The Art of Kobashi Yasuhide

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    Yasuhide Kobashi (1931-2003). Man in Flurry, 1958. Print; ink and color on paper. Anonymous loan (L40612.24)

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November 18, 2010 - February 20, 2011
Gallery 14

Exhibition Overview

Kobashi Yasuhide (1931-2003) was born into an artistic family, with his father being a recognized ceramic artist and head of the Kyoto Industrial Craft Company. As a young man he was exposed to a wide range of arts, including sculpture, stage design, carpentry, stone cutting, ceramics, calligraphy, painting, and furniture design. Most notably, he studied woodblock printmaking under Hiratsuka Unichi (1895-1997), one of the leading innovators in the Creative Print (ssaku-hanga) movement that advocated total artistic control by a single artist over the entire printmaking process, in contrast to the traditional methods of ukiyo-e in which designer, carver, printer, and publisher all had a role in production.

Kobashi graduated from the Kyoto College of Crafts and Textiles in 1955, and four years later moved to New York, where his art took on a decidedly international perspective. At first he was sponsored by Lincoln Kirstein of the New York City Ballet, who had visited his studio in Kyoto and commissioned a number of works from him. After an unsatisfying first gallery exhibition in New York, he approached Elaine De Kooning, art critic and wife of influential Abstract Expressionist Willem De Kooning, and asked her to recommend the ten best galleries in New York. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kobashi ultimately entered into an exclusive arrangement with the Allan Stone Gallery, newly opened in 1960, with which De Kooning had a relationship. He would continue to work with this gallery for more than three decades.

When Kobashi moved to New York in 1959, many American intellectuals and artists were eager to learn about Japan. A number of American soldiers had developed a fascination for Japanese culture during the Occupation (1945-52), and interest in Japan was partly a result of this postwar influx. Among the early influences to reach a wide cross section of American society was Suzuki Daisetsu's (1870-1966) Introduction to Zen Buddhism, published in English in 1949 with a preface by the noted psychologist Carl Jung. Drawing on his experience as a Zen priest, Suzuki promoted Zen through a lecture tour of U.S. universities in 1951, followed by a period from 1952 to 1957 when he served as guest lecturer at Columbia University, where his students included such seminal figures as Alan Watts. Suzuki's lectures at Columbia were part of a larger trend in academia that saw the establishment of Japanese Studies programs at universities across the country. The Japanese cultural wave also brought major art exhibitions to the United States, together with movies by critically acclaimed directors like Kurosawa Akira and other aspects of popular culture. These circumstances contributed to Kobashis warm reception in the United States.

Although Kobashi made artworks in a wide variety of media, it was his sculptures that quickly attracted the attention of New York collectors. He called his three-dimensional work self-constructing sculpture, and focused on moveable compositions that could be arranged into an ever-changing variety of combinations. In a 1961 interview with Newsweek, Kobashi described his art: It's not good sculpture and its not bad sculpture. It's sculpture you can make yourself. Solid, unmoving sculpture is tiresome. We can't live by just one course. We have to be able to change things." Both of Kobashi's moveable sculptures in this exhibition are examples of the kind of work that was praised by critics and received publicity in leading newpapers and journals of the time, including Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Village Voice.

Kobashi's sculptures eventually drew the attention of Nelson Rockefeller, then Governor of New York, who would go on to become Vice President of the United States in 1974. Rockefeller acquired a sculpture, similar to Plumbob in this exhibition, for the Governor's Mansion in Albany, and said of it in a New York Times Magazine interview, " can make your own composition. Not only for the legislators but also for our son, this is a great source of satisfaction. It lets you participate, and participating in life is a very important part of life's enjoyment." Under Rockefeller's influence, Kobashi began to design monumental public sculptures, an activity that he continued when he returned to Japan.

Self-Construction includes 36 works by Kobashi in diverse formats, from the mid-1950s to the early 21st century.