An Interview with Artist Tadasky (Tadasuke Kuwayama)

February, 2013

JK: You were born in Nagoya, Japan in 1935.

T: Yes. I was the youngest of 11 children. My father was a Shinto shrine builder and had his own very successful business.

Tadasky and his mother in Nagoya, Japan ca 1939

JK: We can get a sense of the general structure of Shinto shrines from a photo of the famous Ise Grand Shrine in Ise, Japan and from a miniature shrine in your home made by the Kuwayama factory in Japan in around 1990.

T: Shinto shrines are made of wood. You can see that their structure is simple—geometric and symmetrical. I think their structure made an impression on me.

Ise Gand Shrine, Ise, Japan Miniature Shinto shrine made by Kuwayama factory

Growing up, I always saw people making things, and I was fascinated by this. I spent a lot of time in the factory watching how the shrines were built. The shrine builders were very skillful. I was always very curious, and I would ask them many questions. Because I was the boss’s son, they explained things to me that would be taboo to tell others.

I always liked the challenge and satisfaction of making things myself. As a child, I didn’t get any toys, so I made my own. In primary school I made a back massager out of wood, and I won a prize for my invention. In middle school I made a mahjong set with beautiful pieces. Really, all my life, I have been making things. Once in the US, I moved often with my young family, and I did all the construction in my lofts or studios—making cabinets, furniture, whatever I needed. Whether I am making paintings or cabinets, for me it’s the same energy.

JK: Your father’s business flourished during World War II when Japan made Shinto the official state religion and imposed the practice of Shinto on countries they controlled.

T: Yes. At that time, my father made hundreds of shrines in Korea.

JK: Nagoya, the city where you lived, was a major industrial center, and as such, it became the target of US bombing in the early 1940s. Large parts of the city were destroyed and many people were evacuated.

 T: I remember being sent from the city to stay at a temple in the country. It was a very frightening experience.The factory burned down during the war, and my mother was badly burned.

 JK: In 1945 after the surrender of Japan, the period of State Shinto came to an end. What was life like for you during the US-led occupation that followed?

T: After the war, life was still very hard. No big shrines were being built, and the factory made miniature shrines for homes and public places.

Before the war, everything American was considered bad. After the war, we learned a lot about American culture from magazines and newspapers. I felt that in Western culture an artist could do anything he wanted.

JK: Did you study art in high school?

T: My father sent me to a very strict religious school in Chiba. I had no choice. I took art classes and was making paintings. But in Japan, you had to follow so many rules. You had to work very realistically, copy what you saw—like taking a photograph. There was no abstraction. You were not allowed to use a ruler—you had to measure everything by eye. There was great pressure to work in the traditional way—just as people did when building shrines. A shrine has a specific form, and you were not allowed to change its structure.

JK: Perhaps we can get a glimpse of your independent nature in this high school picture where you are the only art student not wearing a school uniform.

T: I have always hated wearing uniforms, and I had to wear them all the time when I was growing up in Japan. I like to wear red now because I remember that as a boy, I was laughed at for wanting to wear red. People told me only girls wear red, so that made me even more determined to wear that color.

As an artist I feel that it’s very important to make things that are unique, that are different from what other artists do. If I see someone has done something I am thinking about, I give it up and look for something I haven’t seen before.

Tadasuke (back row, second from left) and his Chiba high school art class,
ca 1953

I was the top art student in the school and was painting a lot. I ran the student art committee and painted scenery for school plays. I was able to see European and American paintings in magazines, and I became very curious about them. I thought that there you could paint whatever you wanted. I saw work that was symmetrical and geometric, and I liked it. You would never see this in Japanese art. My art teacher was young, and he wasn’t strict. He knew I didn’t like anyone to tell me how to paint, so he left me alone.

JK: At that time, did you think of becoming an artist?

T: The Japanese economy was terrible after the war. You couldn’t survive as an artist. I didn’t think about becoming a professional artist, but it was always on my mind that I wanted to make things. My older brother was sent to art school, but I was younger and didn’t get that kind of attention. When I came home from high school, I helped with the family business. My three older brothers did not want to run the business, so my parents asked me to do it. But my parents died when I was away at high school, and my brother-in-law was running the business when I came home. One by one, he chased us out.

There were few roads or cars in Japan at that time. But Toyota was making cars, and this interested me. I spent two years in Tokyo staying with an uncle, and I went to a technical school. I studied engineering and got an engineering license.

JK: In the meantime, your brother, who had attended art school in Japan, had moved to New York City to work as an artist.

T: Yes. He wrote and encouraged me to come. He said that New York City was a modern art center, a paradise for young artists. America had a rich economy. He told me that if you were a good painter, you could sell your work in one of the hundreds of galleries there. America became a dream for me.

But at that time, it was very hard to come from Japan to America. You could only come on a student visa. I went to the American Cultural Center and asked about art schools in the US. I sent images of my work to about 20 schools.

I spent three years making a portfolio and finding a school that would accept me as a student. Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan accepted me, but the US Embassy said that I had to have a scholarship to get the student visa. Cranbrook sent an affidavit saying that I would have a scholarship, but the Embassy still wouldn’t give me a visa because I had no money for living expenses. So Cranbrook guaranteed me a job in their cafeteria—I didn’t even know what a cafeteria was!

JK: But you didn’t end up going to Cranbrook.

T: I came to the US in 1961 on a ship to San Francisco. I flew to New York City because my brother was living there. My brother asked me, “Do you want to teach or paint?” I wanted to paint. He said that if your paintings are good, no one cares where you come from. But the rules for a student visa were very strict—I had to attend school to keep it. I was very lucky. There was a competition at the Art Students League. I painted some works with circular forms on scraps of masonite that I found. I entered the competition, and I won first prize. So I got free tuition! I liked to work on my own, but I had to sign in and out at school every day for immigration purposes.

I began to paint circles while living in Japan, but I don’t have any work from that time. I have the early paintings that I did for the competition.

Ma 101, acrylic on masonite, 61 x 91 cm (24 x 36 in), 1961

I was using a very simple turntable that I made. It was small and didn’t turn smoothly, so I couldn’t paint sharp lines. At first I made my own paints from Liquitex base and powdered pigments.

Ma 102, acrylic on masonite, 61 x 91 cm (24 x 36 in), 1961

JK: You soon began to attend the Brooklyn Museum Art School where many Japanese immigrants studied at that time.

T: Mr. Peck, the director, saw my work and asked me how I made my paintings. When I told him, he understood that I couldn’t make them at school. He offered me a scholarship and allowed me to work at home in my own studio, so I had great freedom. No one pushed me in any specific direction. I went to these art schools to keep my student visa, but I took only a few classes. My brother helped me to get carpentry jobs, and I did work for different galleries—Betty Parsons, Leo Castelli.

JK: You received some assistance from well-known gallerist, Ivan Karp, who in 1959 became the associate director at Leo Castelli.

T: I made frames for some of Castelli’s artists, and I met many people at his gallery. Ivan Karp also found me carpentry jobs. I rented a space on Canal Street and fixed it up myself. I was paying about $60 a month.

JK: In 1962, you moved to a new space on Ferry Street and again fixed up the living and studio spaces. And you began to paint on canvas.

A 2, acrylic on canvas, 107 x 107 cm (42 x 42 in), 1962

T: Yes. I was painting a lot. I decided that I wanted to have 100 paintings before I would show them to a gallery.

A 12, acrylic on canvas, 81 x 81 cm (32 x 32 in), 1962A 12 detail

And I was becoming more clear—knowing I wanted pure geometric form. In Japan, the individual artist’s brushwork is very important, but I did not want to focus on that. I wanted clean, smooth lines and bands of color. I improved my wheel, but my forms were not yet crisp and clean.

JK: You met your future wife, Patty Hagan, in the winter of 1962-63 and married in August, 1963.

T: Yes. To get my student visa, I had to sign a paper saying I wouldn’t marry an American woman, but I broke that promise! My sons were born in 1970 and 1976.

JK: In 1964 you sold your first painting.

T: Yes. The painter, Malcolm Morley, brought a collector from Detroit to my studio. She wanted to buy a painting, but I didn’t know how much to charge. I sold her one for about $250. That was a lot of money in 1964. The painting B 106 is similar to the one I sold her.

B 106, acrylic and silver leaf on canvas,
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1964

JK: You soon developed modifications to your wheel that allowed you to paint with the precision you wanted, although your process still demanded great steadiness, concentration and control.

T: The first wheel I made had ball bearings that rolled on the floor. The whole wheel rotated, and this produced too much vibration. I couldn’t make the paintings as perfect as I wanted them. I tried many different ways of putting the bearings together in a mechanism that I built in the center under the wheel. After a long time, I made a wheel that worked very well, turning the paintings in a way that was completely smooth.

Tadasky painting on a wheel in his Ferry Street studio, 1964
Photo credit: Tatsuo Kondo

As we see in a painting from 1964, your forms had become very clean and geometric..

B 108, acrylic on canvas, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 1964

T: These paintings were what I really wanted to create. From then on, I could concentrate on experimenting with color, shape, and so on.

B 174, acrylic on canvas, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 1964B 160, acrylic on canvas, 38 x 38 cm (15 x 15 in), 1964

JK: Your art was being associated with the Op Art movement. In 1964, one of your paintings was featured in Life magazine’s article, “Op Art: A dizzying fascinating style of painting.”

T: Yes. As I said, I wasn’t interested in creating moiré patterns or other optical tricks; I was interested in beauty and clarity. When you see my paintings reproduced at a small size, this can create strong moiré patterns.

Ivan Karp told me that I should call a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, William Seitz, who was putting together an exhibition that my work might fit in. Seitz came to my studio. He liked my work and took five or six paintings to the museum where some important collectors saw them.

JK: Among them, collector Larry Aldrich, who donated generously to MoMA and founded The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, bought one of your paintings. And Philip Johnson, renowned architect and Director of the Department of Architecture at MoMA, bought A 100, shown below, and in turn, introduced your work to many critics and collectors.

 
A 100, acrylic on canvas, 178 x 178 cm (70 x 70 in), 1964

T: Yes. Philip Johnson encouraged me greatly. These things would never have happened to a young artist in Japan.

Tadasky in his Ferry Street studio, 1964

JK: The museum bought your painting, A 101, for their permanent collection. And Seitz included it in what was to become a landmark exhibition, The Responsive Eye, which opened at MoMA in 1965. This painting was hung again in a New Acquisitions exhibit the following year.

 
 A 101, acrylic on canvas, 132 x 132 cm (52 x 52 in), 1964
(Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York;
to be show in April, 2013 at the Grand Palais, Paris, France)

T: I tried to give a small painting to William Seitz, but he insisted he should pay me something for it.

JK: Seitz then gifted the work to the museum, and it appeared in a New Acquisitions show in 1965.

B 171, acrylic on canvas, 38 x 38 cm (15 x 15 in), 1964
(Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York)

T: Yes. And my painting C 136 was included in The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture curated by Dorothy Miller and William Lieberman. It opened at the San Francisco Museum and travelled several places before coming to MoMA.

C 136, acrylic on canvas, 175 x 175 cm (69 x 69 in), 1965

JK: So you saw your paintings at MoMA four times in a space of two years. And your work was also selected for the exhibition, Kinetic and Optic Art Today, held at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York in 1965.

T: Yes. I was very surprised to receive so much attention. I was very lucky to be able to support myself as a young artist developing my own way of painting. These experiences and the support of people like Philip Johnson and William Seitz gave me great confidence.

JK: In 1965 you got your first gallery representation—at the highly regarded Kootz Gallery where, for example, Picasso had his first US exhibition. Kootz showed many European artists like Hans Hofmann and Adolph Gottlieb, and he championed a number of major abstract expressionists.

 
C 177, acrylic on canvas, 119 x 119 cm (47 x 47 in), 1965C 182, acrylic on canvas, 145 x 145 cm (57 x 57 in), 1965

T: I never expected this. Samuel Kootz came to my studio, bought a number of paintings, and offered to represent me. Leo Castelli asked to come to my studio, too, but I told him I was already represented by Kootz. He was not happy with this. I had two solo shows at Kootz Gallery in 1965, and I sold many paintings.

JK: You did a lot of experimentation in the early 60s.

D 135, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 150 cm (59 x 59 in), 1966

For example, here we can see that as early as 1964, you were using an airbrush as well as a Japanese brush.

B 179, acrylic on canvas, 114 x 114 cm (45 x 45 in), 1964

 T: I was painting all the time. I had so many ideas I wanted to try out. In B 179 and B 183, I like the contrast between the perfect circles and the softness.

B 183, acrylic on canvas, 119 x 119 cm (47 x 47 in), 1964

JK: Let’s look at some of the variations in your work from the early- to mid-60s. You would revisit many of these ideas in the coming years.

You sometimes painted circles in acrylic paint against a background of silver leaf.

D 112, acrylic and silver leaf on canvas,
221 x 218 cm (87 x 86 in), 1965

T: I used a material called “ginpaku” that I saw craftsmen use in Nagoya. I bought it in 3- or 4-inch squares that were very difficult to handle. I would have to stop breathing when I applied them because the sheets were so thin. The silver had been oxidized to create different colors, so I had choices. The varnish that I use on my paintings stops further oxidation of the silver—without it, the silver leaf would get darker over time and change the painting.

JK: As we saw earlier, you would sometimes break up the concentric circles in various ways.

T: These paintings are more active, less quiet than the works in which I didn’t break up the circles.

C 174, acrylic on canvas, 119 x 119 cm (47 x 47 in), 1965C 183, acrylic on canvas, 145 x 145 cm (57 x 57 in), 1965

JK: Here we see you breaking up the ground on which the circles are painted, manipulating the square formats—though you still maintained symmetry.

T: Yes. I was trying out more new ideas.

D 105, acrylic on canvas, 119 x 119 cm (47x 47 in), 1966D 101, acrylic on canvas, 119 x 119 cm (47 x 47 in), 1966

JK: You were also exploring different shapes and formats.

T: I have always been very curious. I get an idea, and I want to try it.

D 116, acrylic and silver leaf, 124 x 124 cm (49 x 49 in), 1965

 

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