Getting the Most out of that Art Exhibition, Vol. 12. Special Exhibitions Mark 30 Years since the Death of 1980s Artist, Naoki Suwa.
Who hasn’t sometimes wondered what they should be looking at when they attend an art exhibition? Here, art writer Makoto Murata shares his insights into the unique aspects we should look out for with each featured exhibition.
Fusing Traditional Japanese Art and Modern Western Art
1980s art has recently returned to the spotlight and, surely, the foremost Japanese artist of that decade was Naoki Suwa. Whenever I say this though, I’m met with baffled expressions. Naoki who? People know of lots of other 1980s artists, but not Naoki Suwa.
Granted, many artists from the 1980s went on to become more famous, but I would argue that until he was tragically snatched away in an accident in 1990, Suwa had stood at the forefront of Japanese contemporary art for the entire decade.
By the time Suwa began painting in the 1970s, modern art had pretty much reached the end of its road. This was the era of monochrome paintings and lines of rocks presented as art, a time when rumours about the death of painting were rife. Amid this torpor though, Japan’s embryonic artists of the next generation were already experimenting with new ideas. They were asking fundamental new questions of painting and sculpture. Some looked to those pinnacles of modern art, constructivism and abstract expressionism. Some reached beyond the frame of the painting and out into the open air, experimenting with installation art. Others sought inspiration in traditional Japanese art.
During his early years as a painter, Suwa re-examined painting, beginning with the basic elements of colour and proportion, in what was possibly an attempt to start again from scratch. He experimented with a systematic composition methodology, using the golden mean to organise the canvas and colours. Traditional Japanese aesthetics were also important to him, as was grappling with a dilemma that had faced Japanese artists since the 19th century – that of how to engage with Western art.
Suwa’s first answer to this problem was his 1980 Waves No.1. If you look carefully you’ll see Hokusai’s great wave amid the coarse brushstrokes, but what really draws the eye is the way the surface is folded at right-angles, with the painting standing on its own just like a four-panel Japanese folding screen. While the rough brushstrokes may be influenced by the neo-expressionist movement that emerged in the West in the late 1970s, the wave motif and folding screen are recast straight from traditional Japanese art. Essentially, Suwa was here forcibly grafting Western painting and Japanese tradition onto the same stem. The “return to tradition” theme was an oft-seen phenomenon in the years following the Meiji Restoration and the influx of Western ideas, but the route Suwa pursued throughout the 1980s was unique, fusing Western modern art with traditional Japanese painting.
In terms of both subject matter and style, Suwa mixed east and west, modern and traditional. An example of this fusion is Mountain and Stream with Sun and Moon. This is an abstract expressionist painting with broad, dynamic brushstrokes on geometrically divided panels, but rather than a conventional canvas that can be hung on a wall, this work is presented in the style of tsuitate, free-standing partition screens. Similarly, PH-2-8602, featuring geometric shapes painted with coarse, expressive brushstrokes, is mounted as a Japanese-style hanging scroll, rather than in a conventional frame.
From here, Suwa struck out into uncharted territory. Until this point, paintings, even over multiple panels, had always been conceived as complete, self-contained works. Whether they were scenes around the walls of a room as with fusuma-e (paintings on sliding fusuma door panels), or paintings that extended sequentially like those on emaki picture scrolls, they always had a beginning and an end point. Suwa’s response was a series of paintings that extended endlessly into space and time, his Endless Chain Paintings.
These paintings are composed of geometric shapes such as triangles and diamonds, rendered with coarse brush strokes in ultramarine, verdigris and gold – hues typical of Japanese painting. What’s new here is that the pattern extends, from left to right, through a succession of panels, each picking up where the last left off. The pattern could theoretically continue infinitely, much like a word chain game where the next word begins with the last letter of the previous word. Rather than being conceived from the outset as a self-contained work in a single style, the artistic style of Endless Chain Paintings changes gradually over time and space from one piece to the next. You could think of it as a methodology devised to keep an artist painting forever.
Suwa began working on this series in 1988, painting a dozen or so panels each year. By Part 3, in his third year on the series, the number of panels had reached fifty. However, in September of 1990, this “work without end” came to an abrupt halt with the sudden death of the artist. By the time of Suwa’s accidental death, the dazzling colours of the earlier panels had faded into the shadows, having become progressively monochromatic. At the same time, the brushwork had become increasingly fluid and dynamic, with the paint spattered as if in bursts of fireworks. I wonder, is it just because I also lived through that same era that I find myself wanting to see a connection between these final works and Suwa’s death?
Regardless, not only do these panels live up to their billing as Suwa’s finest works, they are also his final works.
Contemporary art in Japan has seen big changes since Suwa’s untimely death in 1990, and new generations of artists have taken up the challenge. Currently bathing in the international spotlight is Takashi Murakami, founder of the postmodern art movement “Superflat”. Murakami, who formally studied traditional Nihonga painting at Tokyo University of the Arts, focuses on finding commonalities between manga and anime and the traditional Japanese aesthetic. The new generation includes artists such as Makoto Aida, Akira Yamaguchi, and Tabaimo, all of whom incorporate techniques and aesthetics from traditional Japanese art into their work. On the surface, these new artists’ pop-art style, subculture-inspired work may appear to have nothing in common with Suwa’s abstract expressionism, but they are all grappling with the same problems of contemporary Japanese art; all seeking to find their own solutions.
And there can be no doubt that Naoki Suwa was in the vanguard of this quest.
Special Exhibition from the Collection: Suwa Naoki
Venue: Mie Prefectural Art Museum. 11 Otani-cho, Tsu-shi, Mie Prefecture
Period: Saturday, February 1st to Sunday, April 5th, 2020.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (Entry is permitted until thirty minutes before the galleries close.)
Closed: Every Monday.
Linked Naoki Suwa Exhibitions
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the artist’s death, the following museums, which house works by Naoki Suwa, will exhibit panels from his final masterpiece, Endless Chain Paintings.
Utsunomiya Museum of Art Exhibition Room 1
November 23rd 1919 to February 24, 2020
Endless Chain Paintings, Part 1. (Nos. 1-12). 1988.
Meguro Museum of Art, Tokyo
February 15th to March 22nd, 2020
Beyond the Borders
Endless Chain Paintings, Part 2. (Nos. 13-31). 1989.
Chiba City Museum of Art
January – March 2021
Endless Chain Paintings, Part 3. (Nos. 37-50). 1990.
A graduate in Fine Arts from Tokyo Zōkei University, Makoto Murata worked in the editorial department at the magazine, Pia, before setting out as a freelance art writer. He lectures part-time at Tokyo Zōkei University and is the principal of the BankART School (post-graduate school of art) in Yokohama. He has authored a number of books on art in Japanese.