A large portion of what has been written about minimal art has focused on the sculptors of the era, on the work of Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Carl Andre; however, many of the painters of that period, each with his or her own lengthy resume and extensive gallery and museum exhibition histories, have been less documented as a group when compared to their colleagues. Nonetheless, Tadaaki Kuwayama was instrumental in the development of a new language in painting and is part of a generation of artists who sought to redefine the parameters of art—to make something new—as Donald Judd would say. These very distinctive talents cast a version of art making that was their own; defined in very formal terms, it was extremely pragmatic in materials and insisting on a strong conceptual logic. It was a heady revolution, a revolution of ideas and techniques, attitudes and theories occurring over a period of some twenty years.
The foundations of the movement—to use critic Barbara Rose’s words—were space, structure, repetition and color. Works of art were to be based on organized repetition—serial progression was the operative word. The notion of sculpture as installation was reborn and with it, the expansive potential of sculpture to fill a room or entire gallery space. The presence of a work in real space was a mark of its achievement. The work of art was confrontational because its presence was clear, direct and insistent in its physical appearance and materiality. Similarly, painters sought the same kind of presence for themselves. The wall is the place where the painting exists and therefore confronts the viewer straight on. Painting is a real presence and functions not only as an open window onto an illusionistic space, but as a field of painterly fragments and a physical object as well. Kuwayama was at the center of these ideas. He was also at the center of where this art was being shown in the 1960s, the Green Gallery in New York. In contrast to the painterly, dramatic style of abstract expressionism, in Kuwayama’s work we see none of the emotional push of a Barnett Newman, none of the tonal atmospheres of an Ad Reinhardt. Kuwayama’s paintings were daring in their existence: completely stark. Each arrived at through simplicity, clarity and finally the richness of their color augmented only when using reflective metallic paints. As Kuwayama explained in a 1964 statement:
Ideas, thoughts, philosophy, reasons, meanings, even the humanity of the artist, do not enter into my work at all. There is only the art itself. That is all.
Today Kuwayama’s art retains that spirit of purity. Steadfastly monochromatic, the formula for these works remains linked to his earlier compositions: single geometric elements that are repeated to form a larger whole. His use of metallic paint on canvas in the early paintings of the ’60s and ’70s has given way to works that use other materials such as aluminum and titanium. Still a colorist at heart, Kuwayama achieved the unique color of these paintings by anodizing the metal, a chemical process that dyes the surface of the metal so that it reflects color (something of the nineteenth-century theories of the French pointillists like Signac and Seurat lingers here with color conceived as a scientific principle). The intensity and luminosity of surface colors change as the light on the painting shifts or as the viewer alters his or her own position in front of the painting.
For this solo show at the Museum of Modern Art Hayama in Japan, the third one-man exhibition in many years, Kuwayama has been given reign over the entire museum and has installed works in five separate yet contiguous rooms. The show is a miniature survey of visual ideas that encompass the past two decades: sequential aluminum floor pieces as well as gridded and sequential wall pieces in Bakelite, glass and titanium. The exhibition is basic geometry that is both contemplative and defiant like the forty-eight part grid of small greenish-gold and pink titanium squares installed on two separate walls, moving the eye from the intimate to the monumental. The show is elegant and bold, impressive in its mastery of materials and magnetic in the way in which it holds and transforms each room. The third room contains a seemingly infinite line of narrow vertical bars arranged in a horizontal formation. Finally in the last room, there are rows of glass squares that float like clouds, almost colorless, in quiet order. Kuwayama crafts art that at its core matches presence with balance. It’s a difficult act to follow.
3 November 2012–14 January 2013
Museum of Modern Art Hayama