Wild Flowers, 1922 and Grapes in White Bowl, 1923
Published June 2020
Descriptions of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s early drawings included “puzzling,” “immaculate,” and “marvelous to behold.” As seen in Wild Flowers (1922) and Grapes in White Bowl (1923), his eccentric handling of space placed subjects in the center of a white page, making them appear detached from the world. These elegantly crafted still lifes–given to the museum in 1959–offer a window into the artist’s sophisticated technique and dreamlike compositions.
Born in 1889 in Okayama, Japan, Kuniyoshi asked his father for permission to immigrate to the United States, by himself at the age of 16, to avoid serving in the Japanese military. Not knowing what his future might look like, once he arrived in the US he took odd jobs–working in a railroad yard and harvesting grapes–before enrolling in the Los Angeles School of Art and Design. In 1910, he moved to New York to pursue his artistic training. At the Art Students League he studied with Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller and met the artist-collector Hamilton East Field. Field ran an artist’s colony in Ogunquit, Maine, and he invited Kuniyoshi to summer there in 1920. The rustic accommodations were furnished with local folk art, which in turn provided an unexpected source of inspiration for Kuniyoshi and fellow modernists who started collecting decorative and vintage objects and referencing them in their work.
Throughout his career, Kuniyoshi merged elements of his Japanese heritage with an enthusiasm for folk and modern art, a sensibility that is especially obvious in his elegant drawings, mostly still lifes, from the 1920s. As highly finished ink drawings they retain a connection to Japanese tradition while the sparseness and precisionist forms echo emerging qualities of modern American art. The extreme verticality of Wild Flowers and the rich, sooty blacks lend the drawing visual complexity and presence. As modernist critic Henry McBride perceptively noted in the New York Sun, “Kuniyoshi disturbs conventional art lovers…He is quite capable of indicating the color of a flower by a rich black… and his work is full of vivacity and life.”
The following year, Kuniyoshi began to introduce color into his drawings as seen in Grapes in White Bowl. With the faint tints of color, the grapes read as three-dimensional forms against the bowl, which seems largely two-dimensional. The compote or bowl itself seems to float in space, its odd shape again a product of the modernist tension between illusionism and flatness. Though understated in scale, the choice of imagery was personally significant and harkened back to the artist’s years in California harvesting grapes, “I used to go to the field very early, before sunrise, [when] the air is cool … and grapes are wet with dew. First thing I did was grab a soft slippery bunch and stuff as many into my mouth as it would hold. They were so juicy and cold.”
After decades as a successful American painter, Kuniyoshi found himself labeled an “enemy alien” after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. He recalled, “A few short days has changed my status in this country, although I myself have not changed at all.” Japanese on the east coast were not interned, but his camera was taken from him, his bank accounts were frozen, and he was prohibited from traveling outside of the New York area. Yet Kuniyoshi remained steadfastly on the side of his adopted country during the painful war years, working with the Office of War Information to create artworks indicting Japanese atrocities.
In 1947, Kuniyoshi became the first president of the Artists Equity Association (AEA), an organization established to protect artists’ economic well-being and livelihood. To achieve this mission, Kuniyoshi worked with leading artists of the day including Thomas Hart Benton, Paul Cadmus, Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, John Marin, Louise Nevelson, and John Sloan. Kuniyoshi’s life and work offer a reminder that the seeds of modern art in America were sown far and wide, shaped by a broad network of converging ideas and people. Schools such as The Art Students League brought together artists from urban and rural backgrounds with immigrant artists, allowing their experiences and ideas to mix and repel. The results inherently indexed–through visual art–the beauty and complexity of life, told from diverse perspectives.