Gagosian Quarterly

Fall 2022 Issue

In Conversation

SetsukoY.z. Kami

The artists address their shared ardor for poetry, the surfaces of painting, and nature.

Setsuko, Chat assis sur fauteuil en osier vert (Cat sitting on green wicker chair), 1996–97, oil and gouache on paper, 45 ½ × 31 ½ inches (115.5 × 80 cm) © Setsuko. Photo: Zarko Vijatovic

Setsuko, Chat assis sur fauteuil en osier vert (Cat sitting on green wicker chair), 1996–97, oil and gouache on paper, 45 ½ × 31 ½ inches (115.5 × 80 cm) © Setsuko. Photo: Zarko Vijatovic

Y.Z. Kami

Y.Z. Kami was born in Tehran. He lives and works in New York. His work reflects a diverse range of interests, from portraiture to architecture, from photography to sacred and literary texts. Kami’s work has been featured in public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the British Museum, London; and many other institutions worldwide.

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Setsuko was born in 1942 in Tokyo and lives and works in Paris and at the Grand Chalet de Rossinière, Switzerland. She has exhibited in Tokyo, Paris, London, Rome, Geneva, and New York, and her work is included in institutional collections such as that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Since 2002, Setsuko has served as the honorary president of the Fondation Balthus, and in 2005 she was designated UNESCO’s Artist for Peace. Photo: Yuko Yamashita

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Y.Z. KamiI remember fondly the evening when we met at my book signing in Paris. It was just before the pandemic, and we shared a lovely Japanese meal afterward. If I recall, we spoke quite extensively about Balthus.

SetsukoYes, it was really moving to talk with you about him, painting, and prayer. He used to say that to paint was the same thing for him as the act of praying. So naturally I felt a deep connection to your work, especially the paintings of the praying hands.

YZKThank you, Setsuko. This means a great deal to me. Ever since my student years in Paris, Balthus’s work has been very special to me. Around that time, in the late 1970s, it wasn’t very visible in museums, so I was familiar with it primarily through books. And through those reproductions, you were an important figure for me because you were the sitter for La Chambre Turque [The Turkish room, 1965–66], which I absolutely love, as well as for Japonaise au miroir noir [Japanese girl with black mirror, 1967–76] and Japonaise à la table rouge [Japanese girl with red table, 1967–76]. Later, I saw reproductions of your own paintings and ceramic works. Then I finally got to see your work in person at Gagosian, during a trip to Paris in 2019. Those glazed terra-cotta trees have stayed vividly in my mind. I always think that one has to experience sculpture in person, because it’s three-dimensional.

Setsuko and Y.Z. Kami

Setsuko, Raisin II, 2022, enameled terra-cotta, 28 ⅜ × 11 ¾ × 9 ½ inches (72 × 30 × 24 cm) © Setsuko. Photo: Thomas Lannes

SThank you very much. When I saw Daya’s Hands II [2015–16], your painting of praying hands, in Paris in 2018, I thought, in a deep sense, that to pray is to paint a portrait. And today the portrait is a difficult thing to paint, I suppose because of photography. But you keep painting.

YZKYes, absolutely. It maintains something that the photograph can’t. As you well know, in reproductions of paintings, what we lose is the surface of the canvas, which is essential. The surface of Balthus’s paintings, especially the later work with casein and tempera—that surface is so unique to him. I’ve always said that every painter has to invent her or his own surface. All of that is unfortunately lost in a photograph of the work.

SYes, but also fortunately, in a certain sense: the reason why we have to see the real is because there’s a difference. Each work has its own energy, which asks to be experienced directly. This was made clear to me when I saw an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings. Even the small ones, when you see them, they are huge and strong—


SAnd if you see the reproduction, they remain small. So it’s fortunate that there’s that difference. It’s like music, with the differences between being at a concert or listening to a record.

Setsuko and Y.Z. Kami

Y.Z. Kami, Night Painting I (for William Blake), 2017–18, oil on linen, 99 × 99 inches (251.5 × 251.5 cm) © Y.Z. Kami. Photo: Rob McKeever

YZKWhen I was finally able to see Balthus’s paintings in the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 1983, it was a revelation, because being in front of the work, not the book, I could experience the surface of the canvas.

SHe cared about the surface, and about the act of seeing a painting in person. It was very interesting, when I was twenty-something, I wanted to do a painting and I told Balthus I would like to paint. He said, If you don’t do an oil painting, it’ll be better [laughter]. I asked him why. He explained that I’d be best served by following my roots, and because the Japanese tradition is very light, it would be better to use the light, transparent materials of our tradition. And for the most part, I followed this advice—I’ve done only two or three oil paintings.

YZKYes, you otherwise work with water-based paint, like watercolor, gouache—

SGouache, and I use some traditional Japanese mineral colors for certain works. Do you use oil?

YZKYes, my paintings are nearly exclusively oil. All the portraits and figures are oil, and also the series of Night Paintings that I started a few years ago.

SOh yes, those indigo works.

YZKYes, it’s said that indigo is the color of the sky on a moonless night, that dark darkness—that’s why I call them Night Paintings, although I paint them in daylight.

SIn that series, and in the portraits that I saw in Paris, you seem to have mixed a little bit of casein in with the oil.

YZKOh [laughs], I’m so happy that you noticed! Well, I do make a special mixture with oil paint, but it’s not casein.

Setsuko and Y.Z. Kami

Setsuko, Untitled, 1967, watercolor and india ink on paper, 42 × 30 inches (106.5 × 76.2 cm) © Setsuko. Photo: Thomas Lannes

SThis makes sense, because it’s a sort of fresco surface that you achieve, a fresco effect.

YZKI’ve been developing that for years, exactly because of what you said: to bring the surface closer to wall painting, to fresco, by getting rid of the shininess of the oil. I’m happy that you noticed that dryness of the surface.

SYes. The effect also gives the paintings a timeless quality . . . you can’t situate when they were made, if that makes sense?

YZKIt could be today, or it could be centuries ago.

SThe unknown period [laughter].

YZKI’d love to hear about the relationship between your work and nature. This September you’re having an exhibition of new ceramics, paintings, and drawings at Gagosian in Rome, titled Into the Trees II.

SIn Japan we have Shinto, preceding even Buddhism. Shinto is animist. We find soul everywhere in nature: the stone, the tree, the river. It’s similar to many Native American peoples, the belief that power and sacred things are found in everything, from the smallest flowers and beyond. In Shinto the tree especially is praised. Let me show you: we write in Chinese characters—see here—here is the sign of a human being and here is a sign of tree, and the two together make the sign for rest. If you take the tree from the human being, we have no rest.

YZKThat’s beautiful.

Setsuko and Y.Z. Kami

Y.Z. Kami, Messenger III, 2022, oil on linen, 66 × 48 inches (167.6 × 121.9 cm) © Y.Z. Kami. Photo: Rob McKeever

SNature doesn’t need us, but we need nature. Trees can live much longer than I can. In Japan there are cherry trees that are 600 years old. These trees have special guardians; if there’s a typhoon or a heavy rain, the guardians go out to save a single branch. So we have that connection with nature very, very strongly. I’m sure that in Iran—it’s an old tradition—you have something to honor the trees.

YZKExactly. In Iran—except for the north, around the Caspian Sea, where it’s green and lush—the landscape is very dry, with large expanses of desert, so the presence of a tree, an oasis, is sacred. Much attention and prayer are given for the benefit of the tree.

In my work until now, you won’t find landscapes. Recently, though, I’ve been working on a new series of paintings called Messenger. The first one is being shown right now in my exhibition at MUSAC in [León,] Spain. In these paintings you see a figure from the back, walking toward a green landscape. The landscape and the figure’s garment could be from India, or somewhere in Southeast Asia or Africa. It’s probably the only time I’ve painted a figure from the back—we don’t see the face.

SThe figure is seen only from behind? It’s interesting, something I’ve noticed—sometimes from the back you can sense another person’s feelings more. It’s a mysterious experience. From the front, you have a face, you have expression—of course that helps—but something unsaid can be seen much more from a person’s back, particularly a sort of sadness or suffering.

YZKVery true and quite mysterious. I think it’s fair to say that we both have an interest in mystery. It’s something I think we both find in poetry. And of course both Japan and Persia have rich, ancient traditions of poetry.

Setsuko and Y.Z. Kami

Y.Z. Kami, Aïsha, 2021–22, oil on linen, 72 × 54 inches (182.9 × 137.2 cm) © Y.Z. Kami. Photo: Rob McKeever

SPoetry is very important in Japan. When I was living in Rome, my grandmother used to write me letters, and she would end each letter with a poem.

YZKIt’s the same for me—poetry is so much part of everyday life in Iran. Although I left as a teenager, and lived in Paris, then in New York ever since, there are two Persian poets that I read daily; I don’t exaggerate when I say this! The thirteenth-century poet Rumi and the fourteenth-century poet Hafez—I always read these two poets. That’s my connection with my mother tongue, Persian. But then one encounters other poets, sometimes by chance, sometimes by fate. Recently I’ve been reading Fernando Pessoa, but then, you know, there’s the big problem of poetry in translation.

SSometimes it’s just impossible. Language has a territory, no? And if you make a translation, the territory is different. It’s very difficult. I was fortunate to be educated by my grandmother in poetry at a young age; encountering poetry when you’re very small—even if you don’t understand it, you get this feeling of beauty all the same.

YZKYou can feel it. T. S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

SAbsolutely, understanding is done intellectually, but feeling, communication, this happens in the senses. I think we both hope that art can do much the same thing.

YZKSo you’re working on this continuation of ceramics that are connected to these elements of nature and the trees?

SYes, and to make ceramics, you touch soil. I like that contact, physically interacting with the material, it’s very important.

You mentioned an exhibition at MUSAC; what are you doing next?

YZKI’m preparing a project that’s due to open in Florence in February of 2023. It’s going to be a sort of survey, installed across three different venues: the Palazzo Vecchio, the Museo Novecento, and the church of Santa Maria Novella.

SWhat a beautiful project.

YZKI hope you will come.

SYes, I will!

Jordan Wolfson’s House with Face (2017) on the cover of Gagosian Quarterly, Fall 2022

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Fall 2022

The Fall 2022 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Jordan Wolfson’s House with Face (2017) on its cover.

Y.Z. Kami and Steven Henry Madoff sit in front two of the artist's paintings

In Conversation
Y.Z. Kami and Steven Henry Madoff

Y.Z. Kami and curator Steven Henry Madoff sit down in Kami’s studio to discuss the artist’s exhibition at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, Spain. Entitled Y.Z. Kami: De forma silenciosa/In a Silent Way, the survey features portraits; images of buildings, both sacred and ordinary; a sculptural installation of loose bricks inscribed with texts; and recent dreamlike abstractions.

Setsuko standing in front of one of her decorative ceramic pieces in the Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau, Rueil-Malmaison, France

Regards de Setsuko

Join Setsuko on a tour of her exhibition at the Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau in Rueil-Malmaison, France, the former residence of Empress Joséphine. The video brings together the artist; Isabelle Tamisier-Vétois, chief curator, and Élisabeth Caude, director, Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau; and Benoît Astier de Villatte, cofounder of the atelier Astier de Villatte, Paris. They discuss the origins and development of the project, which is designed as a dialogue between Setsuko’s work and the decorative ceramics held in the museum’s collection.

Setsuko in front of the Grand Chalet de Rossinière in Switzerland where she lives and works.

The Grand Chalet: An interview with Setsuko

On the twentieth anniversary of Balthus’s death, Setsuko gives an intimate tour of the Grand Chalet and reflects on how the 1754 Swiss mountain home enriched their lives as artists.

Augurs of Spring

Augurs of Spring

As spring approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, Sydney Stutterheim reflects on the iconography and symbolism of the season in art both past and present.

Setsuko, Paris, 2019

Work in Progress

Setsuko Klossowska de Rola and Benoît Astier de Villatte, of the Astier de Villatte atelier in Paris, first met at the Académie de France in Rome’s Villa Medici, where Setsuko lived when her late husband, the painter Balthus, was the school’s director. Here they discuss Setsuko’s newest body of terra-cotta works, produced at Astier de Villatte, with Gagosian’s Elsa Favreau.

A painting in dark blue and white. The image depicts a group of men in white linen encircling a platform on which a couple of them are standing. The standing figures are cut off from the waist up as the top half of the painting dissolves into solid midnight blue.

Y.Z. Kami: Dematerialized

In celebration of the release of the monograph Y.Z. Kami: Works 1985–2018, and in advance of an exhibition of new works by the artist at Gagosian, Rome, Ziba Ardalan and Elena Geuna sat down to discuss Y.Z. Kami’s work. The conversation was moderated by Gagosian’s Kay Pallister.

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.

The artist Setsuko in Paris

Behind the Art
Setsuko: Into the Trees

Setsuko takes Jean-Olivier Després on a tour of her exhibition of terra-cotta and enameled ceramics in Paris, explaining her passion for trees and describing her approach to painting.

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Notre-Dame), 2019.

For Notre-Dame

An exhibition at Gagosian, Paris, is raising funds to aid in the reconstruction of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris following the devastating fire of April 2019. Gagosian directors Serena Cattaneo Adorno and Jean-Olivier Després spoke to Jennifer Knox White about the generous response of artists and others, and what the restoration of this iconic structure means across the world.

Y.Z. Kami, Gold Dome, 2017, gold leaf on linen, 63 × 70 inches (160 × 177.8 cm). Mr. and Mrs. David Su Collection.

Y.Z. Kami: Luminosities

Elena Geuna interviews the artist on the subjects of his childhood, his approach to portraiture, and the centrality of light in his practice.

Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019

The Summer 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher on its cover.