For enthusiasts of art in the early 20th century, “Steps Ahead: Recent Acquisitions” at Artizon Museum through May 9th proves to be a rewarding visit. Since its reconstruction in 2015, the museum has been expanding its collection of masterpieces, particularly from the early 20th century to the contemporary period. For the current exhibition, 92 new acquisitions have been added and are being displayed for the first time, totaling the number of works to 201, plus 87 works from the collection of portrait photographs of artists. Works from the collection are showcased in 14 sections, including “Orientalism and Modern Japanese and Western Painting,” “Cubism,” “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” “Gutai Paintings,” and “Japanese Abstract Paintings.”
Notable works have been added to the section on Cubism, the revolutionary art era that evolved from around 1907-08. Primarily spearheaded by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the movement emphasized the two-dimensional flatness of the canvas in place of creating the illusion of depth. This section includes works by Paul Cézanne, (Mont Sainte-Victoire and Château Noir, c. 1904–06), Georges Braque (Pedestal Table, 1911) , and Pablo Picasso, (Bottle of Marc de Bourgogne, Wineglass, and Newspaper, 1913), a newly acquired Albert Gleizes (Woman with a Glove, c. 1922), and Jean Metzinger’s Still Life on the Pedestal Table (1916). Metzinger’s painting displays typical Cubism characteristics, showing early Cubism colors such as earth tones of red, orange, brown and green. Metzinger (1883-1956) was a French painter who was first influenced by Neo-Impressionism and Fauvism. Around 1908 he met the writer Max Jacob, who introduced him to Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. He was immensely influenced by Picasso and participated in Cubism exhibitions and wrote several articles on Cubism.
In the “Women of Abstract Expressionism” section, Elaine de Kooning’s Untitled (Bullfight) (1959) is a highlight. The artist portrays a bullfight scene from a trip to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Many of De Kooning’s drawings, watercolors, and paintings were inspired by bullfights. These works present vibrant and dynamic expressions of light and energy in abstract fields of bright colors. Although Jackson Pollock and De Kooning’s husband, painter Willem De Kooning, were the more visible figures of the postwar Abstract Expression movement, women artists also made major contributions. Because they were under-recognized, there was a profound cry for expressive freedom by female artists, who also included Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Although De Kooning dedicated a large part of her life to promoting her husband’s career, she also became accomplished as a landscape and portrait artist as well as an art critic.
In addition to acclaimed international artists such as Renoir, Degas, Miró, Calder, and Giacometti, with separate sections devoted to Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee, and Duchamp, the exhibition also pays tribute to Japanese artists from the early modern era. Takeji Fujishima (1867–1943) was a Japanese painter who contributed to the development of Japanese Romanticism and Impressionism within the “yoga,” or “Western-style” art movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He helped train the next generation of artists at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts and promoted new Western-style techniques and materials. In his oil painting Orientalism (1924), Fujishima expressed the “spirit of the East” in the 1920s by using images of women in Chinese dress to symbolize a modernized Japan. He elaborated the dress patterns and applied bright colors that exude an “Oriental” appearance. This style is also evident in his Reminiscence of the Tempyo Era (1902), which emphasized motifs based on eighth-century Buddhist statues, paintings, and Shosoin Imperial treasures. The pose of the woman in the painting is said to have been inspired by ancient Greek painting; it thus combines the influences of Eastern and Western antiquity.
The section “Gutai Paintings” recognizes Gutai as the first radical and artistic group in post-war Japan. Founded in 1954 by painter Jiro Yoshihara from Osaka, the group rejected traditional art styles and instead, explored new art forms in large-scale multimedia environments, performances, and theatrical events emphasizing the relationship between body and matter. Gutai stressed freedom of expression with innovative materials and techniques, and developed a new perspective on individuality and community. Sadamasa Motonaga (1922-2011) joined Gutai in 1955 and pursued a style that involved pouring paint onto a tilted canvas, producing contrasting primary colors and dynamic abstract images. This technique was applied to his work Untitled (1965), which shows three forms lined side by side against a pale painted background. The three heads resemble elements of morphology painted flat in multicolored shades of black, pink, and red.
Other Japanese artists featured in the exhibition include Seiki Kuroda, Shigeru Aoki, Hanjiro Sakamoto, Shunsuke Matsumoto, and Harue Koga. For followers of furniture design, a special section covers furniture by one of Japan’s most renowned designers of the 20th century, Shiro Kuramata (1934-1991). Kuramata was a pioneer in the use of industrial materials such as wire mesh, steel, acrylic, aluminum, and plexiglass. His unique pieces break free from conventional form and seem to float in an airy realm of transparency and lightness. He was also known as a surrealist and minimalist. On display are Kuramata’s How High the Moon (c. 1988), an elegant steel and copper-plated mesh chair with no interior frame or support and Expand Chair Set and Glass Table (1986) made of steel-expanded metal, glass, and copper-plated material.