Hisao Hanafusa | Nothing but Recollection
Posted in ExhibitionsHisao Hanafusa

Hisao Hanafusa | Nothing but Recollection

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Dates:

April 21 – June 19, 2021

Location:

65 East 80th Street, Ground Floor, New York, NY 10075

Fu Qiumeng Fine Art is pleased to announce the opening of the new show Hisao Hanafusa: Nothing but Recollection. Hisao Hanafusa (b. 1937) was born in Miyakonojo, a city at the southernmost tip of Japan. After graduating from the Kyoto University of Fine Arts, he moved to New York in 1963. His career as an artist in New York witnessed many successes. Most notably, his works have appeared in four group exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum. Hanafusa is both a traditional craftsman and a contemporary artist. His work encompasses inspirations drawn from vastly different realms and cultures. This solo exhibition takes a retrospective view at Hanafusa’s career by showcasing his paintings from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as a number of his recent works. It also includes a number of the artist’s traditional handcraft woodworks. These works employ an ancient Japanese joinery technique that binds wood without nails or adhesive to achieve a truly smooth and balanced finish. By juxtaposing the artist’s painting and woodwork, this exhibition presents Hanafusa’s combined aesthetics of classic elegance and contemporary innovation. This show will be on view at 65 East 80th Street from April 21 to June 19, 2021.

Hanafusa’s paintings can be roughly divided into two groups: his steel paintings of the late twentieth century, and his gestural paintings started in the 2000s. Works of the first group mostly created with steel tubes and paint on canvas, epitomized aesthetic strategies of mid-century Japanese and American contemporary art. Later in his career, Hanafusa believed that painting carries knowledge innate to human mind. “I believe that all humans have uchuiden or ‘cosmic memory’,” he wrote, “My work is an exploration of the mysteries of my own uchuiden (cosmic memory).” Guided by this idea, his later work series “Uchuiden Kioku” feature all-over compositions created with silver aluminum paint. These later works also involve a temporal dimension. As the silver paint ages over the years, it changes into dark red, yellow, or brown. Works of the earlier group are mostly restrained in visual expression, sharing much similarity with mono-ha and minimalism; the later works highlight the materiality of paint, generating marks reminiscent of gestural brushwork. What connects these two groups of works is Hanafusa’s continuing challenge of the boundary of painting.

The title of this exhibition, Nothing but Recollection, is drawn from Plato’s Meno, in which Socrates, in a dialogue recorded by Plato, introduced the idea that “seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection”. The two philosophers think that the human mind has access to certain concepts and beliefs before it is born. The process of learning certain parts of human knowledge, especially that not dependent upon sensory experience, is a process of remembering. Hanafusa’s above-mentioned idea of human beings embodying cosmic memory resonates with the philosophers’ theory of learning. For the viewership of his paintings, Hanafusa does not prioritize sensory perception. He does not want to have a complete control of all aspects of his work and prefers to paint in a spontaneous manner. The final paintings can be seen as traces or records of his thoughts and actions.

Hanafusa is both a carpenter and an artist. Since the 1960s, he has been specializing in making traditional Japanese furniture, which emphasizes the mobilization of the natural quality of wood. In the making of joinery, for example, Japanese artisans have long been employing a technique that fits timber beams together like complex puzzle pieces, without using glue, nails, or other fasteners. This requires the artisans to be highly sensitive to the contour, texture, and other physical qualities of wood. Hanafusa tends to endow the materials he uses with a human-like agency. For example, he once described his furniture-making with the following words, “First you must look at the wood to understand it, then you must feel it while it’s in the shop, and finally you must hear it when it is sawed.” Deep insights into natural materials not only guide Hanafusa’s furniture-making, but also his art practice. His paintings, especially his later works, are indexes of nature, the passing of time, and human beings’ perception of them.

In 1969, Eleanor Ward the owner of the legendary gallery Stable Gallery debuted Hanafusa’s first solo show in NYC and introduced his works to Peggy Guggenheim and Thomas Messer. Since then his paintings have appeared in four group exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum during Thomas Messer’s time at the museum. Hanafusa’s artworks are in the collection of a number of art institutions, including Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

As for the artist’s carpentry work, his furniture had also been praised by prestigious designers and architects. Hanafusa was cosigned to design customized furniture for the Pritzker family, Eileen Fisher, Steve Shiffman(CEO of Calvin Klein 2014-2019), Brioni, Ghiora Aharoni, and relevant reports have appeared in New York Times and New York Magazine. Also, this 2M view documentary introduced the unique joinery technique which Hanafusa incorporates in his carpentry-making process. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7708E1bmoxc.

Our Team

Curator: Qiumeng Fu
Exhibition Coordinator: Q Lin, Christina Wu
Installation Designer: Amber Zhang
Visual Designer: Q Lin, Amber Zhang
Public Relation: Christina Wu
Archive and Research Assistant: Jackie Shi

About Artist

Hisao Hanafusa

Hisao Hanafusa (b. 1937) was born in Miyakonojo, a city at the southernmost tip of Japan. After graduating from the Kyoto University of Fine Arts, he moved to New York in 1963. His career as an artist in New York witnessed many successes. Most notably, his works have appeared in four group exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum. Meanwhile, Hanfusa’s career is a unique one. He is both a craftsman and an artist. He has practiced ink painting since he was three years old, while actively participating in the New York contemporary art scene. His work encompasses inspirations drawn from vastly different realms and cultures.

Hanafusa’s paintings can be roughly divided into two groups: his steel paintings of the late twentieth century, and his gestural paintings started in the 2000s. Works of the first group, mostly created with steel tubes and paint on canvas, epitomized aesthetic strategies of mid-century Japanese and American contemporary art. Later in his career, Hanafusa believed that painting carries knowledge innate to human mind.

“I believe that all humans have uchuiden or ‘universal memory’,” he wrote, “My work is an exploration of the mysteries of my own uchuiden (universal memory).” Guided by this idea, his later work series “Uchuiden Kioku” feature all-over compositions created with silver aluminum paint. These later works also involve a temporal dimension. As the silver paint ages over the years, they change into dark red, yellow, or brown. Works of the earlier group are mostly restrained in visual expression, sharing much similarity with mono-ha and minimalism; the later works highlight the materiality of paint, generating marks reminiscent of gestural brushwork. What connects these two groups of works is Hanafusa’s continuing challenge of the boundary of painting.

Hanafusa’s artworks are in the collection of a number of worldly renowned art institutions, including Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. As for the artist’s carpentry work, relevant reports have appeared on New York Times and New York Magazine.

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Documentary

Installation view

Hisao Hanafusa: Early and Late Paintings

Hisao Hanafusa (b. 1937) was born in Miyakonojo, a city at the southernmost tip of Japan. After graduating from the Kyoto University of Fine Arts, he moved to New York in 1963. His career as an artist in New York witnessed many notable successes. He had a solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery, a renowned downtown gallery that showed works of Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Joan Mitchell at the beginning of their careers. Additionally, Hanafusa’s works appeared in four group exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum. At the same time, Hanfusa’s career is a unique one. He is both a craftsman and an artist; he has practiced ink painting since he was three years old, while being actively involved in the New York art world. To understand his works, one has to meander between vastly different realms.

Hisao Hanafusa 花房寿夫, Untitled QM70W-1 《无名 QM70W-1》 Oil on Shaped Canvas with Anodized Aluminum, 72 x 88 in., 1970

Hanafusa’s paintings can be roughly divided into two groups: his steel paintings of the late twentieth century, and his gestural paintings started in the 2000s. Works of the first group, mostly created with steel tubes, paint, and canvas, epitomize aesthetic strategies of mid-century Japanese and American contemporary art. Later in his career, Hanafusa believed that painting carries knowledge innate to human mind. Guided by this idea, his later series “Uchuiden Kioku” features all-over compositions created with silver aluminum paint. These later works also involve a temporal dimension. As the silver paint ages over the years, it changes into dark red, yellow, or brown. Works of the earlier group are mostly restrained in visual expression; the later works highlight the materiality of paint, generating marks reminiscent of gestural brushwork.

Hisao Hanafusa, Uchuiden Kioku (Cosmic inherent memory)-QM1, aluminum paint on canvas, 2017. 48 1/2 × 36 in.

What connects these two groups of works is Hanafusa’s continuing challenge of the boundary of painting. This approach is cultivated through years of painting practice. Under the impact of his father, an ink artist, Hanafusa started painting when he was three years old. He later studied Japanese painting at the Kyoto School of Fine Arts, where he took courses in Chinese classical painting and Western oil painting. Even after moving to New York, Hanafusa has been mainly working with the medium of painting. This essay aims to highlight a few reference points to understand Hanafusa’s conception of painting and to locate Hanafusa’s painting practice in relation to contemporary art movements in Japan and Euro-America.

Hanafusa’s move to the United States in 1963 occurred amidst the internationalization of the Japanese art world. For many Japanese artists of his generation, hierarchy and politics between various artist associations have stifled the artistic environment in Japan. Notably, Hanafusa mentioned the difficulty he met when preparing for his first solo show at a gallery in Kyoto, as “students were not allowed to have solo exhibitions” at that time. Partly due to problems with the conservative institutional setting, many Japanese artists associated New York city with boundless opportunities and moved there to seek more opportunities. Hanafusa’s career track indexed this increasingly globalized period in art history.

Tube Paintings and Minimalism

Most of the tube paintings Hanafusa created in the 1960s and 1970s are made by weaving the canvas through a number of assembled tubes so that the canvas alternates between the state of being revealed and being hidden. Carter Ratcliff, in a catalogue article, observed the difference between seeing a tube painting at a distance and approaching it up-close. While it looks like a painting from a distance, viewers can see “a gentle, regular undulation” as they move closer. In fact, these paintings can be viewed from all directions. If viewers examine the two sides of the painting, the ends of the tubes, left exposed, further underline the physical quality of the piece in three-dimensional space. As the artist chose different colors for the canvas and tubes, the final work features a rhythmic alternation of colors. What’s more, the color that Hanafusa chose for the tube paintings, such as yellow, green, and grey, are commonly used in industrial materials. Having few traces of brushwork, these alternating colors may easily remind viewers of mass production or consumerist products.

Hanafusa’s tube paintings exemplify the aesthetic strategies employed by American minimalists in the mid-twentieth century. Donald Judd’s landmark article “Specific Objects”, published in 1967, encapsulates critical concerns of the minimalist artists at that time. Most minimalist art objects traverse the boundary between painting and sculpture, as, according to Judd, “actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.” Here, actual space is opposed to illusional space, which Judd sees as “the most objectionable relic of European art”. By establishing connections with the wall, the ground, the room in actual space, a painting can be more powerful. This conception of painting leads to the use of all kinds of unconventional painting materials. And Judd particularly advocates the use of industrial products, as many of these have not been widely explored in contemporary art at that time. Hanafusa’s tube paintings share many similarities with the aesthetic approach Judd outlines in his article.

Other artworks created by Hanafusa in the 1960s and 1970s also demonstrate his impulse to work outside the traditional confines of art. He once created several artworks by attaching his furniture-making tools to canvas, and then painted colors over the works’ surface. In one of these works Air, for instance, a sawblade occupies the center of the painting. Blue paint is applied to the periphery of the blade and the canvas. It looks almost as if the paint was being spined from a rapidly rotating sawblade. In another series, Hanafusa turned the surface of a silkscreen print into a replication of a train station. For example, 50 Street 47 of this series, according to the artist, is almost the same size as the entrance to a New York subway station close to the intersection between the 50th Street and the 47th Street. The color scheme, the gridded outlook, and the numbers on the upper half of the work are all drawn from the actual setting. In this work, the paint dripping down the subway wall is, ironically, the only detail that comes close to a painterly gesture. Corresponding to artistic trends of the 1960s, Hanafusa blurs the line between high art and mundane everyday life, inviting viewers to approach an artwork as continuous with, rather than separated from, the actual space people occupy.

Compared with these two series, Hanafusa’s tube paintings evince a similar sensibility, albeit with a more complex visual language. In his tube paintings, Hanafusa avoided all gestural marks and figurative details. The paintings largely adopt the contour line of tubes. The canvases, weaving in and out of the assembled tubes, evince a materiality not much different from the machine-made tubes. Rather than replicating daily objects, Hanafusa turned the tube paintings into part of the actual space.

Hisao Hanafusa 花房寿夫 , Air, saw, oil on canvas. 22.5 x 27 in., 1991
Hisao Hanafusa, 50 Street 47, color silkscreen and paper, signed lower right & edition: 12 /17, 1973. 39 1/2 x 27 in, framed 43 x 31 in.

Cosmic Memory and the Continuing Impulses of the 1960s

Later in his career, Hanafusa endowed his paintings with the meanings derived from his own belief. In the early 2000s, Hanafusa started a series of paintings titled “Uchuiden Kioku”. Works of these series mostly feature a silver surface. Around 2010, he started another series titled “The Fifth Dimension”, in which he applied thick aquamarine paint on silver backgrounds. Both series of works highlight the materiality of paint. “Uchuiden Kioku” is the Japanese word for “cosmic memory”. According to Hanafusa, everyone beholds cosmic memory, which constitutes the source of artistic inspiration. He positions his practice as “an exploration of the mysteries of his [my] own Uchuiden Kioku.” This may explain why Hanafusa also calls his Uchuiden Kioku series “paintings of human soul and energy”, as this cosmic memory rests deep in human mind. On a similar note, “The Fifth Dimension” means a dimension that transcends the four dimensions known to us. It represents a world that lies outside of human beings’ consciousness, and, for Hanafusa, symbolizes the realm of fine arts.

Hisao Hanafusa 花房寿夫, Fifth Dimension-QM2《第五空间 QM2》 Oil and Aluminum Paint on Canvas , 19 3/4 x 24 in., 2017

While these painting feature marks reminiscent of broad brushwork, Hanafusa is against the idea of painterly gestures. This is obvious in his description of his working procedures. “Step one: Finish,” he said candidly in a recent interview, leaving out all other details. For him, “Technique [is] not important. Shape [should] not [be] perfect.” While he makes preliminary drawings and mixes color before the painting process, he is against the idea of design, or having a full command of every part of his work. For the Uchuiden Kioku series, he dripped acrylic paint onto oil paint in a rather spontaneous manner. Due to differences in physical quality, acrylic and oil are naturally separated into two layers. The final composition may appear to be figurative, representing the contour of a person, or totally abstract. As the silver paint ages, it sometimes changes into dark brown, yellow, or red. Some pieces may take twenty minutes for the color to change, some may take years. Hanafusa sees this as part of his work and endows it with a spiritual overtone. He associates his choice of paint with the silver paint that Japanese shrine makers use in temple construction, which also oxidizes overtime. Rather than inventing original methods of artmaking, Hanafusa is more interested in using his painting process as a way to explore and materialize his beliefs and the knowledge lying beyond human consciousness.

In our interview, Hanafusa denies any association with a particular artistic lineage or theoretical framework. For him, artistic currents such as minimalism function more as reference points that he is aware of, rather than the basic parameters that he works with. These reference points have become more diffused in his later works, though it is still possible to identify the artistic impulses of the 1960s. I will try to outline a few points below, for this may help us locate the connections between Hanafusa’s early and later artworks.

Hanafusa’s act of dripping paint on works of the Uchuiden Kioku series may bring to mind the emphasis on improvisation in a number of Euro-American art movements, such as surrealism, art informel, and abstract expressionism. Such artistic trends may have had become familiar to Hanafusa before his arrival in New York. A number of major art informel artists, for instance, were featured prominently in a major show in Japan in 1956. According to the comment of a Japanese art critic Tono Yoshiaki on this exhibition, “the distrust of the image, its exposing ruptures in the imaginary world, and its brutal expression of inner feeling through a direct clash with material” had a significant impact on Japanese artists’ practice. The challenge of painting as a traditional medium, the disruption of the autonomous realm of art, and the mobilization of the materiality of paint all find a distant echo in Hanafusa’s practice. Aesthetic strategies of modern and contemporary painting may have shaped Hanafusa’s early understanding of painting. This impact is likely to have continued after he arrived in New York.

Developments in contemporary Japanese art are equally important to understand Hanafusa’s practice. After the end of the Second World War, there was a strong tendency to liberate Japanese art from the historical past, including the confines of traditional culture and the trauma of the war. This manifested in an almost dadaist attitude towards artmaking. More specifically, Hanafusa’s interest in automatism and knowledge innate to human mind bring to mind the Gutai art movement. Gutai, literally translated to “embodiment” or “concrete”, was formed in 1954. It aims to go beyond existing forms of abstract painting by “combining human creative ability with the characteristics of the material”. For example, in a Gutai manifesto published in 1956, Yoshihara Jiro suggested that automatism is a means to combine human creativity and material, as it helps artists to transcend their own confines and step into a space unknown to human beings.

Aside from paying attention to the materiality of paint, Hanafusa treats the painting as an object imbued with its own life. In his working process, this can take the form of letting paint drip and flow in a natural manner; it also manifests in the gradual shift of the silver color. On this note, Hanafusa’s work shares much similarity with mono-ha, an art movement initiated by Japanese and Korean artists in the late 1960s. Mono-ha, literally translated to school of things, focuses primarily on artist’s conception of materials. In addition to removing artists’ control over their materials, mono-ha artists put emphasis on how an artwork, as it evolves overtime, generate boundless possibilities in time and space. Mono-ha art objects are supposed to be shown to viewers only temporarily, and then discarded and recreated. Similarly, Hanafusa de-emphasized originality, skill, and methods when talking about his work. His later paintings connect the visible and the invisible, the material and the spiritual.

Providing this range of reference points does not make it easier to locate Hanafusa’s practice in a specific lineage. In the 1960s, the Japanese and Euro-American art world had become so interconnected that it is hard to disentangle one from another. Japanese contemporary art went through a period of rapid internationalization in the postwar period. As mentioned above, Euro-American contemporary art concepts had become familiar to many in the Japanese art world. On the other side of the coin, through in-person communication, exhibition, and publication, art informel artists in France and abstract expressionist artists in the United States were equally aware of art currents in the Japanese contemporary art world. Many of them share the same interest in challenging the traditional designation of art as an autonomous realm separated from the actual space and time. They commonly employ strategies including institutional critique, foregrounding performative aspects of artmaking, and investigating the phenomenological aspects of the art object. Concerns stemming from the postwar efforts to redefine the medium of painting bridge Hanafusa’s tube paintings and recent artworks.

Carpentry and Nature

Outside the art world, it is also likely that the artist arrived at his visual language through his own route. Hanafusa is both an artist and a craftsman. He had studied woodworking by watching how shrine-makers work when he was in Japan. After moving to the United States, he received formal training from a Japanese shrine-maker Shoiji Shiraki. According to Hanafusa, he initially worked five or six jobs at the same time to support himself in New York city. “Chief Chef, teeth technician, graphic design, textile design, teaching”, he listed. Under such circumstances, he chose carpentry more out of necessity than interest. “My main work is painting. Miya Shoji is my hobby,” he once said. Yet it would be oversimplified to see Hanafusa’s carpentry as a pastime or side job. Reports on his furniture-making have appeared on New York Times and New York Magazine. A video featuring Hanafusa’s thoughts on Japanese carpentry has received more than four million views on youtube. These facts call attention to the creative inspiration that Hanafusa draws from his carpentry practice.

Traditional Japanese carpentry is a highly specialized field that emphasizes the natural quality of wood. In the making of joinery, for example, Japanese artisans have long been employing a technique that fits timber beams together like complex puzzle pieces, without using glue, nails, or other fasteners. This requires the artisans to be highly sensitive to the contour, texture, and other physical qualities of wood. Hanafusa tends to endow the materials he uses with a human-like agency. For example, he once described his furniture-making with the following words, “First you must look at the wood to understand it, then you must feel it while it’s in the shop, and finally you must hear it when it is sawed.” Notably, Hanafusa uses a similar anthropomorphic rhetoric when talking about his art. When asked about how he created his recent paintings, he said, “Sometimes materials help me…Nature is better than human…” In the Uchuiden Kioku series, the effect of dispersion, splatter, and shatter all highlight the natural fluidity of the paint. The fact that the color changes overtime involves the passing of time into the works. It is suffice to say that the insights and knowledge that Hanafusa gained from years of carpentry practice cannot be completely disentangled from his artmaking. Both carpentry and painting, infused with Hanafusa’s creative labor, offer him vital source to contemplate fundamental issues including nature, time, and human’s relationship with them.

References

    • Hirst, Arlene. “Undivided Attention”. Dwell, January 23, 2017, accessed January 5, 2021, https://www.dwell.com/article/undivided-attention-c551ce1c.
    • Merewether, Charles and Rika Iezumi Hiro, eds. Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan, 1950–1970. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007.
    • Ming Tiampo. “Create what has never been done before!”. Third Text 21:6 (2007). 689-706.
    • Ratcliff, Carter. “Hisao Hanafusa: Form and Vision”. In Cataolog title. City: Name of Press, 2011. Page number.
    • Westgeest, Helen. “No meaning, no composition, no colour: From zero to Gutai”. Published at the occasion of the exhibition Gutai: Painting with Time and Space, held at Museo Cantonale d’Arte, Lugano, 2010. 0-INSTITUTE, accessed January 6, 2021, https://www.0-archive.info/gutai-by-helen-westgeest.html.
    • Yoshimoto, Midori. Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York. New brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
    • Yoshitake, Mika. “What Is Mono-ha?” Review of Japanese Culture and Society 25 (2013).202-213.
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