top of page

Naoto Nakagawa pictured next to his "Beginning of a Still Life," at the Eric Firestone Gallery. Photo credit: Jake Price for Japan Contemporaries

Loft Generation: Painting in New York 1960s-80s, Featuring Naoto Nakagawa at the Eric Firestone Gallery

By Jonathan Goodman, April 11, 2024 

“Loft Generation,” an excellent show, presents a recent time, when the city’s downtown offered space and freedom to experiment. The exhibition begins at a time when New York was in steep decline and ends with an intense gentrification still changing the city. Since the times of abstract expressionism, much new art came from foreign-born artists who fell in love with New York’s near anarchic atmosphere and support for visual exploration. Some of the art excitement was generated by the large spaces available downtown. The lofts, inexpensive then, gave artists the chance to experiment. Indeed, an innovative abstraction resulted: the abstract expressionism that took place in the late Thirties and Forties.

Naoto Nakagawa was born in Kobe, Japan, and following World War II, his hometown was occupied by American forces. At the age of 18, with the support of his family who wanted a better future for him, Nakagawa decided to leave Japan and left for New York, where he knew no one. However, on the ship bound for the United States, Nakagawa met two fellow passengers who would come to support him - the American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, who had been covering the aftermath of the war and was wounded with shrapnel while drinking heavily, and Barbara White, a researcher who had been in Japan learning about washi, or Japanese handmade paper. Now over eight decades old, Naoto Nakagawa has been living in the United States since his arrival in New York over 60 years ago.

His painting, Beginning of a Still Life (1971), originally exhibited at OK Harris in SoHo, was worked with Liquitex, one of the first acrylics made. The paint has high color values that resist dulling, and today, more than half a century after the work was made, the paints remain vividly alive.Still Life’s construction consists of three implements–a large scissors on the left, whose blades are silver-blue; a wrench in the center of the canvas painted different shades of green; and a paintbrush on the right, with a dark handle leading to two extensions, one yellow and one blue. The brush bristles are the usual brown.

Beneath this accumulation of industrial objects is a red comb. It rests in the open space of a cracked mirror, free of glass except for jagged bits around its edges. Nakagawa, who took me to see the show, explained that the force of the painting, which is considerable, not only stemmed from its industrial impact but also was meant to convey erotic energy, and the painting does in fact do that.

Susan Fortgang’s beautiful acrylic abstraction has a title that accurately describes the way it looks: Paintings with Black Bands and Drips (1975). The work consists of four horizontal bands, embellished by short vertical lines. The first and third bands have a light-colored background, and the second and fourth bands are dark in tone. In each of the bands, a white line cuts through the middle–it is a visual caesura that complicates the composition in interesting ways. The first band is marked by thinner stripes–first white, followed by yellow, then dark maroon, then pink. Generally, short vertical strokes break up each band; the darker bands are decorated with paint drips.

Fortgang’s work is highly successful, being beautiful without succumbing to decoration. It is an excellent example of how simple abstract patterns, if repeated, can result in canvases of considerable attraction.

In Mimi Gross’s drawing of a subway bench filled with people, the demotic takes over. In the drawing, done in 1975-76 as a study for Red Grooms’s well-known installation Ruckus Manhattan, subway riders catch our attention. On the right, one Orthodox Jewish man with side curls, wearing a wide-brimmed black hat and a black coat, reads a newspaper.

Next to him is a dark-skinned man with a small mustache; he holds two books in his lap, wears a light winter coat, as well as a dark hat, mottled pants, and dark shoes. Ten people sit crowded against each other in the car, in various states of mostly informal garb. Shoes are paid close attention, for mostly comic effect.

Only one person stands in the drawing: a man in a dark jacket and light pants, holding on to a strap. Gross very ably captures sartorial appearances; differences in clothing range from the near indigent to the more than affluent. In New York, the subway is truly a space in which class differences are involuntarily merged.

An untitled oil on linen work, done in 1970 by Regina Granne, has two parts–on top, a brown female nude, lying on her side, who faces a table supporting two plants: on the left, the space is taken up by a red clay pot from which large green leaves rise. To this plant’s right is a spray of irises, behind which a white pillow rests, a blue glass sphere behind it. Nudes and still lifes are time honored, and here Granne does very nicely with conventional tropes. And the painting’s strength results not only from the artist’s skill but also her warmth of hand.

Evelyn Lopez de Guzman’s 1976 acrylic, whose title is Under the Bigtop, consists of a pointed triangle made up of mostly smaller triangles and other geometric forms. They are colored differently, and the colors are luminous enough to make the viewer feel as though he is facing a cathedral glass window. While the image does imply art historical affiliations, its overall form and interior structure come out of modernist abstraction. The colors filling the interior shapes include green, yellow, blue, and purple; these forms fit together tightly to fill the triangular space. Under the Bigtop is a beautiful painting, served well by the artist’s sensibility, which endows the artwork with a rich array of hues.

The show’s range of styles not only supports the visual strength of the pluralism practiced at the time; it also makes clear that, even then, anything was possible. Artists were able to respond in ways that did not feel trite or hackneyed. Today, broad appropriation is accepted, even encouraged, but its use over several generations may have lessened its visual impact. This highly interesting exhibition proves that considerable freedom in the act of painting results in inspired opportunities. “Loft Generation,” an anthology of differences in style, proves that a wide formal range indicates a pluralism of form and sensibility, the basis of most strong art today.


Jonathan Goodman,  has long written about the art scene of New York. His primary area of expertise lies in East Asian art, with a notable emphasis on fostering collaborations and deep engagements with Japanese artists. His published appear in XIBT Magazine, frontera digital, Brooklyn Rail, WhiteHot Magazine, Tussle Magazine, Arte Fuse, and his interviews are featured in Sculpture Magazine.

bottom of page