Kanemitsu in California during the 1960s and 1970sby John Yau
Los Angeles County Museum of Art February 23 – June 15, 2008
The small selection of lithographs and works on paper by Matsumi “Mike” Kanemitsu (1922-1992) offered a tantalizing glimpse into the work of an artist who has largely been bypassed by history. The first time I came across his name was in “Personal Poem” by Frank O’Hara, which I read in 1971: “Now when I walk around at lunchtime/I have only two charms in my pocket/an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me….” At the time I didn’t know that he was an artist, and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that I learned he was a friend of Norman Bluhm (1921-1999) and Michael Goldberg (1924-2007), both of whom spoke about him with great affection. It was Jackson Pollock who gave him his nickname. Clearly, Kanemitsu hung around the Cedar Bar, and was embraced by, as well as belonged to, what has come to be called the “Second Generation of Abstract-Expressionists.” In 1956, his work was included in a Whitney Annual, and in 1962, he participated in a group show at the Tanager Gallery, a Tenth Street cooperative, and was one of the 14 Americans at the Museum of Modern Art. And yet, his name remains largely absent from most histories of the New York art world in the fifties.
I thought about all this when I went to the Los Angeles County Museum, where I asked for the location of the exhibition and was directed to the Japanese Pavilion. The docent at the Pavilion brought my two friends and I by elevator to the second floor, saying that his work might be among the prints by Hiroshige and others, but that there was no show of his at the museum and she didn’t know whom I was talking about. After returning to the ticket office and asking a number of people who tried to get me to become a member of the museum, I was directed to a small room segregated among large rooms of period furniture. There were no signs along the way to guide us. While there was a wall text, there wasn’t even a modest brochure explaining whom Kanemitsu was to someone who might have accidentally stumbled into the exhibition. Despite the fact that the exhibition felt like an afterthought, I was able to learn more about an artist whose name piqued my curiosity more than twenty-five years ago.
Kanemitsu was born in Ogden, Utah in 1922. In 1925, at the age of three, he was sent to Japan, where he grew up in a suburb of Hiroshima. In 1940, he returned to the United States and in 1941 enlisted in the United States Army. After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, he (like other Japanese) was arrested and sent to a series of internment camps. It is during this time that he began devoting his time to drawing and working in pastels, with materials given to him by the American Red Cross. Towards the end of the war, he was released from internment and served in the army as a hospital assistant in Europe. In his autobiographical lithograph, “Santa Anita Yesterday & Today,” which was from the suite of nine prints, Illustrations of Southern California (1970), Kanemitsu vertically stacks three images: at the top, a cameraman filming from behind bars, under a black cloth; in the middle, a jockey astride a horse; and, near the bottom, a family of internees staring out from behind barbed wire. Black rain (tears, blood?) splatters across the surface. Understandably, the history that is covered over, hidden, or unspoken is one of Kanemitsu’s recurring preoccupations.
After the war, Kanemitsu studied with Fernand Leger in Paris and then came to New York to study with the early American modernist, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, at the Art Students Leaque. (Kuniyoshi is perhaps best known in New York for having his work deaccessioned by the Museum of Modern Art). Kanemitsu, who worked in Japanese sumi ink and brushes his entire life, was able to transfer the effect of wetness and gesture into lithography. (One wonders what conversations he might have had with his friends at the Cedar Bar). While Kanemitsu is best known for his formal innovations in lithography, I think what is more important is his synthesis of suggestive pop imagery with abstract shapes, which he began doing as early as 1961 with “Oxnard Madame,” a subject whose imagery morphed into the eighteen lithographs of his Mickey Mouse Suite (1970), in which the rounded buttocks of the “Oxnard Madame” became Mickey’s ears. (I suspect that Kanemitsu was aware of the anti-Japanese cartoons Walt Disney produced during World War II.) My feeling is that Kanemitsu did his best prints between 1961, when June Wayne invited him to work at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, and 1970, when he completed Mickey Mouse Suite.
In his synthesis of pop imagery (Mickey Mouse’s ears), abstraction, autobiography (the artist as “Mikey Mouse”), and sexual adventures (the Oxnard Madame was a black transvestite who hung around an army base), Kanemitsu anticipates the work of the well-known Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami, the underknown Peter Williams, whose depictions of an African American boy wearing Mickey Mouse ears says something about one segment of the population’s relationship to the supposed innocence of cartoon figures, the cult figure, Masami Teriaoka (it may be that Kanemitsu directly influenced Teraoka, since the latter was a student in Los Angeles when the older artist was becoming celebrated for his prints), and, more distantly, the terrific Joyce Pensato whose work is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves.
Born in the Twentieth Century, before the rise of globalization, what Kanemitsu, Teraoka, and Williams, an African American, share is the experience of knowing that, even when one dons the surface apparel of mainstream culture, it remains impossible to assimilate. However, instead of developing a nostalgic alternative or trying to step outside of that complicated entangled history to some other more removed moment (the ante-bellum South of Kara Walker, for example), Kanemitsu tried to live in the present with all its contradictions. He may be a minor artist, but his accomplishment doesn’t deserve to be thrown out with yesterday’s news. And until a more comprehensive view takes place, particularly of the suites of prints I mentioned, I am happy to have been able to see this small selection of work by an artist whose name I came across years ago.
I am reminded of what Jean Rhys said to David Plante: “I want to tell you something very important. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake. It is very important. Nothing else is important.”