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 Yasuo Kuniyoshi  (1899 - 1953)

/ koo-nee-YOE-shee/
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Lived/Active: New York/California / Japan      Known for: modernist figure, genre, still life and landscape painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A modernist painter, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, known as “Yas”, combined in his figures, animals and still life elements of 19th-century folk art, Japanese motif, and modernist European and American art with a whimsical approach of his own.  His work had precise draftsmanship, symbolism, decorative imagery, and he took real-world themes and injected them with fantasy and a tone of moodiness.  Some of his work was decorative such as the Art-Deco motif wall paintings he did for the women's lounge in Radio City Music Hall in New York. 

He was a native of Japan, born in Okayama, and attended elementary and technical schools there, studying dyeing and weaving.  He came to the United States at age sixteen with his family in 1906, and they settled in Seattle where he worked in an office building as a porter.  He attended night school at the Los Angeles School of Art, and worked menial jobs during the day such as working in gardens in the Imperial Valley, and as a bellhop in hotels.  In 1910, he moved to New York where he attended the National Academy of Design, the Robert Henri School, the Independent School, and the Art Students League with Kenneth Hayes Miller.  Later he became a teacher at the League.

In 1917, he first exhibited and also had career-changing exposure to work by modernists "Pop" Hart and Jules Pascin, whom he later met in Paris.  To earn money, he took up photography, and also specialized in reproducing images of paintings and sculpture.

He visited Europe for the first time in 1925, spending time primarily in Paris and Venice.  At the invitation of artist Hamilton Easter Field,  (1876-1922) he spent several summers in Ogunquit, Maine where Field was the founder of the art school.  At Ogunquit, he met and married painter Katherine Schmidt, his first wife. (His second wife was Sara Mazo, a journalist).  Of him becoming increasingly acclimated to his adopted country, Schmidt said:  "He had become so Americanized he became more American that some Americans, you know slang and dirty stories, and he always got dirty stories a little wrong; it didn't seem to make any difference to him." (Pollock 257)

In the 1922 and 1928, he had one-man shows at the Daniel Gallery, owned by Charles Daniel in New York City, but his career really ascended in the 1930s when he was added to the roster of artists of the Downtown Gallery, owned by Edith Halpert in Greenwich Village.  He also joined artist organizations including Salons of America, Hamilton Easter Field Foundation, American Artists' Congress and Artists Equity that he served four years as President.  In 1932, his mural, a wall decoration titled Exotic Flowers, was installed in the second-mezzanine ladies lounge at Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center, New York City.  Described as "combining the aesthetics of East and West" and a "magical garden evoking his world of fantasy with delicately rendered larger-than-life botanical designs"(Roussel 33), the floral motif was well received by the public.  Indicative of public recognition of his talents was the Guggenheim Fellowship he received in 1935.

In the early 1930s, Kuniyoshi began spending regular time at Woodstock, New York where he was an instructor at the Woodstock School of Painting, founded by Judson Smith and himself in 1927.  Kuniyoshi built a studio on Ohayo Mountain Road, and he became an enthusiastic gardener and took many photographs of his blooming flowers.  In 1935, as part of his Guggenheim Fellowship, he visited Taos, New Mexico as a summer visitor.  "He found the picturesqueness overpowering and did little painting.

However, with the approach of World War II, Kuniyoshi's position in America, like that of other Japanese-Americans, was precarious.  Edith Halpert went to special effort to support him including the organizing of a loan exhibition of his work that showed he was a model American.  Alfred Barr, Jr., Director of the Museum of Modern Art, tried unsuccessfully to influence political friends to allow citizenship for him.  Kuniyoshi, seeking escape from mounting personal tension, went to Colorado Springs to the Fine Art Center, where he sensed little hatred of Japanese living in America.  However, in New York after the U.S. declared war on Japan, he was placed under house arrest and had his bank account impounded.  His offer to serve as an observer on the Aircraft Warning Service was rejected. 

To those who knew him, these actions seemed very unfair as for some time he had been outspoken against his birth country's aggression that led to the war.  Many persons defended him.  A reviewer for the New Yorker magazine, having seen Halpert’s loan exhibition, referred to Kuniyoshi as “the foremost living Japanese painter in the world . . . and one of the most active opponents of Japanese militarism.”  Other critics of the exhibition “singled out paintings of cows, crows, and a self-portrait as a golfer as among the best---works that combined the artist’s passion for American and Japanese folklore and blended Western and Eastern painting techniques.” However, it was also said that walking the streets of New York, he was treated “as if an enemy were in their midst.” (Pollock 258-259)  Although American attitudes changed somewhat after the War, and later his name was cleared by the State Department, feelings against him persisted.  Indicative of ongoing suspicion towards Kuniyoshi and other Japanese-Americans was government officials’ request of the removal of a Kuniyoshi painting of a skater in a 1953 government-sponsored exhibition.  The reason given was that Kuniyoshi, who had died that year, was a communist.

However, for those persons familiar with the realities of the life of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, he is one of the creative talents of the early 20th Century of whom Americans can be most proud.  The following words seem an apt summary of his fine-art contributions:  “He is most often thought of as a painter of landscapes and still lives in which the normal relationships of objects are completely disregarded in a symbolistic manner. But he also painted a gallery of women, each highly individualistic, silent, waiting, thoughtful, or weary; his perception of them increased with his own maturity and widening human sympathies.


Sources:
Lindsay Pollock, The Girl With the Gallery
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Anita M. Smith, Woodstock: History and Hearsay
Christine Roussel, The Guide to the Art of Rockefeller Center
Dan Klein, All Color Book of Art Deco
Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
Barewalls.com (http://www.3d-dali.com/Artist-Biographies/Yasuo_Kuniyoshi.html)

Compiled by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier



This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Okayama, Japan on Sept. 1, 1889.  Kuniyoshi arrived in the U.S. in 1906 and the following year moved to Los Angeles.  He began his art studies there at the School of Art & Design during 1908-10.  He continued in NYC in the studio of Kenneth Hayes Miller and at the ASL and NAD.  Most of his career was spent in NYC.  He died there on May 14, 1953. 

A modernist,  his works were often based upon imagery and symbolic motif.  His subjects included sensuous females, somber landscapes, cows, children and other figures.

Exh: 
Olympiad, LACMA, 1932; SFAA, 1932; Painters & Sculptors of LA, 1934 (prize); GGIE, 1939; Calif. WC Society, 1939-42; Whitney Museum, 1948 (solo); Univ. of Texas (Austin), 1975 (retrospective). 

In: 
San Diego Museum; Whitney Museum; AIC; Columbus (OH) Museum; MOMA; Brooklyn Museum; Dallas Museum; Honolulu Academy of Arts. 
Source:
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
WWAA 1947; Sam; American Art Review, Feb. 1997; NY Times, 5-15-1953 (obit).
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


Yasuo Kuniyoshi is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Art Deco
Modernism



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