Born Again

December 15th, 2011  |  Published in *, December 2011  |  2 Comments

Tawara Yusaku at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

I received a copy of Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh when I was in the seventh grade. The book, an introduction to Eastern thought in general and Taoism in particular, came as a revelation to my young mind. For the first time I encountered a belief system not based on an all-knowing, omnipresent God who meted out reward and punishment at will. I found, instead, a way of life grounded in the understanding that all things emanate from a single source, and all things must one day return to that source.  The universe Taoism described was in a constant state of flux.

Recognizing the impermanence of things is frightening to the western mind. But by connecting the inner world of the self to the external world of sense-objects, art resolves this flux. The state of constant change is momentarily arrested, giving rise to a paradise of stillness. It is in the stillness of art that we find refuge, and if the work is good enough, healing. Tawara Yusaku understood this, and Universe is Flux at the Indianapolis Museum of Art presents his meditations on the nature of sublime change.

From his earliest days as a painter, Tawara-san appeared marked for greatness.  After winning several awards for his early work, the artist dropped out of school in 1953 to pursue his craft full-time. Along with Kizawa Teiichi and Hyodo Kazuo, Tawara later formed the successful Three Cedars Group. But following a triumphant one man show in 1963, Tawara (who admitted to doubts about the validity of his work) inexplicably ceased painting.  Three decades would pass before he returned to the brush.

Though he made nothing during the long hiatus, Tawara continued to work in his mind. The determination not to paint becoming in his words “the best prescription for creativity”.  At last, with the fervor of a captive released, Tawara returned to art-making in 1993; creating nearly 3000 works before his death in 2004. These tranquil images, most no larger than 10 inches –Chiaku No. 6 (1996) is a dainty 3 ¼” X 2 ½”-   make up the focus of this exhibition.

The obvious analogue to the pieces in Universe is Flux is mid-century abstraction. Much of it calls to mind the expressive power of Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, or Cy Twombly. But it would be a mistake to compare Tawara’s work to the myriad of heroic painters from that time period. Though works such as Hado (June 20, 1998) share formal characteristics with Twombly’s painting, his canvases are about a sensual relationship to the human body, its desires and its weaknesses. By contrast Tawara’s more ethereal works evolved from a spiritual relationship that curator John Teramoto described as being “akin to an ascetic practice.”

Like paintings made in expressionist or Zen traditions, Tawara’s works-on-paper look fluid and indifferent to mistake. But the effortlessness is deceptive. Rather than being dashed off in a hurry, Tawara’s practice was slow and methodical. The bold, simple brush strokes that comprise his paintings are in fact accretions of small, almost infinitesimal marks. Antithetical to Western automatic traditions, these pieces are born out of an approach to gesture that borders on obsession.   This aspect of Tawara’s practice is most evident in the Ichi works from his Chikau or I Vow series.

Japanese for ‘one’, the Ichi (1996) series are composed of solitary forms that hover in a dream-like space of toned paper. Barely rising above a whisper, the frail lines that constitute the forms evoke the errant scribble of a well-worn brush. But they are unique marks only masquerading as extraneous noise, it is as if Tawara had attempted to express the whole universe in the illusion of a single stroke.

Given the recent prominence of Western-tinged contemporary Asian art, it seems clichéd to suggest that Universe is Flux is a quintessentially Japanese show by a quintessentially Japanese artist. And yet, it remains true. Tarawa’s work shows us that an artist can embrace heritage and even nationality without sacrificing contemporary relevance.  Pointing beyond the often superficial concerns that preoccupy even most allegedly conceptual artists, Tawara’s pictures are a gateway into the ultimate dimension. They provide a moment of pause for the viewer, arising from a direct encounter with a world constantly in flux.

-Alan Pocaro

Universe is Flux on view through April 1, 2012 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  4000 Michigan Road Indianapolis, IN 46208-3326.





  1. Franklin says:

    December 15th, 2011at 4:14 pm(#)

    Beautiful work and a lovely review of it. Congratulations.

  2. Art & Design by adriane - Pearltrees says:

    December 23rd, 2011at 3:08 pm(#)

    […] Born Again :: AEQAI Tawara Yusaku at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. […]