In Tokyo one day last summer, Los Angeles independent curator Noriko Fujinami stumbled into a colleague from back home. Curator Judi Freeman of the L.A. County Museum of Art had flown to Japan on business too.
The same thing happened to Howard Fox. Last fall the County Museum of Art curator ran into Alexandra Munroe, an independent curator from New York, six times in one week.
Freeman and another associate experienced an uncanny number of near-miss meetings. Whether at a gallery in Kyoto or a museum in Nagoya, there, on the reception desk, Freeman would find a business card belonging to Mary Jane Jacob, curator at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.
None of these curators thought they’d be hot on the heels of one another. However, plenty of planning and forethought--in the East as well as in the West--had drawn them and many others to Japan.
As a result of Japan’s economic ascendancy and new global stature, historic Japanese culture is more visible in America’s museum and galleries than ever before. But Fox and most of his colleagues on recent Far East trips weren’t there to scrutinize ancient scroll paintings or search out tiny netsuke sculpture.
Contemporary art from Japan, relatively unknown to Americans, is now the focus of intense, growing interest and activity here. It has commanded the attention of an increasing number of art officials whose presence in Japan parallels a surge of major contemporary exhibitions and programs at institutions nationwide, two most prominent among them in Los Angeles.
“There is an unprecedented coincidence of curatorial activity in this country that is looking to Japan,” Munroe said.
American galleries (including Space in West Hollywood), community centers specializing in Asian art, other smaller institutions and occasionally museums have staged contemporary Japanese art exhibits in the past.
But now, more and more galleries and non-specialized venues are entering the game, and significantly, large, mainstream institutions are simultaneously organizing extensive projects.
Among the undertakings:
* The first major U.S. exhibit of contemporary Japanese art in 18 years, “Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties,” is scheduled to open at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this June and travel to five other American institutions.
* The County Museum of Art has scheduled an exhibit of large-scale sculpture made of organic materials to open there in June, 1990, and travel to two or three other American museums. It is tentatively titled “The Primal Spirit: Ten Contemporary Japanese Sculptors.”
* The Museum of Contemporary Art is developing an ongoing program, the first of its kind anywhere, Jacob said. It is designed to include Japanese art in its various activities, with programming slated to start in late 1990. Exchange with Japan is key to the project.
* The Western States Arts Federation, an association that brings art to 13 Western states, is a partner in the MOCA project. Thus, many of their activities may be presented in much of the Western United States.
* The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was recently awarded a major grant from Japanese real estate developer Mitsui Fudosan (U.S.A.) Inc., to send its architecture and design curator to Japan. Its officials plan at least one exhibit on the subject for the early 1990s.
* Smaller projects include an exchange exhibit curated by Fujinami planned for 1990 or 1991 at an undetermined Los Angeles site. And, Vermont’s Brattleboro Museum has launched a sculpture exhibit that’s traveling through New England.
Though a variety of reasons explain the phenomena, the new U.S. focus on contemporary art from Japan has not been an accident. Behind the myriad American curatorial visits has been a conscious effort by the Japanese to generate international attention for their country’s contemporary art.
Fox’s first trip to Japan four years ago was paid for by Tokyo’s Museum of Modern Art, which flew him out to lecture on Western contemporary art and tour museums. And, while he had entertained thoughts of an exhibit, nothing jelled until Toshio Hara, founder of the Tokyo museum that bears his name, flew here with an offer.
“Mr. Hara came to me two years ago and said he was interested in having someone curate an exhibit,” said Fox, the County Museum of Art’s curator of contemporary art. “He expressed the hope that our museum would show it and that it would tour elsewhere in the U.S.”
The Hara Museum, which is co-organizing Fox’s exhibit to debut at its extension gallery in Gunma Prefecture next spring, just completed a two-year program (funded by the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, a federal agency) during which it invited a number of prominent curators and critics to Japan to introduce them to contemporary Japanese art.
Thomas Sokolowski, director of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and co-curator of “Against Nature,” was one of 10 Americans to take a funded trip to Japan in 1986. His trip, however, was sponsored by the Japan Foundation, the cultural promotion arm of the Japanese government.
Sokolowski’s invitational letter emphasized the modern arts of Japan, “in the hope that this will arouse greater recognition, appreciation and cultural exchange in this field.”
Three of the professionals Sokolowski traveled with, including co-curator Kathy Halbreich, work or then worked at museums that will host “Against Nature,” a 10-person exhibit organized by New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and the List Visual Arts Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A fourth, Kay Larsen, is editor of Artcoast, a magazine premiering this month that focuses on contemporary visual arts in the Pacific Rim.
The Japan Foundation has also invited groups from West Germany and Great Britain. The latter’s Museum of Modern Art at Oxford staged an exhibit of post-war Japanese art a year after a 1985 British caravan, Sokolowski said.
Not everyone now eyeing Japan’s emerging art was initially wooed with free trips, however. Experts cite an explosion of artistic activity and Japan’s new worldwide high profile as chief among other reasons for the new focus.
“We know about Japanese economy, about Japanese technology and about Japanese ascendence diplomatically,” Fox said, “naturally we’re interested in their contemporary culture.”
“There is much more activity there in terms of galleries and museums,” said Jacob, MOCA chief curator.
Locally, the large Japanese American population in Los Angeles and Japanese visiting or working here adds to the impetus.
MOCA, for instance, with its Temporary Contemporary in Little Tokyo and its Bunker Hill building designed by leading Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, has a longstanding relationship with the Japanese and the Japanese American community, Jacob said. In 1986, it hosted “Tokyo: Form and Spirit” an exhibit organized by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, and plans to showcase Isozaki’s work in early 1991.
“We were in the midst of the Japanese community and wanted to investigate whether this was an area of exhibition and educational programming,” Jacob said, explaining MOCA’s initial interest.
A shift away from “Euro-centric” thinking and increasing awareness of all Pacific Rim cultures--indeed, a new curiosity about the avant-garde anywhere in the world--is also at work.
It’s really part of a trend that began in the late 1970s when America, which dominated contemporary art from the late 1950s through the 1960s, “rediscovered” Europe where a refluence was under way, Fox said.
“We are becoming interested in what’s going on artistically almost anywhere,” he said. “I’m wondering what’s going on in Taiwan, in India, in the Third World countries.”
In addition, Japan’s prominence in architecture and design as well as interest in its film and literature have sparked curiosity about its contemporary art, said Munroe, now curating a retrospective of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, one of Japan’s foremost modernists, to open this November in Japan.
“The Japanese have also been so active in the art market,” voraciously snatching Impressionist and contemporary works at auction, she added. (In 1987, a Japanese insurance company bought Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” for $39 million.)
Economic gain may be playing a part too, others suggest. Japanese companies are supporting increasing numbers of American art projects, such as the $12.7 million construction of the County Museum of Art’s Pavilion for Japanese art, to which Japanese corporations contributed about $3.5 million.
Said Rand Castile, director of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum: “Americans are looking (to Japan) in part because of the Japanese economic dominance internationally. . . . Museums are always looking for shows and shows that can be funded.”
Not surprisingly, American museum officials unanimously agree that the driving motive for their interest is not economic, but artistic.
In many ways, Europe has led America in the new focus, said Judith Connor Greer, assistant to the director of the Hara Museum. Many of the artists in the County Museum of Art’s exhibit may have had some limited U.S. exposure. But most have taken part in museum-size exhibitions in France, Germany and Italy, or in such venerable international art events as the Venice Biennale.
Also, the American art world has looked at Japanese post-war art before. Among major exhibits were “New Japanese Painting and Sculpture” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1966, and the Guggenheim Museum’s 1971 show, the last major exhibit of contemporary Japanese art in the U.S.
But previously, the interest was in specific movements and artists, from Abstract Expressionism to Conceptualism, Munroe said.
“This time it’s not any specific school being introduced or any specific influence,” she said. “It’s just a real acceptance and interest” generally.
And the result of it all?
Certainly a need for more scholarship, said Jerry Yoshitomi, executive director of Los Angeles’ Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
Greater integration of Japanese art into the international dialogue, others say.
“In the next five years, I think you’ll see a higher number of solo shows,” Connor Greer said. “Then I think people will start incorporating Japanese artists into a more international view of the arts. At the moment they are isolated” in nationalistic exhibits.
Another result will be new ideas about Japanese culture overall, Munroe said.
“Despite the enormous influx of Japanese products in this country and the enormous play Japanese industry and politics have in our media,” she said, “I think Americans remain quite ignorant of and befuddled by Japanese life, and there is still a desire on the part of Americans to wish for Japanese culture to be exotic, remote, decorative, spiritual and old.”
“I think we’re going to see that Japanese culture is modern, hip, informed, controversial, advanced, complex and challenging.”
This special report was edited by David Kishiyama, an assistant Calendar editor