An Absolute Visual Pitch (English)
In 1979 Yoshito Takahashi's solo exhibition at the Shinwa Gallery in Tokyo marked the beginning of his artistic career in the Japanese contemporary art world. His exhibition took place just before the New Painting movement reached Japan around 1982 and caused a whirlwind in the art world. Because of Japan's overwhelming economic power, and rising notions of postmodernism in Western thought, contemporary Japanese art in the 1980s attracted significant Western interest, which had not previously been seen. This interest focused on the innovative creations rooted in contemporary urban sensibilities, which applauded the development of technology, and fused Japanese and Western cultural elements with the use of eclecticism (a significant pre-modern Japanese aesthetic).
Entering the 1990s, Japan's economic bubble burst and conventional values lost their credibility. In these circumstances a younger generation of artists attempted to subvert the so-called 'high art' and 'high culture' that had been backed by Western cultural and artistic values. Targeting modern Japan's conflict with Western modernism, they incorporated previously marginalized expressional activities in their works. These were drawn from the realm of post-war Japan's subcultures, included Manga and animation, and allowed the artists to produce creations that implied their sharp criticism of Japanese society. Takahashi, whose works do not depict specific images, kept a distance from these mainstreams of Japanese art, particularly painting, and explored alternative options. The question remains however, what were these options and how has he explored them thus far?
Essential to understanding an artist is an awareness of the creative driving-force that has influenced them. Takahashi once referred to the visual art equivalent of an 'absolute pitch' in music, a notion I would like to name an 'absolute visual pitch'.(1) Absolute visual pitch is a sense that cannot be learned merely through education or training in visual art disciplines. It is no exaggeration to say that Takahashi's desire to satisfy this sense is his creative source. Seeking to meet this sense determines the artistic standards of his creations, and navigates his approach to things as an artist. Takahashi tries to explore things intuitively by relying on this 'absolute visual pitch' as if it were a mariner's compass, rather than creating works using trial and error methods. This approach also differs from one in which a world is constructed dialectically using so-called logics.
Using this approach while working, Takahashi seeks to sublimate the various feelings that he experiences in everyday life. In so doing, he has created numerous works that differ from each other in terms of colours, Iight and shades, and composition. These works are meant to prompt viewers into recalling both their feelings associated with previous individual experiences, and their universal memories of human lives, thereby creating what Takahashi has named 'memories of the unseen'. (2)
Thus, Takahashi has chosen a very individual way of relating himself to art. Art for him is not a direct means of communicating with society. This makes us reflect on the role of art in contemporary society, especially in today's climate in which visual art tends to be required to play a social role, and journalistic subjects are preferred for art works. Regarding his existence as a human being, he believes in 'something absolute' that stems from the mind. This is indicative of a 'distant look' (3) that leads us into the depth of human existence amongst postmodern phenomena. These postmodern phenomena are characterised by the rapid and global development of an information-oriented society; relativity in values; and an art scene that responds immediately to such social phenomena.
Although Takahashi's 'absolute visual pitch' can be considered a gift to a certain degree, it is more important to consider the circumstances in which he was brought up. His grandfather established the family business in the Meiji era. Since then, the Takahashls have been dealers in antique oriental art, specialising in art works from China, Japan and the Korean Peninsula. Born to such a family, he says that rare and precious artefacts always surrounded him, almost as if they had been his toys. He has developed a profound attachment to white porcelain and celadon in particular, and has been significantly influenced by the physical actuality of these materials and abstract forms.(4) This explains why, when talking about painting, Takahashi refers not only to the visual senses, but also to tactile senses.
However, Takahashi's development as an artist has been moulded by various forces, particularly post-war American cultural hegemony. Between the ages of fourteen and sixteen he was drawn to German Expressionism and was subsequently interested in various artistic styles, introduced mainly from the United States. Like many of his contemporaries, he was aware of the Mono-ha movement that criticised Western modernism, and was greatly inspired by it while at university. At the same time he was also significantly attracted to American Abstract Expressionism.(5)
Following this initial period of exploration, in 1977 at the age of twenty-three, Takahashi visited Europe for the first time. At the time, he was using airbrushes and photographs to 'imitate' works in the style of American Super Realism. However, when he saw various art works - ranging from classical to contemporary - he realised that the soil for his artistic growth was not Western.(6) Despite an awareness of the debates surrounding 'bijutsu' (art) that was imported from the West and implanted in modern Japan, Takahashi did not intend his art work to simply fill the cultural gap between West and East. Rather, he sought through his work to reach beyond the differences between West and East to the common essence of humanity. This attitude can be observed throughout his later creative activities.
Takahashi, who had become increasingly aware of where to locate fertile soil for his blossoming art, gained recognition in the middle of the 1980s for the originality of his works that made use of both washi (Japanese paper) and a concrete plate. He placed acrylic paints on the plate and then placed the paper on top of the plate, causing the paint to seep through it and create blurs on the uppermost surface. Paint was also applied to this uppermost surface, transforming the paper from a mere supporting body into the point of encounter between the surface and underside of the paper.(7) This differs from the construction of traditional Western painting that is made by putting oil paint on the surface of a canvas. Takahashi's work was, therefore, regarded and evaluated as an exploration of the construction of painting itself.(8)
Joseph Love pointed out that Takahashi kept a distance from his own creations by using a plate, and that this attitude was similar to that of a potter who conducts a dialogue with their material.(9) This coincides with Takahashi's admiration of the way in which pottery exists.
The artist himself explained that he intended to realise the coexistence of the material used (washi) and his will as a creator, by painting on both the surface and underside of the paper with the use of a plate.(10) This sensibility is considered to be robted in his Eastern ideas of Nature, which seek to coexist with rather than confront Nature. Various elements clash and contradict each other in Nature, yet there is also a balance in Nature from which none of the elements are excluded. Similarly, in Takahashi's creations the contradictory elements overlap, clash and then try to produce a certain harmony. Takahashi identifies these contradictory elements as the feelings; including pleasure, sadness and hatred; that he experiences in his life, and those experienced by every human being. The state in which these feelings are harmoniously united can be regarded as the spirit and soul of the human being, and Takahashi desires to express this in his paintings.(11)
Japanese aesthetic tradition tends to fall into two categories - one in which minimalist expression is used in contemplating oneself in relation to Nature; and the other where a preference is shown for kitsch expression with affection for the artificial. Takahashi's work obviously falls into the former category. While he admits to Nature's influence on his sensibilities, this influence differs from either a mere desire to return to Nature, or an admiration for the use of natural materials during the creative process Instead, he explores the human spirit and its close association with Nature.(12)
In 1995, Takahashi stopped using a plate when creating his works explaining that even without the plate he was still able to achieve the same effect in his work, and the size and scale of his paintings were no longer restricted by the size of the plate used.(13) There are, however, additional observations that could be made about the changes in his working process.
It is, arguably, inadequate to consider Takahashi's previous creations made with the use of a plate, as 'painting' in a Western sense, where it designates the act of 'covering' a surface.(14) Apart from not using traditional painting materials, Iike oil paint on canvas, Takahashi also did not use a traditional surface, but instead put paint on both sides of the surface. This innovative conception and method of working led to the aforementioned recognition for his exploration of the construction of painting itself. His more recent methods, which do not use a plate, are less at odds with traditional definitions of painting; and although he still uses washi and acrylic paint, he now covers the surface of a rectangular supporting body with paint. This creative process would seem to define him as 'a painter'. Even when he was working with a plate laid down horizontally on a floor, he pointed out that his method differed from Action Painting and that he felt that he was actually 'painting'.(15)
In his current working method, which does not make use of a plate, the washi surface is hardly visible in the finished work and the density of the paint on the surface has been increased. Consequently, the physical actuality of the material has been transformed and comes into prominence. This reminds us that his absolute visual pitch instilled in him a desire to 'create something equivalent to white porcelain and celadon in pottery'.(16) His recent works show that he is approaching this creative horizon. He has constructed a world in which you do not see anything particular on the surface, yet you do see a number of layers underneath, the spaces created by these layers, Iight that goes across the spaces, and darkness that is the counterpart of the light, combined in a world where these elements interplay. Takahashi appears to have reached a stage where he no longer needs to seek for coexistence between the materials he uses and his will, they clash harmoniously mirroring the harmony of contradictory elements in Nature.
Takahashi uses his work to realise a painting as a surface with a material existence, thereby allowing him to pursue the expression of space, Iight and darkness inherent within painting. They also aim to explore the emergence of that surface as part of a spiritually profound world in which the artist desires to communicate with others. In a contemporary postmodern society, overflowing with information, those who undertake such a quest are probably many.
Thus reviewing Takahashi's life as an artist and investigating his work reveals an example of an artist contextualised within a Japanese modernism, whose work indicates one of the possibilities within this context. Takahashi has remained faithful to his own sensibilities, and applied a creative process that was not exactly traditional Western painting. He has, however, reached and stayed within the principles of painting with vital developments that show no contradictions between this method and his Eastern and Japanese sensibilities or absolute visual pitch. Without falling into a mere singular 'oriental' inclination or so-called superficial Japonisme, his creations have succeeded in expressing his absolute individuality; thereby gaining a universal quality. These notions are not successfully articulated by exclusively using verbai language but should be confirmed by the viewers standing in front of his paintings.
Needless to say, since Western conceptions of art were implanted in Japan in the Meiji era, Japanese artists have been struggling to either assimilate it, or create their own paradigm with which to confront it. The aforementioned younger generation of artists, who emerged at the forefront of the Japanese art scene in the 1990s, have responded to this essential issue by casting a sidelong glance at it and then lightly striding over it. Other artists, including Takahashi, have challenged it not by striding over the issue, but by passing through it. Takahashi has carried out this task by being thoroughly individual, exploring the self and relying on his own absolute visual pitch.
It might be possible to replace 'absolute visual pitch' with the term 'tradition'. The relationship between contemporary Japanese art and tradition is a key issue in understanding a Japanese modernism, but has not yet been sufficiently investigated. Conducting future studies about this relationship will be important in fostering an understanding of Japanese creators such as Takahashi. Creations rooted in non-Western soil have been discussed in postmodern discourses, but a firm methodology has not yet been established. Closer examinations of the work of individual artists will allow for the future growth and development of this area.
For the titles of both published and unpublished materials referred to in the following notes, where these were only written in Japanese, the original Japanese titles appear, followed by the English translations, by the author, in brackets.
- When asked about the relationship between his work and Japanese or Eastern cultural tradition, Takahashi observed: 'l have been influenced by sumie (ink painting) and yakimono (pottery). Particularly by the surface, existence and physical actuality of yakimono. Its existence is one that you can feel not only visually but also physically. In sumie, for example, in a painting of peony flowers, there is nothing other than the depicted peony flowers as metaphor and in fact those are straightforwardly charged with all the spirituality that the painting intends to convey. This differs from painting based on the Western spatial sense. I feel that these created my approach to art, that is my so-called absolute pitch about painting. These completed my standards. The surface of yakimono and the peony flowers mean the same eventually and these designate the creator's way of expressing and charging'. He also stated as follows: 'l would like to think even the so-called contemporary art from the viewpoint of a thousands-year flow of art I would believe that absolute pitches existed there. I feel my absolute pitch is part of the Eastern one. There are African absolute pitches for those who were born in Africa and also Western absolute pitches for those who were born in the West.' Referred to in the interview with Takahashi on 20th April 2001.
- Yoshito Takahashi, 'Memories of the Unseen' (unpublished artist statement, 1999).
- Quoted from the following: Shigeto Oshida, Tôi Manazashi (Distant Look) (Tokyo: Jiyûsha, 1983).
- See Note 2.
- Concerning this period of his self-formation, see both Note 2 and the interview with Takahashi on 29th October 2002.
- Yoshito Takahashi, 'Untitled' (unpublished artist statement, 1984). It should be mentioned that Insik Quac greatly inspired Takahashi's exploration of Eastern artistic approaches under the dominance of the Western artistic influence in those days. See Yoshito Takahashi, 'Kaku Sensei wo Omoi' (Remembering the Mentor Quac), in Kaku Inshikku 'Tsuitô Bunshû - Shinobu' (Insik Quac 'Collection of Memories -Recollecting'), ed. by Kaku Inshikku wo Shinobu-kai [This is a private group that was temporarily set up for the publication] (Tokyo: Gallery Q, 1989), pp.29-30.
- Katsuhiko Yokoyama conducted a sharp analysis of Takahashi's methods, and evaluated his work of this period in the following review: Katsuhiko Yokoyama, 'Takahashi Yoshito (Reviews)' [Japanese review despite the seemingly English title], bijutsu Techô, 620(February 1990), 211-212
- For example, Haruo Sanda appreciated Takahashi in terms of 'his attitude of exploring the painting's formation' when a Takahashi's solo exhibition was held at the Tokyo Gallery in 1993. See Haruo Sanda, 'Dainamikku na Gamen'(The Dynamic Pictures), Mainichi Shimbun, 12 March 1993(evening edition)
- Joseph Love, 'The World of Wind: Pictures of Yoshito Takahashi'[Despite the English title, this is the Japanese text that was translated from an unpublished English original text], in Yoshito Takahashi Exhibit (Hokkaido: former Laboratory/current Gallery Miyashita, 1985), [n.p.].
- Yoshito Takahashi, 'Arugamama ni Arukoto - Môichido Heimen e'(Being as I Am - Towards Bidimension Again) [Artist Statement], in Hokkaido Gendai Sakka-ten (Exhibition of Contemporary Artists in Hokkaido) (Sapporo: Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art, 1986).p. 17. This statement was featured also in the following exhibition catalogue: New Trends, Setagaya no Shinsedai (New Trends: The New Generation in Setagaya) (Tokyo: Setagaya Art Museum, 1987),pp. 18-19.
- See Note 2.
- Referred to in the interview with Takahashi on 20th April 2001.
- Referred to in the interview with Takahashi on 29th October 2002.
- To further examine the characteristics of Takahashi as painter, refer particularly to: Kazuo Nakabayashi, 'On Painting', in A Perspective on Contemporary Art, Painting - Singular Object (Tokyo: National Museum of Modern Art, 1995), pp 23-29.
- Referred to in the interview with Takahashi on 28th June 1999.
- Referred to in the interview with Takahashi on 20th April 2001.
( I am very grateful to Carla Tsampiras for her proofreading work and sincere intellectual input. )