Japanese Artists in New York City

- Artistic Traces from the 1910s to the 1940s -


The first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 is probably best known for the controversial “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp. At this non-juried, non-prize-awarding exhibition, Japanese artists who were active in New York at the time also exhibited a number of works. Some of these artists, such as Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Isamu Noguchi, have become quite well known and are featured frequently in art museums to this day. When Kuniyoshi and Noguchi were working in pre-WWII New York however, there were always around twenty Japanese artists at any given time in the city.

This exhibition will introduce the footprints of many of these artists, spanning from the 1910s to 1940s,  through images of their works, catalogs of art exhibitions, and art columns from English and Japanese newspapers. It will also explore the relationship between Japanese artists in New York and the American art scene of the time, and attempt to situate their creative endeavors in context as well as clarify the intentions of their work.

About this Exhibition

Many of the artists featured in this exhibit are unknown Japanese who were active in the United States. For this reason, many of their works are unaccounted for today and their activism and creative activities have therefore been buried in history. Although Japanese artists in prewar New York, such as Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Eitaro Ishigaki, have been attracting more attention in recent years, there has been little research conducted on art columns in either English or Japanese-language newspapers of the time. This exhibition is the first of its kind to introduce the differences in views and historical background between art from the American and Japanese communities in prewar New York. It will present images of works from over twenty museums and archives in the U.S. and Japan, as well as exhibition catalogs and newspapers. The exhibition is the result of years of careful research by guest curator Mai Sato. 

The Digital Museum of the History of Japanese in New York will digitize these materials for preservation within its archive. This will not only aid in confirming which works of art still exist, but will also clarify the composition of scattered works that can only be found in exhibition catalogs of the time. It also introduces Japanese-language materials into a field where English-language research has been dominant, which has made it possible to present Japanese artistic activities of the time period from both Japanese and U.S. perspectives.

The United States  without a background; Americans who intuitively imagine commercialism; the U.S. surrounded by this atmosphere – it does not demand art. How can art be born in this United States?

My friend argued that artists cannot be born into a country that does not require art. Of course, it is his personal opinion that art is not demanded in this way. However, if you think about it in a broader sense, there isn’t a place in the world that doesn’t appeal to the true essence of the arts. The world today, or at any time in history, has always been hungry for true art. If something is manifested, the world will not miss it.

But even in this business-minded America, we have had Walt Whitman and painters like Albert P. Ryder. If only we could appreciate the beauty of nature with a little more open-mindedness, rather than seeing the U.S. as a non-artistic country, the atmosphere in the U.S. would be as great to the researcher as it was to  Whitman and Ryder.

(Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Bijutsu Gakan,” New York Shimpo, Feb. 18, 1922)