Yoshiaki Shimizu (Part 2): Nipponism

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 2 of "Irresolution: The Paintings of Yoshiaki Shimizu," which represents the first retrospective exhibition of Shimizu’s artistic career.

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

In the fall of 1958, once back in the United States, Shimizu’s artistic trajectory took yet another major turn upon his witnessing the exhibition “Contemporary Painters of Japanese Origin in America” at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Boston. Organized by Thomas Messer, then director of the ICA, it brought together the works of seven Japanese artists—Sabro (Saburo) Hasegawa, Genichiro Inokuma, Yutaka Ohashi, Kenzo Okada, James Suzuki, Teiji Takai, and Noriko Yamamoto—who were associated with various forms of abstract painting at the time. All were fairly well established either on the West Coast or in New York. Messer proposed the term “Nipponism” to designate what he viewed as a distinctive type of abstract painting with qualities that were contrastive to Abstract Expressionism, namely a soft, muted palette, decorative sensibility, and tranquil, dignified atmosphere. Messer associated these qualities with the artists’ Japanese backgrounds, which he claimed equipped them with a unique sensibility and knowledge of Japanese pictorialism. The exhibition made a deep impression on Shimizu and engendered a shift in his work from semi-abstraction to pure abstraction.

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

The artists who participated in the Nipponism exhibition were of diverse backgrounds; many were a generation older than Shimizu and had emigrated to New York during the 1950s. Sabro Hasegawa (1906-1957), who had passed away the year before the ICA exhibition, established himself in the 1950s as a practitioner of calligraphy and monochrome painting. His lectures on Asian art in New York were attended by Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, among others. Genichiro Inokuma (1902-1993) arrived in New York in 1955 after a long career working in and teaching oil painting in Japan. Once in New York, Inokuma would quickly make a turn to abstraction and forge an inimitable corpus embedding mythic Japanese folk images in an abstract idiom resonant with Matisse’s late works. Kenzo Okada (1902-1982) arrived in New York in 1950 and promptly developed, with the support of gallerist Betty Parsons, a mode of abstract painting that was perhaps most representative of the general idea of Nipponism.

While few of Shimizu’s paintings from his Nipponism period survive, a number of works trace the evolution of his practice of all-overness into a more brush-driven, softly dynamic manner.

Homage to EitokuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Shimizu met Inokuma and Suzuki at the exhibition’s opening and would later recount how much of a revelation the experience was. Soon afterward Shimizu moved to New York as a “newcomer to nonfigurative painting” and sought out many of the artists featured in the ICA show, receiving advice from Inokuma and developing a close friendship with Suzuki.

Shimizu’s works began to adopt certain features associated with Okada’s and Suzuki’s paintings, namely the all-over distribution of small units of marks and pastel colors to shape space and bring a sense of quiet, mesmerizing movement to the canvas. Although he painted primarily in oils on canvas, he would occasionally invoke Japanese formats such as the byōbu (folding screen) by affixing two four-feet-square panels together, as seen in the photo of his now-lost “Homage to Eitoku,” taken in June or July of 1960.

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

One characteristic shared by the artists grouped under Nipponism, aside from ethnic background, was a shared proclivity to associate their art-making with Japanese pictorialism in one way or another. To this end, they were knowledgeable about earlier Japanese artists. These references were meaningful in an American artistic and intellectual culture that valorized “Japan” and “Japaneseness” and associated these terms with influential philosophical positions and artistic practices, from spontaneous expression to concepts of void and continuum. Recognition of such figures had heightened due to a number of factors, including the popularity of Zen Buddhism, the increasing numbers of lectures and publications available to English-language audiences, and the frequency of exhibitions. Indeed, Shimizu would later write of the cultural impact of the 1953 exhibition “Japanese Painting and Sculpture” that traveled to five American cities to celebrate the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951.

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

Shimizu himself, despite invoking a famous painter of the Momoyama period (1568-1615) in his title “Homage to Eitoku,” was far more ambivalent than his colleagues in associating his own practice with Japaneseness. He experimented with different strategies of reference, including the occasional inscription of Sino-Japanese characters on the surfaces of his works. Even these instances, however, did not constitute authentic efforts to imbue abstract representation with cultural meaning. Take, for example, the case of the untitled work dated to 1962, in which the artist inscribed a phrase from the Chinese classic Records of the Grand Historian (C. Shiji) by Sima Qian (145/135-86 BCE) on the surface of an abstract representation. It is unclear whether the eight-character inscription was ever intended to instill in the work anything but a vague cultural resonance, if even that. The sequence of characters serves as the source from which Seikei, Shimizu’s Japanese high school, derived its name, and thus can be understood as a random act of associative writing drawn from childhood memory, a mnemonic inscription automatically generated by the artist’s hand. The overlay of script is more personalizing than Japanizing.

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

Ultimately, the term “Nipponism” did not endure as an art historical category, as the idea of grouping contemporary artists according to ethnicity proved dubious, and the artistic practices of those referred to as “Nipponists,” too disparate. Nipponism was significant to Shimizu because it alerted him to a natural cohort of associates with whom to explore his own modes of abstract painting. This encounter, in turn, allowed him to more meaningfully acknowledge and internalize what art historian Bert Winther-Tamaki, in reference to Isamu Noguchi, has called “a fluctuating sense of home.”

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