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Gagosian Quarterly

May 15, 2017

Rediscovering Arakawa

A whole generation of artists and art has been largely deprived of the intensely complex but wildly influential work of the Japanese-born artist Arakawa, who forged prescient and crucial links between Dadaism, abstract art, Minimalism, conceptual art, Pop art, and more. As a result, Arakawa’s work has an almost revelatory quality now, refreshingly apparent in Gagosian West 24th Street’s show of six seldom-seen paintings from the 1960s and 1970s. Text by David Colman.

Arakawa, Texture of Time, 1977, acrylic, pencil, art marker on canvas, 69 × 103 ½ inches, framed (175.3 × 262.9 cm)

Arakawa, Texture of Time, 1977, acrylic, pencil, art marker on canvas, 69 × 103 ½ inches, framed (175.3 × 262.9 cm)

Today’s golden age of rediscovery has truly embraced the spirit of the hunt, poring into art history books and poking into attics to resurrect and restore critical attention and acclaim to many unjustly neglected artists’ oeuvres and legacies. So it’s natural that one could assume a similar story line behind the career of the expansive and cerebral Japanese-American painter Arakawa.

But, as befits his always-surprising career, the story of Arakawa is no simple rediscovery of a neglected talent. In the first place, painting didn’t leave him—he left painting. Around 1990, Arakawa decided to shift his focus away from his art-making practice to work with his wife and longtime collaborator Madeline Gins on theoretical architecture projects. In the second place, this second act was like a second show all its own, producing ambitious, colorful, and mind-bending buildings like the Bioscleave House (aka Life Expanding Villa) they completed in East Hampton, NY, a decade ago (with a sculptural “floor” as uneven as an Alpine hike). Designed to rejuvenate the sensory system and reverse the aging process, this and other housing projects broke through many boundaries: not just of art, but architecture, philosophy, phenomenology, biology, domesticity, cognitive theory, and probably a dozen other realms still to be named.

But to view the works in Arakawa: Six Paintings is to reconsider his overlooked legacy from its 1960s beginnings rather than its culmination. This is not an artist who forsook art for architecture, but an artist who reveled in accommodating, exploring, and reconciling the half-dozen or more art movements that were variously vying for supremacy in the ’60s and ’70s (and yet never epitomizing a single one). While only comprising six works, the show makes clear what an incredible hub of aesthetic and philosophical ideas Arakawa managed to represent in his painting, from the superficial visual elements to the abstruse theoretical concepts. From the Neo-Dada school, there are Rauschenberg-ian images and a sketchy, Twombly-esque aesthetic of ephemerality. There are the stenciled numbers and letters—present in Jasper Johns’s work as well as in proto-Pop artists like Larry Rivers and Robert Indiana. His work also dovetails neatly with the text-driven practices of conceptual artists like Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner (not to mention his fellow Japanese conceptualist Yoko Ono). And from Marcel Duchamp—an early champion soon after Arakawa arrived in New York from his native Japan in 1961—the painter absorbed provocative relational ideas about the essential nature of art as something experienced by a viewer.

Rediscovering Arakawa

Arakawa, "NO!!" Says the Volume, 1978, acrylic, pencil, art marker on canvas, 75 × 123 inches (190.5 × 312.4 cm)

Indeed, what’s so engrossing about the brief show is how deftly Arakawa manages so masterfully to weave together seemingly diverse movements into something that reads nonetheless as wholly authentic and unique. One 1971 canvas, From Mechanism of Meaning, merges freehand scribbling with a rigid conceptual framework to create an engagingly messy chart of more than two dozen ways to conceive of (or perceive) a lemon. (Some of the options: PAINTING OF A LEMON, LAST LEMON, MEMORY OF A LEMON, ACTUAL LEMON, HIDDEN LEMON, et al.) Other works merge, say, the conceptually scientific with the fancifully absurdist just as naturally, as if Arakawa was born to hybridize.

At the same time, the irony is that Arakawa is so formidably unique—arguably more unique than some artists to which he’s linked. But as visionary as he was, his layered aesthetic highlights a signal failure in today’s machinery of art appreciation: that is, its marked tendency to value artists that epitomize one singular practice or aesthetic over artists who function as hubs and connectors between movements and worlds.

That has been changing in the last decade, with the new engine of rediscovery having redirected critical focus to unorthodox artists the canon march left behind. That is the story here. Arakawa accommodated art, art didn’t accommodate him. From the look of this show, this time around it can and will. For a man who dreamt that art and architecture could somehow point the way to (if not deliver) eternal life, this overdue renaissance is a special kind of justice in more ways than one.

Artwork © 2017 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins. Photos by Rob McKeever. Arakawa: Six Paintings at Gagosian West 24th Street, New York, May 2–26, 2017.

The cover of the Fall 2019 Gagosian Quarterly magazine. Artwork by Nathaniel Mary Quinn

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Fall 2019

The Fall 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Sinking (2019) by Nathaniel Mary Quinn on its cover.

Arakawa: Diagrams for the Imagination

Arakawa: Diagrams for the Imagination

The exhibition Arakawa: Diagrams for the Imagination receives a closer look by Gagosian director Ealan Wingate. In this video, he discusses the artist’s arrival in New York and examines the importance of maps and language in Arakawa’s work.

Losing Nothing: Arakawa and Madeline Gins

Losing Nothing: Arakawa and Madeline Gins

Mary Ann Caws reflects on the centrality of perception and imagination in Arakawa’s art, from his early diagrammatic paintings to his later architectural investigations with Madeline Gins.

Gagosian Quarterly Fall 2018

Gagosian Quarterly Fall 2018

The Fall 2018 Gagosian Quarterly issue is now available, featuring Memory Quilt for a Large Ball by Nate Lowman on its cover.

Jenny Saville, Pietà I, 2019–21, charcoal and pastel on canvas

Jenny Saville: A cyclical rhythm of emergent forms

An exhibition curated by Sergio Risaliti, director of the Museo Novecento, Florence, pairs artworks by Jenny Saville with artists of the Italian Renaissance. On view across that city at the Museo Novecento, the Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the Museo degli Innocenti, and the Museo di Casa Buonarroti through February 20, 2022, the presentation features paintings and drawings by Saville from the 1990s through to work made especially for the occasion. Here, Risaliti reflects on the resonances and reverberations brought about by these pairings.

Cy Twombly, Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catallus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), 1994, oil, acrylic, oil stick, crayon, and graphite on three canvases,

Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor

Thierry Greub tracks the literary references in Cy Twomblys epic painting of 1994.

Portrait of Sir John Richardson, New York, 2005. Photo: Janette Beckman/Getty Images

The Art of Biography: Sir John Richardson’s “The Minotaur Years”

Pepe Karmel celebrates the release of A Life of Picasso IV: The Minotaur Years, 1933–1943, the final installment of Sir John Richardson’s magisterial biography.

Diego Rivera, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, installation view, San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)

The San Francisco Art Institute: Its History and Future

Constance Lewallen marks the 150th anniversary of the San Francisco Art Institute, exploring the school’s evolution and pioneering faculty, as well as current challenges and the innovations necessary for its preservation.

Rachelle Mozman Solano, Las Damas, 2010, chromogenic print,

The Destination Is Latinx

Susan Breyer surveys the dynamic state of contemporary Latinx art in the United States. Highlighting seven artists who are rewriting cultural narratives, Breyer calls for sustained attention to this growing group beyond National Hispanic Heritage Month.

John Currin, Memorial, 2020 (detail), oil on canvas, 62 × 40 inches (157.5 × 101.6 cm)

John Currin: Monuments to Lust

Natasha Stagg reports on a trip to John Currin’s New York studio.

Installation view of Urs Fischer’s Untitled (2011) in the exhibition Ouverture, Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection, Paris, 2021. Artwork © Urs Fischer, courtesy Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection © Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, Niney et Marca Architectes, Agence Pierre-Antoine Gatier. Photo: Stefan Altenburger

Bourse de Commerce

William Middleton traces the development of the new institution, examining the collaboration between the collector François Pinault and the architect Tadao Ando in revitalizing the historic space. Middleton also speaks with artists Tatiana Trouvé and Albert Oehlen about Pinault’s passion as a collector, and with the Bouroullec brothers, who created design features for the interiors and exteriors of the museum.

Anna Halprin in The Prophetess, 1955.

Game Changer
Anna Halprin

Jacquelynn Baas celebrates the choreographer, dancer, and teacher, tracing the profound influence she had on the worlds of dance and art.