Yoshiaki Shimizu (Part 1): The Harvard Years

By Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Yoshiaki Shimizu (1936-2021)  is best known today as a historian of Japanese art. The Marquand Professor of Art and Archaeology Emeritus at Princeton University, Shimizu led a distinguished career as a university professor and museum curator, with numerous scholarly publications and exhibitions to his name. Part 1 of "Irresolution: The Paintings of Yoshiaki Shimizu," which represents the first retrospective exhibition of Shimizu’s artistic career.

Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Yoshiaki Shimizu (1936-2021) is best known today as an historian of Japanese art. The Marquand Professor of Art and Archaeology Emeritus at Princeton University, Shimizu led a distinguished career as a university professor and museum curator, with numerous scholarly publications and exhibitions to his name. Less well known is the fact that for approximately one decade spanning the late 1950s and early 1960s, Shimizu pursued a career as an artist, leaving behind a corpus of remarkable abstract paintings that engaged and enriched many of the artistic ideas current at the time. Moreover, his peregrinations through the contrastive cultural environments of Cambridge (Massachusetts), New York, Hamburg, and Kyoto illuminated both the commonalities and acute misalignments of the various art worlds around the globe circa 1960.

Irresolution by Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Shimizu’s canvases, in their embrace of multiple modes of abstraction, uniquely convey the richness of this heterogeneity. They also speak of the ways in which abstract painting served as a complex vehicle through which artists of diverse backgrounds could situate themselves in—and were situated by—the contemporary art world. Irresolution: The Paintings of Yoshiaki Shimizu, mounted at the Reischauer Institute in Fall 2017, represented the first retrospective exhibition of Shimizu’s artistic career. This short essay, based in part upon extensive conversations and interviews with Shimizu over the course of three years (2015-17), serves as a tribute to Shimizu, who passed away on January 20, 2021, an introduction to a corpus of art that deserves to be better known, and one pathway through an historical era that merits deeper understanding.

The Harvard Years by Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

The Harvard Years

By the time he arrived at Harvard College for his freshman year in the fall of 1955, Shimizu was already widely traveled. Born in 1936 to a family of educators in Tokyo, he was raised in an environment that emphasized learning and discipline. His father, Shimizu Mamoru (1908-2012), was a prominent linguist specializing in Biblical and English literature—he was an editor of the  Kodansha Japanese-English dictionary, and his many writings included the concordances to Shakespeare’s plays. His mother, Shimizu Michiko (1912-2006), was an ikebana teacher who  hailed from a family of progressive educators in Kyushu. For two years during his childhood Shimizu and his family would leave war-torn Tokyo and take refuge in Kumamoto. After the war, Shimizu attended Seikei Gakuen, a leading private school  in Tokyo.

Prince Takamatsu and Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Although few of his activities at this time suggested predestination toward an artistic career, one highlight of his teenage years was the All-Japan Junior High School English Oratorical Contest in 1950, for which he received a prize from Prince Takamatsu, the younger brother of Emperor Hirohito.

Ode to the Nymph of the Luo RiverEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Shimizu was also an avid calligrapher, studying with the prominent calligrapher Kamijō Shinzan (1907-1997). The sureness of his brushwork is attested to by a hanging scroll, created at age sixteen, inscribing the opening lines of “Ode to the Nymph of the Luo River” by the Chinese poet- prince Cao Zhi (192-232).

Untitled by Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

In 1953, Shimizu traveled to the United States at age seventeen to study at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, through a program recently established with Seikei. His designation as the third student to participate in this highly selective program reflected the promise his instructors saw in him. The two years Shimizu spent in the bucolic setting of St. Paul’s were formative, constituting his first immersive experience in a foreign country and providing him with direct exposure to the elite Anglo-Saxon culture of the Northeast. Although Shimizu recalled his adjustment to life at the Episcopalian boarding school as difficult and isolating, the experience was also marked by genuine mentorship.

Untitled by Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Based upon his experiences at St. Paul’s, Shimizu appears to have brought a burgeoning interest in art with him to Harvard. The environment he encountered there, Shimizu would later recall, was intimidating because he met “contemporaries who seemed older and more sure of themselves” and made him “acutely aware that [he] was not ready for the four-year undergraduate career.” Although he also recalled Harvard offering little to aspiring artists, it was there that he would be exposed suddenly and intensively to different currents of modernist art. At the time, art instruction at the university had been influenced by the ideas of Walter Gropius, who founded the German art school Bauhaus and taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design from 1937 to 1952. Among those who came to Harvard at Gropius’s recommendation were figures such as architect Marcel Breuer and German-born photographer and painter T. Lux Feininger (1910-2011). The son of Lyonel Feininger, a prominent Bauhaus artist and instructor, T. Lux had studied painting under celebrated modernists such as Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee.

Nocturnal View by Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

During the late 1950s, Feininger taught something similar to a Bauhaus Basic Course at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, where Shimizu enrolled in studio art courses (Fine Arts 16 and 18) during his freshman and sophomore years. Thus, during these years Shimizu was essentially trained as a Bauhaus-style artist, developing a keen interest in all forms of design and visual empathy. His tutelage under Feininger left a strong imprint on Shimizu’s early works, such as “Nocturnal View of Martin Street,” which conveys a Bauhaus-like sensibility to the play of light, the floating Klee-like forms of “Untitled,” and the Kandinsky-esque “Self-Portrait.”

Wind ChildEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Another early canvas, “Wind Child,” reveals Shimizu’s attraction to German Expressionism.

Self-portrait by Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

In the summer of 1956, following his freshman year, Shimizu enrolled in an art school in Woodstock, NY, sponsored by the Art Students League of New York (later renamed the Woodstock School of Art). The school had been built by the federal government in 1939 as a crafts training center under the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program, and would later play a crucial role in training artists from Norman Rockwell and Thomas Hart Benton to Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, and others. There Shimizu received academic training under the realist painter Frank Riley and received his first exposure to the Hudson River School in the heartland of traditional American landscape painting, experiences that appear to have cemented Shimizu’s determination to focus on painting.

Ben ShahnEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

During his sophomore year, while continuing to take studio art courses with Feininger, Shimizu encountered another formative influence, Lithuanian-born American artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969), who was in residence at Harvard to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1956-57. Shahn kept a studio at the Fogg Museum, where he would meet with the many student-artists who sought him out.

C'est le temps que tu as perdu by Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

As Shimizu became close to him, Shahn’s influence would steadily infuse his art-making. Shahn’s interest in sacred alphabets, for example, can be witnessed in “C’est le temps que tu as perdu,” which is based on the text of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince.

Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Shimizu also tried his hand at the kind of distorted figuration that Shahn was known for, as witnessed in a work titled “Climbers,” recorded in a photograph. More than anything, however, Shahn’s presence was meaningful to Shimizu in terms of his embodiment of artistic conviction. Shahn was a Social Realist who championed social engagement and the use of art against injustices of all kinds. Ever outspoken, he held strong views on myriad subjects ranging from nonconformity as a precondition for art to the presence of the artist in public. As Shimizu later reminisced, “Shahn’s almost fatherly stature and presence gave me a sense of connectedness to the outside world.”

Self-portraitEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

During this time, Shimizu was situated in an ideal environment for experimentation and artistic development, encountering stimulation from all directions, surrounded by curious classmates for whom he painted endlessly and a readymade array of models and resources in the Fogg Art Museum.

Two BirdsEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Whatever caught his fancy could serve as the genesis of an artistic idea, such as “Two Birds,” a work that was based upon a relief sculpture from a Coptic architectural capital displayed in the Fogg stairwell at the time. Eventually, however, Shimizu grew frustrated at his inability to devote himself full-time to art-making, leading him to take a leave of absence from Harvard in the fall of 1957. Shahn’s influence must have encouraged the decision, as Shahn himself had once declared, “I have come to Harvard with some very serious doubts as to whether I ought to be here at all.” Shimizu stayed in the Boston area to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, before briefly returning to Harvard in the spring of 1958 and then departing the university for a longer leave of absence, this time lasting four years.

Dancing HaniwaEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

It was during this period (1957-58) of disenchantment with student life that Shimizu committed himself to a career as a painter. He embarked upon various kinds of formal experimentation, resulting in canvases that differed widely in appearance. One notable series was inspired by ancient Japanese figurines known as haniwa, which Shimizu first encountered while looking through an art history publication.

Haniwa Figure in the Form of a Standing WarriorEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Haniwa are terracotta figures that were buried in the tombs (tumuli mounds) of clan leaders throughout the Japanese archipelago from the third to sixth centuries CE, before the spread of Buddhism and new kinds of burial practices. During the twentieth century, they became widely studied and collected, and were situated along with Jōmon-era pottery as the earliest examples of prehistoric Japanese art.

Memorial Cenotaph (1955)Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Haniwa were a source of fascination for Japanese modernists because of their semi-abstract forms, mysterious ritual functions, and association with prehistoric Japanese artistry. The Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi was captivated by haniwa and during the 1950s would base several of his ceramics and sculptures upon them, including his design for the Memorial Cenotaph in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Tange Kenzō would eventually adopt Noguchi’s design, which is modeled upon the saddle-shaped rooftops of haniwa houses, for the final version of the cenotaph.

Angry Haniwa (1957/1958)Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Enchanted by their hieratic beauty and archetypal expressions, Shimizu used haniwa as the basis for a sequence of works that showcased their expressive potential. These works were mostly executed in watercolor and pen on paper and given titles such as “Angry Haniwa,” “Thinking Haniwa,” “Mother and Child Haniwa,” and “Dancing Haniwa.”

Family of Haniwa by Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

“Family of Haniwa” is a rare surviving work from the series that showcases Shimizu’s interest in floating his figural forms against a frenetic ground of light and dark and patches of color reminiscent of Joan Miró.

Haniwa Trying to Write Characters in the AirEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

The bohemian transformation of the haniwa model in “Haniwa Trying to Write Characters in the Air” bears testimony to the artist’s often whimsical approach to his subjects. Ultimately the subject of haniwa figurines offered Shimizu an ideal vehicle by which to pursue painting that was both abstract and figural at the same time.

Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

During his undergraduate years Shimizu participated in several group exhibitions at Dudley House and Adams House and was featured in The Harvard Crimson.

Shimizu at an exhibition of his work in Schuster's Art GalleryEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

He was also supported by Paul Schuster, a painter who opened the first commercial art gallery in Cambridge in the early 1950s. Schuster’s Art Gallery was located on Palmer Street, above the Poet’s Theater behind the Harvard Coop (later relocated to Mt. Auburn Street). Based upon his experiences in the Norwegian Merchant Marine and wartime sojourns in India, China, and Burma, Schuster had wide exposure to cultural traditions around the world. Antiquities and folk art from myriad cultural traditions could be found in his gallery, as well as the work of young artists whom he championed. Indeed, Schuster arranged Shimizu’s first one-person show in April of 1958 and featured Shimizu in his exhibitions well into the 1960s.

Shimizu at an exhibition of his work in Schuster's Art GalleryEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Soon after he was featured at Schuster’s Art Gallery, Shimizu traveled to Germany to study art at Hamburg’s Landeskunstschule (State School of Art, now known as the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg, or University of Fine Arts of Hamburg). (Shimizu would just miss The Beatles’ residency in Hamburg, which George Harrison would call “the naughtiest city in the world.”) Undoubtedly inspired to study in Germany by his Bauhaus-style education, Shimizu eagerly sought out works by German Expressionists, especially those by Emil Nolde (1867-1956), which led, as the artist later recalled, to a memorable visit to the Nolde Stiftung (Nolde Museum) in Seebüll.

"Two Watermelon Eaters" and the Artist Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

In terms of his artistic formation, however, Shimizu would cite his encounter with Abstract Expressionism at Berlin’s Hochschule für Bildende Künste in September of 1958 as a significant turning point during his time in Germany. There he witnessed the exhibition “New American Painting,” organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and sponsored by the U.S. State Department, which showcased American avant-garde artists such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. Shimizu was especially taken by the scale and energy of Pollock’s canvases, “many of them so huge that they took up an entire wall of the gallery,” remembering that the experience was akin to “seeing flickering and sparkling lights against dark spaces, a swirling map of constellations.”

Boats in a Harbor by Yoshiaki ShimizuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Until that moment Shimizu had been only dimly aware of Pollock, having heard rumors of his death when studying at the Art Students League two summers earlier. This encounter impressed upon him the possibility of attempting something “totally fresh and free” while maintaining a “rigorously structured space defined by the tactility of paint.” One cannot help but note the irony of the young artist’s discovery of American painting as the most formative experience of his European sojourn. Indeed, the encounter played a role in hastening Shimizu’s return to the United States, spurred by the recognition that only immersion in the foment of the New York art world would allow him to engage with the artistic ideas he found so exhilarating. Although no works have survived from his stay in Hamburg, “Boats in Harbor” was created at the German naval port of Kiel during his return to the U.S. Sketched with a rapidograph, a technical pen used for architectural and engineering drawings, the work was sold in order to fund his travel across the Atlantic.

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