Shopping mall artist! Painter of tropical landscapes on luxury cars! Enlightened philanthropist! Pal of the stars! And now, visionary creator of a new forum at Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica! The multifaceted Hiro Yamagata may be the most perplexing character on Los Angeles’ arts scene.
“Myself, I don’t know what I’m doing now,” the 47-year-old Japanese-born artist said in an interview last week. Speaking in rapid-fire, heavily accented English, he cheerfully explained himself by saying, “I don’t care what people call me. Who I am is more important. Before I am an artist, I need to take care of myself. I don’t take that much seriously about art. To live, that’s the main thing. Bottom line, I don’t want to have a theory.”
That may not help some members of the arts crowd, who are having difficulty sorting him out.
On the one hand, they see Yamagata as an archetypal example of a familiar breed: the commercially successful artist who gets no respect from critics. After moving here from Paris in 1978, he became an official artist for various U.S. Olympic teams and the 1986 Statue of Liberty centennial, a painter of sports celebrity portraits and the hottest seller at Martin Lawrence Limited Editions Inc., a Van Nuys-based operator of shopping-mall art galleries. Indeed, his art was so popular in Japan and the United States during the mid-1980s that a forger copied it along with works by Marc Chagall, Joan Miro and Salvador Dali in a scam discovered by Yamagata himself when he saw fakes attributed to him in a Beverly Hills gallery.
A year ago, Yamagata finally got the art world’s attention--but not its approval--by hiring veteran L.A. art dealer Fred Hoffman as his agent and launching “Earthly Paradise,” an ongoing traveling exhibition of 1951-52 Mercedes-Benz Cabriolets that serve as canvases for splashy paintings. The show, which debuted last September at the Municipal Art Gallery, is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue with an introduction by poet Allen Ginsberg and an essay by Edward Leffingwell, former director of the Muni.
On the other hand, Yamagata is an extraordinarily generous supporter of social causes and adventurous arts programs. Professing no interest in charities that use a high percentage of donations for administration, he says he simply responds to requests from his friends. Through a foundation established in 1990 with proceeds from his art sales, he has donated $6 million to Joan Kennedy Smith’s Very Special Arts, an international association that provides arts programs for disabled people; $1 million to Elizabeth Taylor’s pet project, the American Foundation for AIDS Research; $200,000 for Bay Area earthquake relief and $50,000 to create a model arts curriculum and educational program for disadvantaged children at the Drew Child Development Center in Los Angeles.
He has also become a patron of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, providing $100,000 in funding for its 1993 exhibition of works by his friend, the late John Cage, and an additional $100,000 for Streb/Ringside’s “Action Occupation” series of performances, which inaugurated the reopening of the museum’s Temporary Contemporary facility last week and continues through Sunday.
Yamagata’s name popped up earlier this month when it was revealed that he is helping the Mark Taper Forum establish a two-stage theater at Bergamot Station. But news that the property he is buying at the arts complex will include a 35,000-square-foot space for himself along with two warehouses to be used for theaters only raised more questions about Yamagata.
What is he planning to do with his space? Turn it into a vanity gallery? Convert it into a massive studio?
That isn’t at all what he has in mind, Yamagata says. He envisions an unconventional forum for multidisciplinary performances, conversation and ideas.
The vast space, to be called Situation, will focus on “the state of being that is present only in the moment,” he says in a printed statement. “My idea is to remove the borders, beginnings, endings and judgments that are prescribed by society or the self. One must not be confined to any one mode of expression, but all mediums can freely be engaged and no person excluded.”
In physical terms, Situation will be a simple, open space, designed and renovated by Los Angeles architects Elyse Grinstein and Susan Narduli. Plans are in the works and construction is expected to be completed by next fall at the latest.
The program is far more nebulous, but that is largely intentional, Yamagata says, rattling off a litany of complaints about strictures that limit creativity. “In general, in the art world--or any kind of world--when you live from morning to evening, all you have is conditions and rules and decisions. People are always looking for results. This is something I have always questioned.”
At Situation, he says, the process--not the results--will be the central issue. And he plans to publish a journal about the proceedings, to be edited by Leffingwell.
Yamagata’s friends in the fields of music, art, literature and science will find a place at the new forum. They will be joined by others recommended by Hoffman, Leffingwell and art world leaders, such as Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
“We might have doctors come and talk to artists, or scientists, space technicians and people who create special effects in movies,” Yamagata says. “Sometimes we might talk about ideology, culture and civilization. But we could also talk about politics.”
Situation will have a program and an annual budget, yet to be determined, but events probably will not be organized around themes, he says. Art exhibitions are also likely to appear at Situation, but Yamagata has no desire to perpetuate conventional openings, where people appear at receptions, have a drink and leave. He plans a more provocative environment that will foster communication.
Eager to get the program started before Situation is renovated, he plans to stage preliminary events at Fred Hoffman Fine Art, a new gallery in Santa Monica that’s backed by Yamagata, and at other nearby facilities. First on the agenda is an improvisational performance Sept. 28 by jazz musicians Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley at the Hoffman gallery. A poetry reading by Gregory Corso will be scheduled in December.
Situation may appear to add yet another facet to a complex persona, but Yamagata says he is actually returning to his aesthetic and philosophical roots. Born in Japan in 1948, he moved to Paris in 1972 and became immersed in an improvisational art scene that had evolved from Happenings, an early form of performance art that blossomed in the ‘50s, and from Situationism, an anti-art movement composed of artists, writers, architects and filmmakers who worked in Europe from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.
Inspired as a youth by the work of French poet Jacques Prevert, he also became a devotee and friend of the Beat poets. His apartment in Paris was known as Hotel Hiro, he says, because it was a temporary home for members of his artistic circle.
Those were the days, Yamagata says, and he would like to retrieve their spirit.
“When I moved here in 1978, I gained a comfortable life doing commercial art, but at the same time I lost the contacts I had in Paris,” he says. “That’s the reason I want to do something in Los Angeles.”