“Yas,” as Kuniyoshi was affectionately known, enjoyed a large circle of friends 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. Here, we explore the personal and professional connections between Kuniyoshi and twenty-five of his artistic contemporaries.
Art Students League
“At the League my life began to take on a real meaning. . . . I had a great hunger for friends and companionship as a natural reaction to my lonely wanderings. At the League I found the warmth and kindness which I sorely needed.”
The Art Students League in New York has been an essential institution in shaping the minds of young artists and the direction of their creative practice. Many of America’s foremost modernists—including Kuniyoshi—were drawn by its open enrollment and strong reputation for mentorship by established artists. Kuniyoshi attended the League from 1916 to 1920, and later became a notable teacher there. As a student his one instructor was Kenneth Hayes Miller, whose emphasis on old-master works would greatly influence his painting. In Miller’s classes Kuniyoshi met many of the artists who would form his inner circle, including Peggy Bacon, Alexander Brook, Reginald Marsh, and Katherine Schmidt, whom he later married.
Explore Kuniyoshi's Circle
Explore Kuniyoshi's Circle
Peggy Bacon, about 1920, Photograph by Soichi Sunami. Peggy Bacon papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 3408
Peggy Bacon (1895–1987) and Yasuo Kuniyoshi met in 1917 as students in a class taught by Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Art Students League, New York; she encouraged Kuniyoshi to make etchings and became part of his inner circle. Bacon was known for her wry wit and satirical caricatures of prominent people as well as her friends (see The Patroness, Louise Hellstrom, and Alexander Brook). Her Ardent Bowlers of 1932, for example, depicts a group of students from the League, including Kuniyoshi, Katherine Schmidt, and Bacon herself, at their weekly bowling match.
Alexander Brook, n.d., Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0001315
Alexander Brook (1898–1980), also in Miller’s class, became Kuniyoshi’s closest friend while they were studying at the League. Brook recalled: “It must have been one of us who, recognizing Yas’s singular talent, made the first move for he was a shy man. . . . There was no question in our minds that we wanted to accept Yas as the latest of kin to the little band of advanced thinkers and potential artistic innovators that we fancied ourselves to be.” Brook became a successful painter, mainly creating realistic still lifes, landscapes, and portraits of women (see examples: Summer Wind, Portrait of Mrs. Emily Wilson, and Black and White). He and Bacon married in 1920 (and divorced in 1940).
In 1917, Brook and Kuniyoshi joined the Penguin Club, a progressive group of young male artists, and in 1921 they exhibited together at the Daniel Gallery, marking Kuniyoshi’s first association with the gallery that would represent him for the next decade. In 1924, Brook became an assistant director of the Whitney Studio Club; he often helped Kuniyoshi sell his works and once engaged him to curate a show. After they were married, Brook and Bacon invited Kuniyoshi to spend summers at their home in Woodstock, New York, and later sent their daughter, Belinda, to take classes with him at the League when he was an instructor there (1933–53).
Reginald Marsh, n.d., Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0001927
Reginald Marsh (1898–1954) became close friends with Yasuo Kuniyoshi in 1917 in Kenneth Hayes Miller’s class at the Art Students League. Although Marsh began his artistic career as an illustrator, and contributed thousands of cartoons and drawings to newspapers and magazines such as the New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar, Miller inspired him to turn to realistic painting and etching in the tradition of the old masters. Like Kuniyoshi, Marsh rented a studio near Miller’s on Fourteenth Street.
During the 1920s, Marsh and Kuniyoshi, among many other artists, traveled frequently to Europe to study the works of the old masters. The two friends spent much time there together; in 1926, Marsh and his wife, Betty, shared a home in the South of France with Kuniyoshi and his wife, Katherine Schmidt. Upon their return to New York, both artists were featured in the Whitney Studio Club’s traveling exhibition from 1927 to 1928.
At the time, Marsh was best known for his paintings and etchings that represented the people of New York City in crowded urban scenes (see see George Tilyou’s Steeplechase and Coney Island Beach ). He continued to treat the same subject through the rest of his career but turned to the medium of photography in the 1930s. During the summers, Marsh and Kuniyoshi would travel together to Coney Island to take photographs capturing the bustling energy of the unique locale.
Marsh and Kuniyoshi shared a passion for similar subjects as well as artistic ideals. In 1947, Marsh joined the Artists Equity Association, an organization devoted to improving the lot of artists in the United States of which Kuniyoshi had just become the first president. The same year, the two artists cosigned “A Statement on Humanism,” a manifesto attacking trendy abstraction and the ever-increasing power of the critic in the art world.
Paul Jenkins, n.d., Unidentified photographer. Image courtesy Art & Artist Files, Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, Washington, DC, 2015
Paul Jenkins (1923–2012) was a student of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s at the Art Students League between 1948 and 1952. He had a close relationship with his teacher, describing Kuniyoshi as “very father-like” and recalling that Kuniyoshi’s class was like a family, with many of his students returning year after year.
Jenkins had long been stirred by Asian art. As a child he often visited the William Rockhill Nelson Art Gallery (now the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, where he was exposed to great works of art from East Asia. Later, he was greatly influenced by a series of Japanese woodcuts that he saw while serving in World War II as a member of the US Navy Air Corps. Those experiences foregrounded his appreciation for Kuniyoshi’s fusion of Eastern and Western elements, in which Jenkins felt “moisture” that was “almost human.” Jenkins, who ultimately became associated with abstract expressionists in Paris and New York, created flowing compositions made up of translucent color (see Phenomena Ring Rang Rung and Phenomena: Sun over the Hour Glass). The works are unique in that they were largely inspired by the artist’s continued interest in the mysticism and visionary imagery of Eastern religion and philosophy.
Matsumi Kanemitsu, n.d., Photograph by Douglas Parker. Image courtesy Art & Artist Files, Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, Washington, DC, 2015
Matsumi (Mike) Kanemitsu (1922–1992) became one of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s students at the Art Students League after World War II. Born in Utah but brought up in Japan, he had returned to the United States in 1940 and enlisted in the US Army in 1941. He thus shared Kuniyoshi’s divided loyalties between East and West and was deeply inspired by the older artist’s individualistic practice. After Kuniyoshi died in 1953, Kanemitsu decided to quit the League and assert his independence as an artist.
Although Kanemitsu was increasingly drawn to and recognized as a member of the burgeoning New York abstract expressionist school, he often modified his approach to suit his interests. His personal style centered on a fascination with the forces of nature and a fondness for using black and white, both of which were inspired by Kuniyoshi and Asian art. Kanemitsu worked regularly with Japanese sumi ink, which he began to translate into lithographs (see Escape to Eternity and Metamorphosis Los Angeles 1) after moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s.
Kenneth Hayes Miller, 1934, Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0001902
Painter and printmaker Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876–1952), a teacher at the Art Students League for four decades, was the only instructor Yasuo Kuniyoshi worked with during his time as a student there. Miller’s classes had an enormous impact on Kuniyoshi’s life and career. Miller introduced him to the work of the old masters and artists such as Honoré Daumier and El Greco, who would remain important to Kuniyoshi’s practice.
Miller himself painted in a classical style, representing the women of contemporary New York as sculpturelike figures in precise compositions, as in Bargain Hunters from 1940 (see also Leaving theShop and Pause by a Window). Although Kuniyoshi ultimately turned away from that style, as did most of Miller’s students, the older artist’s teachings encouraged Kuniyoshi to “see in depth” and examine his immediate surroundings.
Miller’s classes also served as the context in which Kuniyoshi came into contact with many of the central artists in his circle. In 1916, because of underenrollment, the teacher’s male life-drawing class was opened to female students and thus became the first coeducational class at the League. There, Kuniyoshi met Katherine Schmidt, whom he later married, and the two “began to develop friends who remained our friends.” After leaving the League in 1920, Kuniyoshi stayed in contact with Miller. The two artists were featured in the Whitney Studio Club’s traveling exhibition from 1927 to 1928 and the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. Their relationship began to disintegrate when they became colleagues at the League in 1933, but Kuniyoshi always acknowledged his debt to the older artist.
Harry Sternberg, n.d., Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0002213
Harry Sternberg (1904-2001) was a student at the Art Students League during the 1920s and met Yasuo Kuniyoshi when they both started teaching there in 1933. Sternberg remained until 1968, and Kuniyoshi until 1953. During his thirty-five years at the League, Sternberg wrote several books on printmaking techniques and created prints of American city life (see examples: Builders and Blast Furnace ).
As faculty members, Sternberg and Kuniyoshi in 1943 worked together on a mural of the villains of World War II. They were also involved in each other’s work: Kuniyoshi photographed Sternberg around 1940 and Sternberg created the screenprint Portrait of Yasuo Kuniyoshi between 1943 and 1944. In it, Sternberg aimed to capture a sense of Kuniyoshi’s charisma and magnetic appeal to women, even at the height of anti-Japanese sentiment during the grueling years of the war.
Sternberg and Kuniyoshi participated in many of the same political organizations. Sternberg was a member of the Artists Equity Association and the American Artists’ Congress, both of which had appointed Kuniyoshi as a leader. The younger artist, who as the son of poor Russian immigrants was sometimes, like Kuniyoshi, considered an outsider, recalled that such organizations “gave us a sense of connection with society which we’ve never had beyond then.” Sternberg described Kuniyoshi’s style of leadership as being dedicated and honest, despite the artist’s “mixture of naivete and lack of knowledge about the rules.”
George Grosz, n.d., Photograph by Peter A. Juley. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0107690
Born in Berlin, George Grosz (1893–1959) immigrated to the United States in 1932 and became an American citizen six years later. He and Kuniyoshi were fellow instructors at the Art Students League, where Grosz began teaching, off and on, in 1932 and Kuniyoshi in 1933. In Germany, Grosz had been a social satirist and a leading figure in the Berlin Dada movement that was taking shape during World War I; he often channeled his experiences from his brief service in the war into his art, as seen in A Hunger Fantasy.
Although most of the work Grosz created in America was optimistic and apolitical, he and some of the other faculty members at the League together worked on a large mural satirizing the Axis leaders of World War II. Jon Corbino, who was Italian, drew a caricature of Benito Mussolini; Grosz satirized Adolph Hitler; and Kuniyoshi drew Emperor Hirohito. Photographs of the artists with the mural were featured in newspapers and Time magazine.
Katherine Schmidt, mid-1920s, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Katherine Schmidt, photograph by Stowall Studios. Rosalie Berkowitz collection of photographs, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
“At the League my life began to take on a real meaning. I had a great hunger for friends and companionship as a natural reaction to my lonely wanderings. At the League I found the warmth and kindness which I sorely needed.”—Yasuo Kuniyoshi
Katherine Schmidt (1898–1978) was a vibrant young art student when she met Yasuo Kuniyoshi in 1917 in Kenneth Hayes Miller’s class at the Art Students League. As Schmidt recalled, “The Miller class combined [so that male and female students studied together], then we began to develop friends who remained our friends. . . . By the end of that year we had become very close; I was very interested in him.” For Kuniyoshi, Schmidt was a galvanizing presence in the shy artist’s social life, and his circle grew exponentially after they became romantically involved.
Despite rampant prejudice in the United States against interracial couples, an undeterred Schmidt decided to marry Kuniyoshi in 1919 and was subsequently stripped of not only her American citizenship but also the financial support of her parents. The marriage ceremony took place in the fishing village of Ogunquit, Maine, among their artist friends including artist, critic, and collector Hamilton Easter Field, who gave them a studio on Perkins Cove as a wedding present. The couple summered there for about ten years, until they relocated their summer home to Woodstock, New York, in 1929.
Back in New York, Schmidt and Kuniyoshi garnered increasing critical praise for their work throughout the twenties—a time when the New York scene was starting to coalesce. Capturing the sense of innovation and need for self-definition that characterized that period of American modernism, Schmidt described American art as “just beginning to be something.” A staunch advocate of Kuniyoshi’s work in the early years, she helped him develop and define his relationship with modernism. Part of that effort included their extensive involvement with New York arts organizations. Schmidt was a fixture, for example, in the Whitney Studio Club community, which later evolved into the Whitney Museum of American Art. Juliana Force—Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s right hand—threw the couple a massive party before their departure to Europe in 1925.
Although Kuniyoshi and Schmidt divorced in 1932, they remained close friends for the rest of their lives. When he died in 1953, she was at his bedside with Sara Mazo, Kuniyoshi’s second wife, and Karl Fortess, a former student and friend of the artist’s.
Dorothea Greenbaum, 1973, Unidentified photographer, Dorothea Greenbaum with early study for In Costume, Kenneth and Emma-Stina Prescott research material on artists. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 17352
Dorothea Greenbaum (1893–1986) began her career as a painter at the Art Students League. Peggy Bacon, whom she had known from the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (now Parsons The New School for Design), introduced Greenbaum, who was also a student of Kenneth Hayes Miller’s, to Yasuo Kuniyoshi and his tight-knit group of friends. Greenbaum became especially close to Kuniyoshi and Katherine Schmidt, who had married in 1919. That year, the couple invited her to be their guest for the summer at the artists’ colony in Ogunquit, Maine, and later welcomed her to their home in Woodstock, New York.
Greenbaum and Kuniyoshi greatly supported each other’s artistic practice. After Greenbaum switched from painting to sculpture, Kuniyoshi acquired two of her new works and displayed them at his residence in Woodstock. Greenbaum later sculpted Yas, a portrait of Kuniyoshi.
Like Kuniyoshi, Greenbaum was active in politics. Both artists campaigned against fascism, and Greenbaum supported Kuniyoshi when his loyalty was questioned after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941; her husband, Edward, acted as his legal counsel. Greenbaum was also one of the original members of Artists Equity Association, an organization formed in 1947 to improve the lives and rights of artists in the United States for which Kuniyoshi served as founding president.
In the early twentieth century, Ogunquit was a small fishing town along Maine’s coastline that was home to an art colony. Hamilton Easter Field, a notable figure in the art world, established the Summer School of Graphic Arts in Ogunquit and purchased a row of shacks along Perkins Cove that he rented to artists as studios during the summers.
Field was a collector of Japanese art, and he first encountered Kuniyoshi’s work at the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition; deeply impressed by his potential, Field invited the young artist to Ogunquit that summer. Impelled by the rich offerings of Maine’s coastal and pastoral landscapes, Kuniyoshi returned year after year with Katherine Schmidt—the couple even married there in 1919. During those summers, Kuniyoshi would frequently gather with other artist friends from Field’s circle (Robert Laurent and Walt Kuhn, for example) at parties and sketching sessions.
Kuniyoshi’s work was heavily influenced at this time by Field’s collection of folk art and by the local flora and fauna—most notably the cow. The time Kuniyoshi spent in this colony was essential to his aesthetic development and featured significantly in his artwork in the early 1920s.
Explore Kuniyoshi's Circle
Explore Kuniyoshi's Circle
Walt Kuhn, about 1904–5, Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0025517
The talented, theatrical, and impulsive Walt Kuhn (1877–1949) began his career as an illustrator in New York but went on to become a prolific and successful fine artist. One of his early accomplishments was working as the executive secretary for the Armory Show of 1913, a paramount exhibition that introduced several generations of avant-garde European art to the United States. Kuhn then founded the Penguin Club, an organization in which progressive male artists held meetings and critiques. In 1917, Yasuo Kuniyoshi participated in one of the group’s first exhibitions, recalling that the “small but fertile group helped establish the routes of contemporary American painting.” Other notable members of the Penguin Club included Louis Bouché, Wood Gaylor, Albert Gleizes, and Jules Pascin.
The Penguin Club lasted through 1919, after which Kuhn and Kuniyoshi spent many summers together in Ogunquit. There, Kuhn painted the Maine landscape, Chase’s Pond, and began “The Dicky Bird Club,” a friendly sketching group that he named after his term for decorative works that he did not consider “art.” Back in New York, he revived the Penguin Club with an event in 1926, the Firemen’s Ball for Brancusi. This raucous party, an example of Kuhn’s showmanship, was held in honor of the Romanian sculptor’s visit to New York and has been memorialized in a painting by Alexander Calder (see Fireman’s Dinner for Brancusi). Kuniyoshi, Alexander Brook, and Niles Spencer were among the guests. Kuniyoshi and Kuhn were also included in many group shows together in New York, and both became known for their circus subjects during the mid-1920s (see Kuhn’s Strong Girl and Circus Woman).
Robert Laurent, 1930, Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0001845
Robert Laurent (1890–1970), a modernist sculptor from France, began his artistic career in the United States as Hamilton Easter Field’s protégé. Like Yasuo Kuniyoshi, he was supported financially by Field and studied with the older artist over several summers in Ogunquit, Maine. Laurent and Kuniyoshi met in the village in 1919 and quickly became friends. They joined a group of about ten artists, deemed “The Dicky Bird Club,” which gathered frequently for informal sketching sessions with a live model.
During the 1920s, Laurent and Kuniyoshi lived and worked, rent free, in Field’s building in Brooklyn Heights. There Laurent began to pioneer the technique of direct carving in wood, alabaster, bronze, and marble, and he created his well-known Goose Girl for Radio City Music Hall in 1923 (see photo of Robert Laurent in his studio at work on Goose Girl). Over the years, he and Kuniyoshi served together on many formal New York City organizations, including Salons of America and Artists Equity Association; they were instructors at the Art Students League; and in 1929 they cofounded the Hamilton Easter Field Art Foundation.
Niles Spencer, 1930, Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0002187
Niles Spencer (1893–1952) met Yasuo Kuniyoshi in 1917 at the Art Students League in New York, in Kenneth Hayes Miller’s class. The two men became part of a tight-knit of group artists that included Peggy Bacon, Alexander Brook, Edmund Duffy, Reginald Marsh, Katherine Schmidt, and Henry Schnakenberg. Spencer appears in a photograph of a party at Kuniyoshi’s apartment from around 1921 and is pictured in Bacon’s caricature of the group, The Ardent Bowlers, from 1932 (see illustration in Peggy Bacon and Alexander Brook entry).
Although Spencer and Kuniyoshi ran in the same circle in New York, they did not become truly close until they spent time in Ogunquit together during the early 1920s. Like Kuniyoshi and his then wife Katherine Schmidt, Spencer and his wife, Betty, were guests of Hamilton Easter Field. Kuniyoshi recalled, “The Niles Spencers and ourselves spent many a warm evening talking about Cezanne and modern painting.”
Spencer and Kuniyoshi were deeply inspired by Paul Cézanne’s modernist simplifications, and both disregarded Miller’s classicist teachings in favor of more abstract and geometric compositions (see Spencer’s Untitled). Spencer, who was quite reserved, did not promote his art as actively as Kuniyoshi did, but the two men often exhibited together at the Daniel Gallery in New York and remained lifelong friends.
New York City
“American art was just beginning to be something. You don’t realize what a struggle it was. There was only the Academy, Speicher, Dasburg. A whole group of people was coming up. . . . But there was a ferment going on there because people had been in France and had been influenced by the Impressionists and also later developments.”
In the early twentieth century, artist organizations such as the Penguin Club and the Salons of America were extremely influential in shaping the direction of modern art in the United States. These associations were formed in New York City—the hub of aesthetic development. Kuniyoshi was integral to such groups both as a member and in leadership roles. Remarkable group portraits, such as Peggy Bacon’s Ardent Bowlers (1932), illustrate the social activities of these organizations. His involvement with these groups signaled his status as a leading American artist, and later his allegiance to the United States during World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, like other people of Japanese heritage in America, Kuniyoshi was classified an “enemy alien.” But his affiliation with arts organizations and friendships with some of the most highly recognized American artists reinforced his integration into American culture. Other artists of Japanese descent such as Chuzo Tamotzu, Sakari Suzuki, and Leo Amino also joined Kuniyoshi in signing a Declaration of Loyalty issued by the Committee of Japanese Artists Resident in New York City on December 12, 1941.
“Around this time Louis Bouché introduced Alexander Brook and myself to the Penguin Club. I was terribly excited to be asked to show my work there along with such artists as Kuhn, Weber, Pascin and several other noteworthy painters. This small but fertile group helped to establish the roots of contemporary American painting. Considered rebels of their time they waged a vigorous battle against conservatism with might and humor. We knew how to play and enjoy ourselves in those days.”
“First, we must be prepared to defend our own freedom as artists. Second, and most important of all, in spite of the grave threats looming all over the world, we must hold firmly with all those who believe in and encourage freedom of expression and democratic principles, so that—for them and with them—we may continue to create a great American art.”
Explore Kuniyoshi’s Circle
Julian Levi, 1950, Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2921
Julian Levi (1900–1982) was born, worked, and died in New York City. It was there that he met Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who remained a close friend for many years.
Levi and Kuniyoshi often exhibited together at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery. Kuniyoshi, whom Halpert had represented since 1933, introduced Levi’s work to her in 1940, thereby launching his career as an artist. Later, in 1945, Levi joined Kuniyoshi as an instructor at the Art Students League.
The two artists also participated jointly in politics. They were both active in the small association of artists called An American Group, Inc. for which Levi served as recording secretary at one point and Kuniyoshi as president. In 1944, Kuniyoshi asked Levi to sponsor an organization of Japanese American artists against fascist Japan (see Kuniyoshi’s letter to Levi).
Outside work, Levi and Kuniyoshi spent much of their leisure time together in those decades. Levi recalled, “[We] went to the movies about three or four times a week when Kuniyoshi was alive because he was crazy about movies. . . . He wanted to go every night.” The artists’ friendship is evident from an intimate photograph of Levi that Kuniyoshi took around 1940. Set on a beach, the image epitomizes Levi, whose body of work centered on the sea (see example: Barnegat).
George Biddle, n.d., Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0043818
George Biddle (1885–1973) met Yasuo Kuniyoshi after moving to New York in 1922 to pursue his artistic career. He was active in politics and soon became a member of the Artists Equity Association, of which Kuniyoshi was founding president. Biddle also encouraged President Roosevelt, his childhood classmate from boarding school, to begin a government-sponsored mural program, which led to the creation in 1935 of the Works Progress Administration. Later, that important connection allowed him to endorse Kuniyoshi as a loyal US supporter during World War II, which kept the Japanese-born artist from being evacuated to one of the internment camps on the West Coast (see Yasuo Kuniuyoshi’s letter to George Biddle).
Biddle received many mural commissions through the Works Progress Administration, the most famous being five fresco panels for the Department of Justice Building in Washington, DC. These works and many of his others were inspired by the style and political and social awareness of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, with whom Biddle had lived for a brief time during the early 1930s. Biddle also created scenes based on his extensive travels, and a series of “speakeasy” paintings (see San Jose de la Mata, Santo Domingo, and Carnival in Rio). One of the works in the series, Zum Brauhaus, depicts Kuniyoshi, Peggy Bacon, Alexander Brook, and Biddle’s then-wife, sculptor Helene Sardeau.
Chuzo Tamotzu, 1963, Unidentified photographer. Chuzo Tamotsu Pictorial Collection, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque
Chuzo Tamotzu (1891–1975) was a self-taught painter born in Kagoshima, Japan. He was part of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s small group of Japanese American artist friends in New York, which also included Bumpei Usui and Isamu Noguchi. The work of these artists was brought to light by the Exhibition by Japanese Artists in New York organized by the Art Center in 1927 and again by a show of the same title at the ACA Gallery in 1935.
Like Kuniyoshi, Tamotzu identified as an American. His print Mt. Beacon, for example, depicts an American landscape and makes use of lithography, a technique foreign to Asian artistic traditions (see also Landscape (Towaco, N.J.), Queens Landscape, and Central Park South). Also like Kuniyoshi, Tamotzu was consistently identified as a Japanese artist and later began to embrace his origins by fusing Eastern and Western traditions and practices.
Tamotzu participated in many political and artistic organizations to prove his loyalty to the United States. In 1937, he was included in an exhibition organized by the American Artists’ Congress, on which Kuniyoshi served as an officer. The exhibition, titled In Defense of World Democracy: Dedicated to the Peoples of Spain and China, focused on the rise of fascism and war in Spain, Germany, and Asia. In 1939, Tamotzu became a member of An American Group, Inc., a collection of relatively unknown painters and sculptors who had elected Kuniyoshi as president. Both artists also served as active members of the Japanese American Committee for Democracy.
Isamu Noguchi, 1973, Photograph by Mimi Jacobs. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 5018
Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was still a young and relatively unknown artist when he exhibited with Yasuo Kuniyoshi at the ACA Gallery, New York, in 1936. Having studied art in New York, Paris, Beijing, Kyoto, and other cities, he was still discovering his mature style that would soon make him one of the most important sculptors of the twentieth century.
Noguchi’s early work was influenced in part by a group of older Japanese artists in New York, including Kuniyoshi, who spent their summers at the artists’ colony in Woodstock, New York. These artists fused Japanese traditionalism with American modernism and often introduced political elements into their work. Death (Lynched Figure), one of Noguchi’s major early sculptures, echoes these themes and anticipates later works such as Grey Sun, which is more abstracted but still highly expressive.
Noguchi became a political activist after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Like Kuniyoshi and many others, he campaigned to raise awareness of the loyalty and patriotism of Japanese Americans, many of whom were sent to internment camps or otherwise discriminated against. He was an active member of the Japanese American Committee for Democracy and the Artists Equity Association, both of which were under Kuniyoshi’s leadership. In 1942, Noguchi started the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy and lived voluntarily in an internment camp for seven months.
Ben Shahn, n.d., Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0002173
Ben Shahn (1898–1969) and Yasuo Kuniyoshi knew each other for years as part of the same active social and professional network. They also exhibited together at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery.
The politically minded Shahn began his career as a printmaker and was a natural fit when the Office of War Information (OWI) asked him to create posters for the war effort. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, when Kuniyoshi and other Japanese in the United States were declared “enemy aliens,” he was compelled to prove his loyalty to his adopted land. In 1942, Shahn recommended Kuniyoshi to the OWI to help with the poster project. Kuniyoshi was quick to embrace the assignment to demonstrate his definitive rejection of Japanese aggression and his assimilation into American culture.
In a display of mutual respect, Kuniyoshi and Shahn incorporated each other’s poster designs into their paintings. Kuniyoshi’s Somebody Tore My Poster reproduces Shahn’s empathetic and cautionary work We French Workers Warn You . . . Defeat Means Slavery, Starvation, Death. In his painting We Fight for a Free World! (about 1942, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York), Shahn depicted Kuniyoshi’s two posters selected by the OWI, Torture (1943) and Water Cure (1942), hanging on a brick wall next to similar war posters.
Jules Pascin, Artist Emil Ganso, n.d., woodcut on paper, image: 4 ¾ x 3 in. (12.1 x 7.7 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Baum in memory of Edith Gregor Halpert, 1971.321
Shortly before the onset of World War I, Jules Pascin (1885–1930) came to the United States from Europe, where he was born and educated. He met Yasuo Kuniyoshi in New York around 1917. The two artists lived in the same Columbia Heights apartment building and were members of the Penguin Club, a progressive group of young male artists. Pascin, who was already a celebrated School of Paris painter, most often took the bars, brothels, and women of Paris as subjects for his work.
Pascin returned to Paris in 1920. In 1928, he reconnected with Kuniyoshi, who had taken an extended trip to France with his wife, Katherine Schmidt. It is evident from Kuniyoshi’s work from the period that he was deeply influenced by Pascin’s artistic approach. Kuniyoshi began to paint and sketch from life, rather than from his imagination, and became increasingly concerned with bohemian and erotic subjects (see Four Nudes, and Nude at Door). The two artists saw each other often over the next six months, at the end of which Kuniyoshi decided to return to the United States. Pascin remained in Paris, living a reckless and excessive lifestyle that ended with his tragic suicide in 1930.
Woodstock, a small place in the foothills of the Catskills, is a good place to live. I have a home there and like to go up early in the spring and stay until Thanksgiving—about six months. Many of my friends are there and when I don’t feel like working I go out and have a good time. We have a gallery where we can all show our work and fight over it and have great pleasure in so doing. . . . It is a good place to work, too. Life is very simple and you can always get models, materials, studios and other necessary things, at short notice—also an audience. . . . I believe artists should always exchange ideas because they gain a great deal from each other. Everybody has a good time in Woodstock.”
Woodstock was an important arts community throughout Kuniyoshi’s life. He first visited Woodstock, New York, in 1918 to take a summer class at an Art Students League outpost there. He and Katherine Schmidt later built a home in the artists’ colony in 1929. Eugene Speicher, a prominent figure in Woodstock at the time, took Kuniyoshi under his wing. Social with other artists, Kuniyoshi often participated in weekly poker games with Speicher, Henry Mattson and Konrad Cramer where they would discuss their art and aesthetic issues. In 1938, LIFE magazine featured a photo spread on the artists who lived and worked there.
Explore Kuniyoshi’s Circle
Doris Lee, n.d., Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0106871
Doris Lee (1905–1983) knew Yasuo Kuniyoshi from Kenneth Hayes Miller’s class at the Art Students League but primarily associated with him in Woodstock, New York. Lee spent summers there attending classes and socializing with Kuniyoshi, Arnold Blanch (whom she would marry in 1939), Konrad Cramer, Henry Mattson, and Eugene Speicher; she moved permanently to the artists’ colony in 1931. Her close friendship with Kuniyoshi is evident from the many photographs that he took of her between 1936 and 1939 (see DorisLee, ca. 1940).
Lee established herself as a leader at the Woodstock artists’ community and soon became one of the most successful female artists of the Depression era. Her paintings reveal that she shared Kuniyoshi’s interest in the modernist possibilities of folk art. Her Harvest Time, a simple, charming portrayal of American life, is also highly sophisticated, featuring precise, geometric shapes in a flattened composition.
Arnold Blanch, about 1936, Doris Lee and Arnold Blanch, unidentified photographer. Gertrude Abercrombie papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 5465
Arnold Blanch (1896–1968) was one of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s student peers at the Art Students League. In 1920 he began teaching at the League’s summer school in Woodstock, New York, where he would settle permanently in 1923. After Kuniyoshi built a home in Woodstock in 1929, the two artists began spending increasingly more time together.
Blanch and Kuniyoshi became members of the Woodstock Artists Association, together with Doris Lee (Blanch’s second wife), Eugene Speicher, and other notable artists. In 1938 the artist-run space was featured in LIFE magazine, in which it was dubbed the “local Louvre.” Blanch, Lee, and Kuniyoshi also exhibited together at the important Golden Gate International Exhibition in 1939. Although Kenneth Hayes Miller had taught each of them at the Art Students League in New York, Blanch was the only one of the three who chose to work in the instructor’s traditional style. He is now known for his realist portraits and landscapes (see Another Farm).
Konrad Cramer, 1930, Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0086993
Soon after Konrad Cramer (1888–1963) went to the artists’ colony in Woodstock, New York, as a summer student in 1910, he decided to move there permanently. He became an active member of the Woodstock community, founding and becoming the first director of the Woodstock Artists Association. He and Yasuo Kuniyoshi met around 1927 and became fast friends through their frequent poker games with Eugene Speicher and other artists in the area.
Early in his career, Cramer, who had been exposed to avant-garde art back in his native Germany, helped develop a colorful, geometric style of realism related to cubism and precisionism. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, he, together with other Woodstock artists such as Kuniyoshi and Doris Lee, became increasingly interested in American folk art. He began to adapt his modernist works to the two-dimensional patterned forms found in folk art, creating a fusion of folk, craft, and cubism (see Still Life with Grapes). He also began to experiment with photography during the 1930s and encouraged Kuniyoshi to do the same. Over the years, Cramer photographed many of his artist friends, including Arnold Blanch, Kuniyoshi, and Speicher.
Eugene Speicher, n.d., Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0093277
Eugene Speicher (1883–1962) was an important and popular figure at the artists’ colony in Woodstock, New York, when Yasuo Kuniyoshi began to take summer classes there in 1917. According to Katherine Schmidt, Speicher took an interest in Kuniyoshi and his work and was “anxious to help” him socially and artistically. He often brought the younger artist to his weeknight poker games with Konrad Cramer and Henry Mattson, which in 1938 were featured in a photo in LIFE magazine. Kuniyoshi also regularly played golf as Speicher’s guest, inspiring Kuniyoshi’s Self-Portrait as a Golf Player in 1927.
Early in his career Speicher was associated with modern American realism. He executed his portraits, still lifes, and nudes, however, in a traditional academic style and thus found himself on the conservative side of the debate between classicists and modernists that eventually broke out in Woodstock and New York City. Despite their contrasting views, he and Kuniyoshi continued to associate as artists and friends. Kuniyoshi took many photographs of Speicher and his wife over the years, and Speicher joined the Artists Equity Association after Kuniyoshi became the group’s first president in 1947.