September 1937
Exhibition of Asian Artists Excluded from the WPA

Fig. 104. Eitaro Ishigaki, "K.K.K."
Fig. 105. Chuzo Tamotsu, "Fire Trap”
Fig. 106. Roy Kadowaki, "George Washington Bridge"
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In addition to the large annual exhibitions, which were a prestigious event for artists, the American Artists’ Congress also held special exhibitions. Among these special exhibitions, “Paintings by New York Chinese Japanese Artists” in September 1937 and “An Exhibition in Defense of World Democracy, Dedicated to the People of Spain and China” in December 1937 prominently displayed the works of Japanese artists.

In September 1937, “Paintings by New York Chinese Japanese Artists” exhibited works by Asian artists who had been dismissed from the WPA in July of that year. The WPA dismissed artists who were not U.S. citizens as a supposed cost-cutting measure. Prior to this event, Japanese artists without American citizenship had earned a living by working for the federal government’s WPA program, which had been in effect since 1935.

Three exhibitions were held in the summer of 1937 to protest the dismissal of Asian artists from the WPA. The first was “Pink Slips Over Culture” (July 19-July 31, 1937), followed by “4 out of 500 Artists Dismissed from the W.P.A. (August 30-September 11, 1937)” and “Paintings by New York Chinese Japanese Artists (September 12-September 26, 1937),” which opened at the ACA Gallery under the auspices of the American Artists’ Congress, the Artists’ Union, and the WPA’s Citizens Committee.

Eitaro Ishigaki, Chuzo Tamotzu, and Chikamichi Yamasaki exhibited in the first “Pink Slips Over Culture” exhibition. The third exhibition, “Paintings by New York Chinese Japanese Artists,” featured works by Yosei Amemiya, Eitaro Ishigaki, Roy Kadowaki, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Kaname Miyamo, Thomas Nagai, Fuji Nakamizo, Kiyoshi Shimizu, Sakari Suzuki, Chuzo Tamotzu, George Tera, Bumpei Usui, Chikamichi Yamasaki, and Bunji Tagawa.

The exhibition featured 42 works by 18 artists from Japan and China.

Harry Gottlieb said:

“Asian painters dismissed from the W.P.A. for not having citizenship rights have made important contributions to our collective cultural life. They have exhibited their work in American museums, are members of the Organization of American Painters, and have been accepted as Americans. This dismissal deprives them of their talents and denies their identity as artists.”

(American Contemporary Art Gallery, Paintings by New York Chinese Japanese Artists, 1937, in ACA Gallery, 61 and 63, East 57th Street. (Exhibition catalog, New York: A.C.A. Gallery, 1937).

The Sun wrote of the exhibition:

“An ironic aspect of the exhibition is its lack of Eastern elements, while Western influences and themes are evident all across the board, right down to the influence of communist tendencies. Western influences can also be seen in the work of the wonderful surrealist Sakari Suzuki and Eitaro Ishigaki’s depiction of a Basque woman tossing soldiers with abandon. They portray contemporary social issues in a modern way. Chuzo Tamotsu is the most Americanized painter, with his realistic ‘Jersey Station’ and ‘Fire Trap.’ Roy Kadowaki’s ‘George Washington Bridge’ is a unique composition in which the repeated curves of the road toward the bridge create a rhythmic effect.”

(Melville Upton, “New Light on Eastman Johnson: Early Work at Frazier Gallery Other Local Exhibitions of Interest,” The Sun, Sep.18, 1937)

The exhibition “Paintings by New York Chinese Japanese Artists,” which opened in September 1937, may have provided an opportunity to show how Asian artists without U.S. citizenship were Americanizing themselves in this country. The exhibition also coincided with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, which allowed Japanese artists to reaffirm their identity as artists working in the U.S. without citizenship and to express their commitment to anti-war ideals.