Volume 19 Issue 45 | March 23 - 29, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Geoff Smith

Artist Naoto Nakagawa

The dualities, and dual exhibitions of Naoto Nakagawa

By Shane McAdams

Naoto Nakagawa’s personal journey through the New York art world over the past four decades is nearly as colorful as the palette for his hyper-dramatic, symbolic groupings of everyday objects currently hanging at White Box at 525 W. 26th Street. The show, entitled “Triple X: Extended, Exploded, Extracted – Naoto Nakagawa, 1965-1975,” runs concurrently, but not in association with “Scream of Nature” at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts in Tribeca. The shows are bookends for Nakagawa’s story of development, from the electric days of the New York avant-garde upon on his arrival from Japan and the ensuing maturation that brought him continually closer to the culture he left behind.

I caught up with Mr. Nakagawa at White Box and learned in the process of interviewing him that the dualities reflected in his art — introspection and expression, modernism and tradition, loud and quiet — are all equally reflected in the artist.

Your grandfather Kagaku Murakami was an esteemed ink painter in Japan. What, if any, influence did you take from his work?

When someone is as great as Kagaku Murakami, it’s not so much a question of what I personally absorbed, [as] he is a universal person. I was fortunate to receive inspiration and a deep understanding about life from his work and writing.

You were also born in Japan. What was it like there growing up?

It was a very interesting period because the world and Japan specifically were different places when I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s. I see a lot in common between the Japan I grew up in and China now. China has been very oppressed by Communist rule, but art has paved the way for progress. The ’50s in Japan were known as the golden era of film — all their great films were made during that time: Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon,” Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” Kenji Mizoguchi, etc. And in art, there was the Gutai Group. They were my neighbors — Jiro Yoshihara, Sadamasa Motonaga. I knew them as I grew up, but I was just too god damned young to participate.

The Gutai influenced — or were influenced by, depending on who you ask — ideas from the West, namely action painting. They were very rhapsodic about their affinity for Jackson Pollock. Were you also informed and interested in art beyond Japan?

Sure, I knew of Pollock and Rauschenberg. The Gutai were mainly interested in the position of this kind of expressionism as it related to performance. My appreciation for the Gutai was as the very first organized group to take performance art outside — to take the “happening” outdoors. Atsuko Tanaka, who just had a show last year at Paula Cooper, was one of the pioneers. The most famous piece she did was the one on the beach, in which she was covered with light bulbs. When she did it everyone was terrified that she was going to electrocute herself.

Was your work specifically influenced by the Gutai’s work?

Yes, definitely. The Gutai gave me the idea to use my body as part of the expression of the work. At the same time, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were in an exhibition in Japan in 1959.

So you knew what was happening in America and decided that you were going to jump a freighter and go see it for yourself?

Yeah, Japan was just too small for me. I knew I wanted to leave when I was 16, but it took me two years to get out. Both sides were suspicious of people trying to leave, so it took planning.

You couldn’t come and go freely at that time?

No. And on top of the restriction in trying to leave, the Japanese currency was worthless, so it was even more of an obstacle. I was actually planning on going to Paris initially, but after seeing de Kooning’s women, and especially Jasper Johns, I had to risk it. Something really struck me especially with these artists: I found that they connected images and marks with something sexual. Johns’ numbers weren’t clinical, they were luscious. Rauschenberg’s quilt looked like it had just been slept in.

Did you approach any of these artists once you came to the U.S.?

After arriving in New York City, the first artist I went to meet was Willem de Kooning. Later I met Hans Hoffman, too. I just showed up and knocked on their doors. But at that time I couldn’t speak much English at all.

So, you’re in New York, an entirely unfamiliar culture, at a time when the universal language of art is in a transitional period between the old Abstract Expressionist guard and the new image-based art. How did you manage to squeeze yourself into the fray?

I was very lucky. I met two people on that boat: One was a famous photojournalist named Eugene W. Smith, who had lived in Japan with his wife for two years. The other was a Fulbright student named Barbara White who had been studying the art of papermaking there. The first day I was in New York I stayed on the Bowery in a flop house. The Bowery then was nothing like today. There were hundreds of jobless drunks and drifters around. I came back to my place the second night, and the 500 dollars given to me by my father was gone. I had hidden it under my bed. I realize now that was the most obvious place for someone to look for valuables. But I was naive. Eugene, his wife, and Barbara let me know what to expect in New York. Eugene helped me find an apartment in New York and regularly had me over. They were like a second family to me.

Where did you work and how did you support yourself when you first arrived?

My first job was working at a wallpaper and candlestick factory, and I found other odd jobs, too.

What did your early United States work look like? What issues were you concerned with?

Throughout my forty years painting, one of my obsessions has been the relationship between man and nature. I’m interested in making tools and [having] man-made objects take on an organic quality. You can see [he points to one of his early paintings on the wall] this is a pencil and it’s becoming organic. The tools are an extension of man. The scissors, the pencils. That’s why the pencils are pink, to symbolize flesh. I did that in 1965 when I was 21.

I understand that some of the paintings that you are showing in “Triple X” were shown at OK Harris in Soho in one of your first major exhibitions.

Yes, many of these large-scale paintings of tools were shown at OK Harris. Ivan Karp saw the work and asked me to join his gallery in 1971. That reception for my first show was fantastic. Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and John Lennon were all there. It was a scene.

You can see that many of these paintings are concerned with the male and the female, man and nature. I was also very concerned at the time with windows and space — the window was a literal space inside the abstract space of the painting that symbolized a duality of something inside and something outside [which in turn] reflected my ideas about the organic and synthetic. These paintings also deal with the transition that was happening at the time between the concrete and the abstract in the general art world.

The show you have running at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts is of newer work that contrasts with the paintings at White Box. Although the color is high-key in both shows, the work Ethan Cohen is more directly concerned with nature. It seems quieter and more serene than these pieces.

In the early seventies I was really interested in Marshall McLuhan and his ideas about how modern urban life was becoming second nature to organic nature. I was very influenced by that concept. But something happened after this work metaphysically after 1972.

What did happen?

I was searching for a spiritual side to my work, maybe something from Eastern philosophy. I had too much of a struggle going on between West and East. I was reaching for some kind of spiritual connection. I stumbled onto a teacher of transcendental meditation. What was coming out so forcefully in the earlier work became quieter. It’s almost like I went to the other side of my own duality. And all of these are the seeds of what ended up with a greater involvement in a more personal relationship with nature.

Do you feel your work has been underappreciated over the years, and, if so, how do your feel about the recent showering of attention you’ve received with the concurrent exhibitions in New York?

I believe an artist’s fate is to pursue what he wants to investigate. I am always exploring the seen and unseen phenomena of this world. So I do enjoy being recognized, but I also know what I am seeking.

“Triple X” runs through March 31 at White Box, 525 W. 26th Street, 212-714-2347, and “Scream of Nature” runs through April 14 at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, 18 Jay St., 212-625-1250,

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