Co-curators Joann Moser and Tom Wolfe Discuss Artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi

  • TOM WOLFE: Well, I got interested in Kuniyoshi kind of through a series of coincidences. I was doing an exhibition about a Woodstock artist named Konrad Cramer, and going through his photographs we found one that was signed “to my fellow shutterbug, Yas.” We knew Yas was the nickname for Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and that got me into him. Then, I found that he was a fascinating artist who hadn’t been written about much and whose career, biography, and artistic production were really interesting. One of the central biographical facts of his life is because of immigration law he was never able to become an American citizen.

    JOANN MOSER: His story as an immigrant coming to the United States and his experience as an immigrant, on the one hand he was teaching at The Art Students League, he was in all the exhibitions, he won prizes, but he always felt a bit uncomfortable because as a Japanese-American he was never totally accepted. To some extent, that’s reflected in his work, but he did manage to make quite a career for himself in spite of the obstacles. I never had the opportunity to see an overview of his work, and I think this exhibition that we have here is the first one in the United States in more than 25 years.

    In the 1980s and ‘90s, the Japanese discovered Kuniyoshi, and they were buying up his paintings from American collections. So a large number of them went to Japan, and I think in our exhibition approximately a third of the works are coming back from Japan, so a lot of these have not been seen by Americans in a long time.

    TW: Conversely, two-thirds of the show are works from American collections that had never been in the same place at the same time for an overview like this. It’s especially rewarding because he rarely repeated himself. He painted extremely original subjects in a very original manner, so it’s a unique opportunity to really survey this rich and subtle body of work.

    The timing now coincides with a rise of interest in Asian American studies and diasporic cultures and Asian American art. One basic decision we made was to include oil paintings and black ink drawings. At the same time that he was simultaneously working in the European-American tradition of oil painting, on the other hand he was doing these highly finished and idiosyncratic black ink drawings, which is something that reflects the Asian tradition where they didn’t know oil paint until the late 19th century. Their whole tradition is in water-based inks and pigments to make art.

    JM: His experience during World War II must have been really difficult for him. He considered himself to be an American artist, and suddenly overnight after the bombing of Pearl Harbor he became…

    TW: He was legally an enemy alien, and he was very hurt by that because his whole career had been in the United States, and he was very proud of the success he had achieved. He came to the United States with a few hundred dollars and expecting to make money easily, which turned out not to be the case. He had menial jobs, then worked his way up, and became a successful artist, and suddenly he was an enemy alien. He was not put in the camps because he was on the East Coast and the camps for the Japanese in the United States were all on the West Coast, but he was still persecuted and he felt prejudice.

    In that period, he made the shocking series of violent drawings for the government as propaganda to protest wartime atrocities mostly by the Japanese. After that there was kind of a period of disillusion after the war when I think he thought he would resume his status as one of the leading American painters, but the abstract expressionist generation kind of squashed the previous representational artist, the realist, socially concerned artist that he was a member of, so that was disillusioning for him as well. His late works, there’s an amazing room in the show where all of a sudden the subtle, somber, subdued color he was famous for in his painting ignites and all of these almost garish, bright oranges and turquoises, which is his last period, but what those shrill hues are put at the service of is his very depressing or cynical subject matter.

    JM: One thing I find really interesting is that he really did exhibit with the most respected American artists of his time like Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe. He won prizes, he was in all of the important shows, and yet after he died his work was not as desirable. I think some of it came from the fact that the abstract expressionists rose to the fore. In the 1950s, if you weren’t an abstract expressionist, you really did not have much opportunity. I think the fact that we’re doing it now, we have a different view of that time period. We have more historical perspective, so I would like to see him written back into the history of American art.

    Joann Moser and Tom Wolfe, co-curator of the exhibition The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi speak about the artist and his work.