On ViewNoguchi Museum
March 10 – May 23, 2021
Long Island City
At the age of 99, master calligrapher and sumi-e artist Koho Yamamoto is having her first museum show at the Noguchi Museum. Curated by Dakin Hart, 10 paintings are exhibited in an intimate gallery and reflect a humble selection from her life-long practice. They are dark and mysterious, infused with intimate moments that reveal her powerful resilience and endurance through hardship. One feels Yamamoto’s social struggles as much as the joys of innovation in the medium, and above all the sense of healing materialized through her use of the ink and the vibrations of her simple yet complex gestures.
The blackness of the pigment made of soot and animal glue has been important to Yamamoto ever since she learned Japanese calligraphy and painting in the internment camps on the west coast in the 1940s. It is a color of the mind suitable for a postwar artist looking to make a first mark after the destruction that ensued and the intensity felt after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. The meditative philosophy of Zen Buddhism has influenced more than one generation of artists seeking to understand the balance offered by the void. This was a time when many artists were looking inward and exhibiting the self more overtly onto a surface, or an arena, a place for action. The calligraphic strokes found in Eastern script and the large washes of sumi-e that one can observe in Yamamoto’s works are akin to the all-over, expressionist brush, drip, stained, spontaneous and experimental abstract works of the downtown New York artists whom Yamamoto lived and worked alongside after 1945.
There is a sense of inner freedom in Yamamoto’s works on rice paper, some of which are purely abstract, others representational. The skin of rice paper for one of the paintings is layered, collaged, extended, and wrinkled, revealing work that is unafraid of imperfection and preciousness. Though small and light in material these 10 paintings carry heaviness and massiveness in their washy density and slashes of sumi. In Yamamoto’s largest work (none of the works are titled or dated), the angular slashes of dark sumi evoke a battlefield and are closer to the visual language of Franz Kline than the arabesque dancing of Jackson Pollock and Henri Michaux. In the collaged work one may see the suggestion of a moonscape (or black sun) but just as equally an abstract non-objective expression; the work is caught between worlds. The gesture moves from deep black to grey suggesting the stroke exists at two different points in time or more simply, a change in light. The dominance of deep black and gray strokes over gray washes and whites in Yamamoto’s works are reminiscent of imaginary mind landscapes.
There are two works where the circle holds the center. The density and the darkness of one with a circular center suggests a cosmic eye or crescent moon peeping from behind. This contrasts with the openness of the other work’s thin circular and linear lines, while leaving room for a cluster of inky bleeding dots to breathe out into the cosmos. There is a rebellion felt in this medium, one she shares with some of the earlier Gutai artists.
Moving from work to work reveals a close affinity between Yamamoto’s visual language with the compositional choices in postwar drawings by John Cage, Yayoi Kusama, Henri Michaux, Saburo Murakami, Otto Piene, Robert Rauschenberg, David Smith, among others. Black and white drawings by these cross-continental artists are currently exhibited in Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury curated by Samantha Friedman and on view at MoMA until June 5, 2021. Yamamoto’s work starts from nothingness and, as curator Hart writes, her “whole body of work is a deceptively harrowing embrace of the void—in the form of irresolvable darknesses—and the relentless passage of time—in the form of decay and disintegration.” Recognition has been a long time coming for this artist, and though her work has found its moment, one hopes that a more expansive presentation is not far away.