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1-Color Codes- 03.06.24-04.jpg

Installation view, courtesy of James Fuentes

Kikuo Saito: Color Codes at James Fuentes Gallery

By Jonathan Goodman, April 20, 2024

Kikuo Saito(1939-2016) left Tokyo for New York in 1966, at the age of 26. He established himself downtown, only six blocks away from the present home of the Fuentes gallery on White Street, Tribeca, Manhattan, where his work is now on exhibit. This wonderful show of eight paintings, which the artist dubbed “Monochromatic,” come close to fitting that description: large-scale canvases of single-color expanses that cover the entire face of the composition. “Color Codes,” the name of the show curated by Christopher Y. Lew, and the second presentation by the gallery is a fine anthology of a very gifted artist.


Despite Saito’s term “Monochromatic” for his art, the works in this show are more complex than the adjective implies. The paintings contain scribbles, words in English that are difficult to read, and other small embellishments that activate the art’s broad planes of single color. This group of paintings, all done in the early 1990s, refer most transparently to the then relatively recent  New York movements of abstract expressionism and monochromatic painting. Even so, the works are entirely Saito’s own, being a mix of the heady interdisciplinary activities of the downtown art world, as well as the influences of the Gutai and Mono-Ha movements in Japan, which fused visuals with performance.

While practicing as a painter, Saito produced a lot of theater set since 1965 to 2001, internationally. His paintings were used like a stage, so each movements on the paintings are actors’ movements and colors were dramatizing set behind them. 


On arriving in the US in 1960s, Saito assisted Larry Poons and Kenneth Noland until 70s. Art critic Karen Wilken (b. 1940) described that Poons and Noland’s work was vivid testimony to their belief in the primacy of color and the importance of allowing the physical characteristic so the medium to declare themselves, she continues Saito says that despite his sympathy for Poon’s and Noland’s views—and enthusiasm for their work— he was also strongly attracted to other conceptions. “I always wanted to paint with drawing” he said and about 1985, he began to experiment with more deliberate mark-making in his pictures. 

(catalog essay of exhibition “Kikuo Saito: Recent Paintings” 1991, Salander-O’reilly Galleries, Inc. ) 

These influences are needed for a true understanding of Saito’s remarkable work, but for a writer, the inclusions of words, along with the faux writing suggested by Saito’s inclusion of scrawls and scribbles, animate the canvas and carry the eye across each painting’s space. In Alba's Circle (1991), adorned Spanish provincial name in the title— he traveled regularly to Spain and to Mallorca in 80s—, Saito offers a completely sky-blue canvas, complicated and enlivened by mostly straight-line scrawls of black, words partially covered by black splotches, a single letter or two. These ephemera eclipse the Saito’s work space, drawing the eye across the composition.

It makes sense to include the effusions of Cy Twombly as someone Saito looked at. Twombly was a master of the uninhibited scribble–a deliberate demotic even if the painter was invoking the gods in his art (as he sometimes did).  For Saito, the combination of a monochromatic field decorated with unreadable signs may have been a way of undermining the inexorable beauty of his color. A written language superimposed on a visual one combines two genres of communication, making the visual more complex. 

This is an interesting decision by Saito, who came from a brush culture. Japanese, his first language, contains strong visual implications. In the light pink, monochromatic Monk's Pocket (1990), the unreadable words and lines and blots are spread across the page, much in the same way we see in Alba's Circle. Saito was always inspired by Kimono colors worn by Japanese monks, so we could consider this monochromatic color might be from monk’s kimono. 


It is interesting to consider, as a general description not only of Saito but of contemporary art generally, the importance of serially reproduced imagery. From painting to painting, the colors may be different and the forms dissimilar, but the feeling is much the same. In a particularly fine painting, called Taylor's Hat (1992), the axis is horizontal, and the background a combination of off white and green. The writing has the visual effect of a math equation: horizontal arrows are found, along with an oval in the center of the work.

The idea of an equation animating Mock Orange (1992) works in a larger sense regarding the show. If we understand equations as descriptions of a thinking process ending in a definitive solution, perhaps we can consider Saito’s visionary art similarly–composed by virtue of processes that result in accurate readings of thought and emotion. 


This reading is not entirely far-fetched. Saito was someone who came to New York from Asia, but who quickly internalized the improvisations in downtown art. But he was much more than a mere student; instead, he presided over an array of techniques that kept his work very much alive and, also, in his own vein. This shows very much in Saito’s originality; the New York acceptance of various artist backgrounds, visible in the work they did, is reprised in “Color Codes,” a terrific show. Sometimes, distant origins are an advantage.


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.

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