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Kikuo Saito: Matter and Action
Post #1901 • October 7, 2021, 6:06 PM
[Note: "Kikuo Saito: Matter and Action" appears in Kikuo Saito, published in September 2021 by James Fuentes Press. The printed version is in my archive. What follows below is an earlier draft, modified with some corrections. It is 3000 words, compared to 1800 for the final essay. I regard the final as superior, so this is not a complaint about the editing by any means. Rather, I want to preserve some of the insights below as possibly useful to future essays. Consider it an alternate, extended take for the hardcore buffs.]
Huge, venerable oaks line our side of our neighbor’s property. We enjoy them, but they need occasional maintenance. Once, the principal of a tree service crew had me walk around with him to the discuss the job. At one point he indicated some mildew growing on the second story shingles, on account of the continual shade. “You see that on the side of the house?” He pointed. “That’s allergy.” I assented with due concern. That might not have been the right way to put that from a linguistic or botanical or immunological framework, but from the standpoint of his craft, his understanding was total. I wouldn’t have dreamed of correcting him. Artists often operate from a similar logic of reality, based in materials and action, about which careful articulation hardly matters if the work is going well. Even if it’s not, the problem rarely lies in words.
Kikuo Saito came to America from Japan in 1966, and lived long enough for his native tongue to grow out-of-date without ever developing more than a friendly familiarity with the English language. He was no diarist or letter-writer.1 (Later in life, his email addresses proliferated as he tried in vain to keep up with communications.) In a milieu marked by intense intellectual discussion with some of the great artistic and critical minds of the century, Saito felt content to let verbal engagement with it fall to the choreographer Eva Maier, his wife of three decades, comely, Teutonic, and Jewish. It was she who aspired to meet the critical challenge embodied by Clement Greenberg – the exercise of taste incarnate, say what you will of him – as his example implicitly challenges critics to this day. I asked Maier’s nephew Joshua Cohen, who related these details to me, what struck her fancy about this Japanese fellow with limited English, albeit an affable and talented one. Her first husband was a domineering intellect, he explained. Saito gave her room to be herself. Doubtlessly she did likewise for him.
Consequently, we have in Saito an example of an absolutely undogmatic modernism. 1966 was late to drop in on the unfolding story of modernist painting. He was 26. Frank Stella and Walter Darby Bannard were in their early 30s, painting concerted rebuttals to the emotive excesses of gestural oil-slinging, efforts that later would be called Post-Painterly Abstraction. Saito came to abstraction via the Gutai Group, whose manifesto extols Jackson Pollock and Georges Mathieu thus:
Their work reveals the scream of matter itself, cries of the paint and enamel. These two artists confront matter in a way that aptly corresponds to their individual discoveries. Or rather, they even seem to serve matter. Astonishing effects of differentiation and integration take place.
By 1966 the scream of matter had gone hoarse. Fortunately, the manifesto goes on to read, “No matter how many Pollocks have emerged after Pollock, his glory will not diminish. We must respect new discoveries.”2 The timing of Saito’s immigration allowed him to exercise a natural catholicity in a cultural atmosphere of experimentation and freedom. In one of the stranger coincidences of modern art history, Saito, en route to New York from Japan via Hawaii and San Francisco, encountered Ellen Stewart of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club while they both were viewing the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her beneficence led to his involvement in multidisciplinary performance, even as he assisted in the studios of Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Poons, and Kenneth Noland and developed his own voice with respect to abstract painting. Matter, as conceived by the Gutai, always remained at the center of his work.
It’s worth noting how intense some of the arguments around art and art-making had grown. In 1972, the New York Times published an essay by Bannard titled “The War Against the Good in Art,” which observed,
Today this attack is manifold. It came to the fore in the early sixties, when Abstract Expressionism had spread to a choking mass. The reaction came, as always, but this time it was different, for there was not one reaction but many. Suddenly, everywhere, the idea of innovation caught up to innovation itself, and everyone innovated with brutal regularity. Obvious newness was sanctified. Surprise became the safe substitute for esthetic experience.3
Bannard, who described himself as an artist cursed with the ability to write, couldn’t avoid getting drafted into that war. Saito, in contrast, was able to avail himself of the innovation without coming into conflict with it. His work entered the theater, and elements of theater entered his work. Operating out of the reality of matter and action, at a distance from language, he found a way to situate himself, not via a dialectic of competing movements, but purely by way of his own inclinations.
Saito’s work points out an uncomfortable gap in criticism and aesthetic phenomenology. Arranging an image inside of a rectangle is an ancient convention, dating at least to the low relief carvings of the Sumerians. Without ever formalizing the knowledge, as far as we know, those early artists sensed that there were better and worse ways of organizing images within those rectangles. (I hope you’ll agree that those glorious Sumerian carvings speak for themselves in that respect.) Abstraction, first as decoration and later as an explicit mode of art-making, demonstrated that composition hinges on shape itself rather than imagery. But why would humans experience such a thing? What causes the feeling of rightness in certain arrangements of shapes with respect to their containing rectangle? If it’s a special case of the ability to detect beauty in general, why does that case exist?
This problem has gone all but untreated since the days of the Sumerians. I know of two exceptions, both partial through no fault of their own. One is from Paul Crowther:
Literally, the framing devices define and emphasize individual planes wherein specific items or states of affairs are clarified visually through selective presentation of their key aspects. Pictorial space becomes explicitly separate from the visual space of the physical world precisely through its role in this cognitive enhancement.
Framing devices, then, have the practical effect (intended or not) of clearly demarcating pictorial space, and signifying its difference from ordinary perceptual space…. [Rectangular formats have] the signal advantage of appearing to extend outwards in two equal directions, either horizontally or vertically. This dynamism suggests the virtual extendability of pictorial space left, right, and above the stationary viewer as well as in front of him and her. Its framing function is thereby one which focuses on the main represented subject but which situates it in a relatively open space.4
The other is from a charming and wise little book by the painter Terry Fenton, About Pictures. Having noted that pictures are usually rectangles, probably, because walls and pages usually are as well, he describes this phenomenon:
In its simplest sense figure and ground refers to figures in a setting, against a background. As painting became more abstract, foreground “figures” often threatened to detach from the ground, making pictures that looked thin and incomplete. There were as many solutions to the problem as there were successful painters, but three basic tendencies stood out. One was to make the “figure” occupy most of the picture surface, hence the allover painting of Jackson Pollock, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, and more recently John Griefen. A second was to make the figure and ground appear to sit side-by-side in a kind of optical space as with Adolph Gottlieb, Kenneth Noland, Jack Bush, William Perehudoff and several others. A possible third was to make the ground, itself, take over much of the picture surface with various small accents added, for example Barnet Newman and Helen Frankenthaler. Needless to say, these aren’t hard and fast categories. Some painters, among them the vastly underrated Darryl Hughto, used them all.5
Saito too could be said to have used them all. But to my eye, his best pictures are of the second of Fenton’s types, the side-by-side arrangement of figure and ground. This is to contrast his approach with the allover strategy, which prompted Allan Kaprow to say of Pollock that “the confines of the rectangular field were ignored in lieu of an experience of a continuum going in all directions simultaneously, beyond the literal dimensions of any work.”6 Saito’s most productive conception of a picture – put in terms of these insights from Crowther and Fenton – sets up two forces for collision. One is the demarcated rectangle, the physical edge of the painting, exerting pressure towards its own center via an encroaching ground. The other is a “figure” that resists this encroachment as if in defense of its own existence, exerting pressure outward towards the rectangle. The equilibrium of the two produces a satisfying stability, as if one was pressing one’s palms together.
Having said that, we’re still not much closer to understanding why that effect happens. Nothing about those pressures is depicted in a literal way – it’s all paint sitting inertly on stretched canvas. But I hope that this description of the effect, mere recognition that it exists and is important, prompts an orientation towards that understanding. Too, I don’t claim that Saito thought about his own work in these terms, certainly not the literal terms of Crowther and Fenton. Rather, I suggest that as in the case of that aforementioned tree crew foreman and his chainsaw, Saito was operating his tools and materials out of a more substantive reality than the one we try to create by hanging words on his activity. That the latter is more amenable to articulation may lead one to conclude that it is more comprehensible. If anything the opposite is true.
Take for instance an untitled painting from 19807 shown in March 2021 at James Fuentes Gallery.8 The encroaching ground consists mainly of black acrylic paint, and the figure (I’ll desist from putting it quotes from here on), mainly of raw canvas. Those elements by themselves would have resulted in the malaise of thinness that Fenton describes. The effect would not have been that of opposing pressures, but of an abandoning of the encroachment of the ground on a helpless figure. Saito makes the figure push back by way of pours of thinned acrylic, one ribbon-like shape each of fuchsia, crimson, teal, green, yellow, purple, blue, and white. Despite the relatively lower volume of paint application, it drips on the black at the edges, causing paint otherwise soaked into the raw canvas to reach slightly in front of the dark ground. Around the rectangle, separate from the figure, small triangles of unpainted canvas, gaps in the encroachment, have received dabs of color. This invokes Fenton’s third type of abstract picture, in which accents have been added to an area taken over by ground. As he remarks, one could build a whole picture this way. But in this case, the device serves to amplify the sensation of the figure’s resistance.
Saito gouged lines into the dark ground with a brush handle, and they bear particular scrutiny. Some of them echo the outline of the figure, without strictly redrawing it. Some of them echo the physical edges of the painting, without becoming strict horizontals or verticals. The gouged lines seem to bend in the compression between the centrifugal force of the figure and the centripetal force of the rectangle.
This work was painted in a small number of moves, which is not to say that it was easy to make it. The speed at which acrylic dries tells us that Saito painted the ground in one exuberant effort, as it would have been impossible to gouge those lines into it after a short time. Pours such as appear here can’t be taken back or amended. If you can imagine drawing abstractly by pouring a beverage on a tablecloth, you have an idea of what happened.
It’s illuminating to compare this picture to certain others by Clyfford Still, who made similar kinds of paintings by nearly opposite means. In Still’s April 1962 in the Albright-Knox Museum, the central vermilion figure seems to push outward against a reticent ground until it reaches the extent of its justification.9 In the above Saito, the ground pushes inwards from the rectangle against a reticent figure until it reaches the extent of its justification. The Still speaks of a sure hand adding oil paint to a support in a manner that would have been recognizable to Monet. The Saito represents a different category of effort, one marked by bursts of urgency with periods of reflection after each of them. Though beyond that, the grounds in both the Still and the Saito contain satellite figures that interrupt what would otherwise be a static expanse. Methods aside, they share sensibilities.
The Saito is typical of his work at the end of the 1970s and the start of the ‘80s, what we might call his classic mode. Blue Ladder (1980) appeared in “Kikuo Saito: Color and Drawing” at the Sam and Adele Golden Gallery in New Berlin, NY in 2016.10 In this painting the ground is a transparent but nevertheless thickly applied blue (such things are possible with the addition of acrylic gels), and the figure has taken refuge at the top edge of the painting instead of the bottom. But the general setup is the same, complete with attractively poured streamers of color lending vital organs to the body of the figure, and gouged lines indicating compromises of opposition between figure and edge.
In the 1990s, the grounds pushed out the figures, and began to fill with a mysterious stenography. Some of these canvases were also on display at Fuentes in 2021. Saito improvised an indecipherable script in white colored pencil on blackboard-like applications of oil paint, sometimes appearing to read left-to-right, other times right-to-left, alternating between failed math, failed cursive English, and failed hiragana. They speak of the futility of language, perhaps personally in the artist’s case, perhaps more broadly regarding its powerlessness in the face of art. Even so, Irish Wind (1992) contains a central, drawn loop, serving as a kind of figure, from which radiate lines akin to the gouges of his classic period that flatten and square off as they approach the edge of the painting.11
In the last decade of his life he returned to his classic mode, making work that combined seamlessly with the 1979 and 1980 paintings in the exhibition at Golden in 2016. He gained in surety. While all the visual pressure was still there, something about it had relaxed, without slackening. Particularly delightful is Summerland (2012).12 A ground of warm pink pushes against a figure adorned with his multicolored pourings, floating contentedly in the expanse like a fat carp in a pond. A gray stripe bordered with wine-red and rose rests at the top of the six-foot-high rectangle, evoking reflections and distance.
The story of Kikuo Saito and his art greatly merits revisiting, preservation, and further study. In November of the year that he arrived in the United States, Barbara Rose conducted a panel discussion asking, “Is Easel Painting Dead?”13 This sometimes illuminating, sometimes madcap exchange is preserved in a collection of Donald Judd interviews. The transcription concludes with (I think) unintentional humor with a note from the editor that reads, “Not included here is an extensive question-and-answer session held at the end of the panel, which began with an angry audience member lambasting the panel participants for a number of minutes.” Saito’s whole career as a mature painter took place in the time since then.
Hardly anyone remembers the details of these hoary animosities, and easel painting is obviously not dead. Myriad preconceptions about modernism and its dramas stand to be put aside, in favor of a renewed look at an artist whose work began in Nihonga, was informed by experimental theater and dance, and conducted in an ethos that regards the wide variety of creative practices as sisters – the last of which will be fostered still further, for the benefit of artists following in his spirit, by the KinoSaito foundation. Saito’s modernism was, and continues to be, of the most generous sort.
1. Although I’m told of a series of watercolors painted of various locales where he lived, visited, and worked. I hope that they will one day be the subject of a future exhibition and catalogue.
2. Yoshihara Jirō, Gutai Manifesto, translated by Reiko Tomii. Originally published as “Gutai bijutsu sengen,” Geijutsu Shinchō 7, no. 12 (December 1956), pp. 202–04. Archived at http://web.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/gutai/data/manifesto.html.
3. Walter Darby Bannard, “The War Against the Good in Art,” 1972, the New York Times, August 6, 1972, section 2, p. 17. Archived at http://wdbannard.org/1972-War-Against-Good-In-Art-22.html.
4. Paul Crowther, Phenomenology of the Visual Arts (Even the Frame), Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2009, pp. 53-54.
5. Terry Fenton, About Pictures, Hagios Press, 2009, p. 60.
6. Recounted by Michael Schreyach, Pollock’s Modernism, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2017, p. 19.
7. Untitled 1980, 1980, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 80 inches. Archived at https://jamesfuentes.com/content/4-exhibitions/2021/kikuo-saito/untitled-1980.jpg.
8.“Kikuo Saito,” James Fuentes Gallery, New York City, March 3 – April 3, 2021. Archived at https://jamesfuentes.com/exhibitions/2021/kikuo-saito.
9. Clyfford Still, April 1962, 1962, oil on canvas, support: 113 x 158 inches, collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Archived at https://www.albrightknox.org/artworks/1964530-april-1962.
10. “Kikuo Saito: Color and Drawing,” the Sam and Adele Golden Gallery, New Berlin, NY, September 24, 2016 – March 24, 2017, curated by James Walsh. Archived at https://justpaint.org/kikuo-saito-color-and-drawing/.
11. Irish Wind, 1992, colored pencil and oil on canvas, 87 x 58 inches. Archived at https://jamesfuentes.com/content/4-exhibitions/2021/kikuo-saito/irish-wind.jpg.
12. Summerland, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 75 ½ x 46 ¼ inches. See Note #10.
13. “Is Easel Painting Dead?”, panel discussion with Barbara Rose (moderator), Donald Judd, Walter Darby Bannard, Larry Poons, and Robert Rauschenberg, November 10, 1966, included in Donald Judd Interviews, David Zwirner Books, New York, NY, 2019, p. 104-141.