniyoshi was devoted to the United States and its democratic system, he also felt compassion for his native land. During the war years his art took on a moody aspect, and he made violent drawings for the American propaganda effort. In his postwar paintings he often rendered disillusioned subjects with paradoxically hot, brilliant color. Kuniyoshi’s career as an artist concluded with the profound and intense black ink drawings he made in his last years, which were in counterpoint to his vividly colored paintings of the same time. The black ink drawings, with their physical handling and tragic subjects, paralleled the art being produced by the new generation of abstract expressionist artists. 

It is impossible to identify Kuniyoshi with a single style or movement. His work is a distinctive expression of many strands of early twentieth-century American art flavored with his sly humor, idiosyncratic imagination, personal experience, and subtle references to his Japanese heritage. Leading critics and museum professionals of his day thought highly of his unique vision:

Yasuo Kuniyoshi is a name well known to anyone who reads art periodicals or the art page in New York newspapers or even magazines, as considerable space has been devoted to the life and works of this Japanese-American artist who has risen to the top rung of the ladder of success. . . . His work is so individual and so much Kuniyoshi, that no one could draw or paint like him even if he so desired. (Nan Sheets, “Japanese Artist Insists His Work Is All American,” May 12, 1946)

Today Kuniyoshi is considered one of the preeminent American painters of the twentieth century. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is pleased to organize The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi (April 3–August 30, 2015), the first solo exhibition of Kuniyoshi’s work presented in the United States in twenty-five years.

Joann Moser
Deputy Chief Curator