Yoshiaki Shimizu (Part 3): The New York School

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 3 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

During Shimizu’s stay in New York, from the fall of 1958 to the beginning of 1962, the city offered no shortage of stimulation for ambitious young artists seeking experience and inspiration. Shimizu imbibed the fast-paced metabolism of the city and came into contact with a wide array of cultural figures, including Willem DeKooning and Allen Ginsberg. The Irish folk singer Liam Clancy was his roommate for a brief period, and Shimizu inherited the Bowery studio of the painter Jack Tworkov. For a while Shimizu also served as an assistant to the sculptor Milton Hebald (1917-2015). Bouncing from one apartment to another, he later recalled staying at the YMCA on 23rd Street and being forced to vacate an apartment on 84th Street in the middle of one winter night.

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

During these heady times, Shimizu became aware of the remarkable diversity of approaches to abstraction and eventually moved away from Nipponism to engage with new modes and techniques, including collage.

Joop SandersEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Of particular importance to Shimizu’s artistic development was his friendship with Joop Sanders, a Dutch-born painter whose approach resonated with the vigorous gestural abstraction of de Kooning. Shimizu recalls admiring the “clear structure” of Sanders’ paintings that had “evolved out of a preoccupation with the structured abstraction of de Kooning.”

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

At the time Sanders employed color and brushwork to continually reshape and restructure space, a process of ceaseless reinvention based upon a dialogic relationship between brushwork, line, and color. Shimizu’s own embrace of these ideas can be witnessed in a series painted with charcoal and gouache on paper.

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

But they were also apparent in works that were not necessarily characterized by brush-driven forms. Recently the 1963 work “Untitled” was rediscovered in the collection of the List Visual Arts Center at MIT. This large, striking canvas reflects an extension of the wide-ranging experimentation of Shimizu’s New York years and betrays a clear debt to the “multi-form” paintings of Mark Rothko. At the same time, embedded in the work is a critique of Rothko’s use of tranquil, blurred blocks of color (Shimizu would refer to them as “fluffy”) to generate a feeling of transcendence in the viewer. By this time Shimizu was more interested in imbuing his canvases with the sensation of movement and process, of a perpetual coming-into-existence.

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

At the beginning of 1962, Shimizu returned to Harvard to finish his undergraduate degree. According to the artist, the return was prompted by a lingering remorse for having abandoned his studies in the first place. Intriguingly, he also attributed his return to student life to the 1961 exhibition “Chinese Art Treasures” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he first encountered the monumental landscapes of the Northern Song period (960-1127), which inspired wonder and a desire to know more.

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

Shimizu would enroll in his first art history classes at Harvard in 1962-63, and he recalled being particularly taken by the instruction of James Ackerman and Max Loehr. Back in Cambridge, Shimizu lived in the house of the photographer Nick Dean and his wife Zibette on Martin Street and continued to paint actively. He participated in the Boston Arts Festival (for which Robert Motherwell, then teaching at Brandeis, served on the jury) and would exhibit jointly with Joop Sanders at Paul Schuster’s gallery in the spring of 1963.

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