“Place” and “presence” were two of the core concerns of Minimalism, the last thread of Modernism before it collapsed into Postmodernism’s stylistic confusion in the 1970s.
Yet those two fundamental ideas are oddly inapplicable to Seung Keun Moon and Tadashi Yagi, both of whom died tragically young: Moon at age 34 in 1982 from gallbladder cancer and Yagi at age 26 in 1983 from leukemia. Both artists have had little or no presence since their deaths, so it is natural to wonder what their place is in the Japanese art world.
Coming just after the Mono-ha Movement (School of Things) that dominated Japan from 1968 to the early ’70s, Moon’s paintings address some of the same visual ideas as the movement’s principal theorist and painter, Lee U-Fan, and Yagi pays a Mono-ha-like attention to the purity of materials.
But there were also significant differences in their work, so the exhibition “Seung-Keun Moon + Tadashi Yagi: Works on Paper and Sculptures 1973-83,” showing at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto till Sept. 17, attempts to reconsider the two artists — who had no particular relation to one another — as if proper due has not yet been paid.
Tadashi Yagi suffers the most neglect — of the 22 pieces exhibited, one-third are labeled as being “title unknown.” Born in Kyoto in 1956, he firmly fits into Minimalism, a term for the simplified painterly and sculptural style that began in America in the 1960s, of which sculptors Carl Andre and Robert Morris are exemplary. Minimalist artwork typically lacked narratives or recognizable symbols. Their “content,” instead, lay in the artwork’s internal proportional relations.
Yagi’s “Nine Pieces Blue” (1981) neatly fits into that characterization. The object is comprised of nine small rectangles of unadorned wood mounted horizontally along the gallery wall, and each panel’s right border has a vertical blue acrylic stripe painted down it, separating the pieces.
Part of the aim of Minimalism was to create a visual object, and not a visual image, so there was a tendency for works to resemble sculpture more than painting. As a result, there is in a sense very little hidden in them for viewers to discover. Rather, they would simply acknowledge that what is before them is a painted object. In particularly austere cases, the materials started off with are essentially the end point. For example, Yagi’s “Two Lines” (1979) is just two planks of plain wood fastened together and erected upright against the wall.
Yagi’s best work, however, is his earliest, represented in “Work — Trilogy” (1978). Here, too, you see his interest in the purity of unadorned wood. His penchant for the material was evident from as early as 1977, when he was a sculpture student at Kyoto City University of Arts, and a wider appreciation of such materials was likely nurtured by his father Kazuo Yagi, who was a ceramicist, and mother Toshiko Takagi, who was a fabric-dyer. The work is formed by three separate sculptures in which a thin wooden rod inserted into or placed on top of the wooden objects creates a family resemblance among them.
Combining a compositional theme with the contrast of various wood grains, inlays and carpentry, the pieces have the characteristic lightness of tea-ceremony paraphernalia, making them much less indebted to the well-established ideas of other Minimalists.
Seung Keun Moon, born in Ishikawa Prefecture in 1947, had the longer artistic career, but his work evidences a much younger sensibility — trying something out, dropping it, moving on. Without formal artistic training, he was making soft, shaped sculptures in 1968; a film in 1970; prints in 1973; and taking photographs in 1974. In 1976, his watercolors rely on the subtlety of broad colored stripes, which differ in quiet intensity from one another in horizontal and vertical grid orientations. Gradually built-up washes of paint delicately contrast with those laid on beforehand, and narrow bands between the vertical stripes trail through the works, creating simple geometrical formations.
Early in his career, Moon used his Japanese name, Noboru Fujino, then switched between the two, settling on his Korean inheritance only later. His oeuvre reflects this shifting identity, especially in his resistance to titling artworks. The majority are titled “Untitled” in line with the Modernist intolerance for forcing particular readings on artworks.
Moon took up artistic styles in a staccato manner that makes his practice difficult to comprehensively evaluate. While there are high notes, his achievements should not rest on his late paintings from 1980, which engaged monochrome Minimalism with white canvases that explore the tactile nature of coarse fabric. It is better to look to the tempered eloquence of his watercolors.
Yagi, as mentioned before, also did his best work early in his career. Having taken up Minimalism at the point of its general demise — yet never having made a major contribution to it — his position as an artist can only be construed as peripheral internationally — though notable in a Japanese context.
How much has been achieved by this reconsideration? And, once the exhibition schedule is over, will both Yagi and Moon again fade back into obscurity? Throughout the exhibition catalog there is a kind of resignation about both artists dying too young, as well as being too late to the party as far as their involvement with the important movements that introduced conceptual art to Japan and focused attention on materials. Their bodies of work, succinct and lacking mature assertiveness, do help to flesh out the era in which they worked. But they also do not disrupt the major Gutai (Concrete) and Mono-ha movements, the leading narratives in postwar Japanese Modernism.
“Seung-Keun Moon + Tadashi Yagi: Works on Paper and Sculptures 1973-83” is showing at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto till Sept. 17, 2007 (www.momak.go.jp); it then travels to Chiba City Museum of Art, Sept. 23-Nov. 4 (www.ccma-net.jp)