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Shigeru Izumi, Untitled, 1959-1962 Oil on linen 51 x 68 inches 129.5 x 172.7 cm

A Hidden Journey of Friendship: Shigeru Izumi's New York Paintings, 1959-1962

By Kyoko Sato, February 19, 2024

The exhibition "Entrusted: New York Paintings, 1959-1962" unveils the captivating story of Shigeru Izumi (1922-1995), a Japanese artist whose work from his New York period (1959-1962) lay hidden in a friend's storage for six decades. Now, seven of these paintings are on display at the Microscope Gallery, 525 West 29th Street, New York, offering a rare glimpse into Izumi's artistic journey during those transformative years.

The artist "entrusted" his works to his fellow artist Ay-O when Izumi departed for Paris in 1963. Ay-O, who became a participant in the Fluxus movement, then sought the assistance of George Maciunas, the founder of Fluxus. When Maciunas fell ill, he enlisted the help of artist/filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who shared space in the artist cooperatives of SoHo. Mekas diligently stored the works from the 1970s until his passing in 2019. Now, Mekas' son, Sebastian Mekas, is overseeing the care of the works in accordance with his father's wishes.

After receiving the "Newcomer Encouragement" award at the 1st Tokyo International Print Biennale Exhibition and participating in the 4th Sao Paulo Biennial in 1957, Shigeru Izumi emerged as a prominent figure in the Japanese art scene. Following these accolades, he was invited by the Japan Society to serve as a visiting professor at the Pratt Graphic Art Center, Pratt Institute, in New York, arriving in the city in 1959.

Art historian, Yoshiaki Inui (1927-2017), reflected on this moment:

"When I became interested in contemporary art — around the early 30s of the Showa era (1950s) — Shigeru Izumi was already a well-known figure in the art world. He captivated people's attention as one of the most talented artists of the new age. Izumi's activities during that period, particularly in the realm of printmaking, were truly remarkable. In an era where obtaining presses, paper, or even ink was challenging, Izumi was mostly self-taught in the techniques of etching and lithography, but his talent and dedication were so impressive that he quickly achieved success."
("Shigeru Izumi, Artwork" 1989, Kodansha)

In 1958, Izumi embarked on the creation of a lithograph entitled "Peacock" just prior to his arrival in New York. His artistic journey continued with a painting titled “Untitled,” (1959-1962) showcasing his experimentation with Jackson Pollock’s fixed points. In this piece, he masterfully incorporates the vibrant patterns and hues reminiscent of peacocks, employing a palette dominated by brown and emerald green on an expansive linen canvas using oil paint, diverging from his customary medium of small paper for prints. It is evident that Izumi discovered a newfound sense of freedom beyond Japan, delving into fresh realms of artistic expression distinct from his traditional focus on printmaking.

Emerging in the aftermath of the postwar devastation, Japanese art flourished as a multifaceted movement comprised of numerous groups and collectives. Among these was the Democrat Artists Association (Demokrato Bijutsu Kyokai, 1951-1957), established by Ei-Q (1911-1960) in Osaka. This inclusive group encompassed not only artists but also designers, photographers, art critics, and dancers, all united in their commitment to freedom and independence. Rejecting the conventions of existing art groups and authoritarianism, they chose not to participate in public exhibitions. Shigeru Izumi was among the founding members, alongside Ay-O, Masuo Ikeda, On Kawara, Eiko Hosoe, and Toshiko Uchima.

Within this historical group, Ay-O relocated to New York in 1958, Toshiko and Ansei Uchima in 1960 after a four-month stay in Los Angeles, and On Kawara in 1965 from Mexico. In exhibition documentation, we can see a flyer for Izumi and Ansei Uchima's two-person show at the Mi Chou Gallery on 801 Madison Avenue, New York — the first Chinese-owned gallery in New York — which took place in December 1961. Additionally, there is correspondence from Izumi in New York to Uchima in Los Angeles dated March 6, 1960.

“Mr. Uchima, Ms. Moriyasu arrived safely last evening. I was the only one who went to meet her, but once again I was struck by the fact that I cannot speak English….I heard that you are going to Chicago in the middle of March and may come here on your way back. It is difficult to tell you how I feel about things until I see you, but I am looking forward to that day.” 

Ei-Q passed away on March 10, 1960, just four days after he wrote the letter to Uchima. In response to this loss, Izumi created "Requiem (to Ei-Q)," an oil-on-canvas painting characterized by its vibrant array of colors and abstract expressionist style. A prominent blue shape cuts through the middle of the canvas from the left, reflecting Izumi's melancholy and sadness. However, amidst this sorrow, there are also elements of hope depicted through the surrounding colors of green, lavender, and orange in the background.

Izumi's time in New York was marked by his participation in the exhibition "The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture" (October 19, 1966 - January 2, 1967) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Curated by Dorothy C. Miller and William S. Lieberman, the exhibition featured works from 46 Japanese artists. Despite Izumi's departure for Paris in 1963, his significant impact on the New York art scene led the curators to include his paintings in the exhibition. Two of his paintings bear resemblance to the works of American artists such as Morris Louis, Sam Francis, and Franz Kline, employing techniques like Tarashi-komi or brush strokes originally utilized in Asian art.

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Kyoko Sato, Editor-in-Chief, has written for Art Review City, Shukan NY Seikatsu, New York Standard on Gallery Tagboat and ONBEAT. She founded the Asian Programming at WhiteBox, and served as its director from 2018 to 2021.

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