On ViewAlison Bradley Projects
March 10 – May 7, 2022
Curated by Gabriela Rangel, this compact, powerful show is a perfect paradox: it manages to fit into a limited gallery space eight works made over the course of sixty-two years by an artist who constantly toys with the idea of an infinite work of art. As the pedants would put it: multum in parvo, lots in little. We see Tadaaki Kuwayama’s long career writ small, from 1960 until 2022. We’re missing work from the 1970s, but what we have is more than satisfying, again to put it pedantically, pars pro toto, the part that stands in for the whole. So, nothing like a retrospective, but enough of a retrospective for us to construct an artistic biography.
Tadaaki Kuwayama was born in Nagoya in 1932 and moved to New York in 1958. Trained in the Japanese nihonga modality, itself developed in the early-twentieth century as a traditionalist response to overly Westernized art-making in Japan, Kuwayama underwent a metamorphosis here. Akin to a religious conversion, his transformation from representational to non-objective artist must have been startling even to him. Why this happened is a mystery, but it does recapitulate the gradual liberation of painting in the Western world from mimesis.
We should set aside art historical context to focus on Kuwayama. In other words, he arrives in New York two years after Pollock’s death, with Abstract Expressionism present but fading, and myriad new styles, from Pop to Minimalism gaining ground. But all that is by the way, because Kuwayama’s evolution is entirely his own. If we look at the four works here from the 1960s, we see him reconsidering the nature of the painterly surface. TK1017-3/8-60 (1960) is a small, 17 × 17 inch work: “Dry black pigment on paper on canvas with tarnished silver leaf.” His use of paper may echo back to nihonga, but the combination of paper and canvas marks Kuwayama’s artistic transformation. The black pigment eclipses—but not entirely—a drip-style composition. The blackness itself is not absolute, so we are aware, as we are in Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, of nuances. The process moves forward in TK7549-61 (1961), a 49 × 33 “black dry pigment with aluminum on paper mounted on board with aluminum strip.” The division between drip style and quasi-monochrome evaporates, but a division remains with an asymmetrical upper and lower plane separated by a thin aluminum line. Texture breaks up the blackness, like layers of sedimentary rock, introducing the idea of an infinite progression, up and down. This painting could conquer the world.
The concept is confirmed in both TK4612-3/4-64 (1964) and TK7623-5/8-67 (1967). The first is a small, 12 × 12 composition: “gold leaf on paper on panel.” The dazzling gold is not confined to the surface but covers the frame, as if to say, “this frame cannot fence me in.” The vertical division of the surface that evenly divides into a diptych is now one of Kuwayama’s signature devices. This we see in TK7623, where he abandons paper for acrylic on canvas stretched over board. The “polished aluminum frame” is a link to the 1960s, to the frames constructed by Robert Kulicke. With this painting, Kuwayama forces us to focus on his use of yellow but also on serial composition: the three rectangles could be multiplied to infinity.
Kuwayama’s next phase involves enhanced serial replication and transforming painting into sculpture. TK5610-1/2-82 (1982), six isosceles triangles—“metallic oil painted with palette knife on canvas mounted on Masonite board”—float above a datum plane. How many triangles might he have included could be a matter of chance: more space, more triangles. But the work now is sculptural in the sense that the objects now define the space they occupy. This is even more so the case with TK28-2-1/4-02 (2002). Here the constituent elements are anodized aluminum panels and brackets, their total number (twenty-six) “edited” down to ten in order to fit on the gallery wall. They could of course be reorganized from a straight line into ranks and hung vertically. Kuwayama, perhaps not overtly, invites the viewer to rearrange the work in other configurations.
The two final pieces in the show, TK37-7/8-16 (2016) and TK1-61-22 (2022) confirm Kuwayama’s aesthetic of infinite possibilities. The first is another abbreviation: four of thirty brackets made of anodized titanium. There could be only one; there could be thirty, or thirty thousand: Brâncuși’s infinite column isn’t infinite, but it could be. The mauve surfaces remind us that Kuwayama is a colorist, that color gives life to his work. The final piece takes us in spirit back to the 1960s: four stacked panels of acrylic on canvas framed in aluminum. They’re going up, and for Kuwayama the sky’s the limit. Or maybe not.