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Taro Okamoto museum throws open artist’s inner sanctum

by Tomoko Otake

Even to those who are clueless when it comes to art and culture, the name Taro Okamoto will probably ring a bell. After all, the late avant-garde artist was responsible for the famous statement “Geijutsu wa bakuhatsu da!” (“Art is an explosion!”)

Yet beyond his outspoken manner and wacky demeanor, most people know little about Okamoto, including his thoughts and beliefs, according to Toshiko Okamoto, his adopted daughter and director of the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum in Tokyo.

Located in the upmarket Minami-Aoyama district, the museum offers visitors a rare opportunity to peek into the day-to-day life of the prominent artist.

A large part of the site, which was Okamoto’s home and studio for more than 40 years until his death in 1996 at the age of 84, is unchanged from when he was alive.

The courtyard is full of his colorful and dynamic objets d’art and is where Okamoto used to stretch his arms every morning, to feel the warmth of the sun and build up his creative energy, Toshiko said.

The museum also keeps Okamoto’s studio intact. Here the painter/sculptor/writer conceptualized and created his works, which include the giant mural inside the former Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district and the famous “Tower of the Sun,” a 70-meter-tall primitive-looking sculpture with three faces and two outstretched arms that was created as the symbol of the 1970 Osaka Expo.

When Okamoto built his home in 1954, he asked an architect to keep its structure as simple as possible, saying he only needed a wide open space.

The building is thus made from bare concrete blocks and can be seen from the studio. Brushes, paint tubes and other tools that Okamoto actually used are left untouched on his desk.

“Doesn’t it all look as if he is about to come (down the stairs) any minute?” Toshiko said, grinning.

The museum keeps some 600 items, of which 40 are currently on display, including the 140-cm prototype for the “Tower of the Sun.”

Many are unfinished works, because neither the artist nor Toshiko had originally planned to turn the premises into a museum, Toshiko explained.

Before his death from Parkinson’s disease, Okamoto donated some 1,800 of his works to the city of Kawasaki, which had promised to establish a museum on his behalf. Kawasaki is the birthplace of Toshiko’s mother, Kanoko, who was a well-known writer and poet.

But the city’s plan to build the museum in a park was stalled for years due to fierce opposition from local environmentalists, she said.

“It was almost nine years after his death, and the project (to build a museum in Kawasaki) was going nowhere,” she recalled. “Since Taro had donated all his works to the city, we had nothing at hand and city officials would not let us borrow any of them. (With no venue to showcase his works), it was as if he had never existed.”

This prompted Toshiko to open a museum in May 1998 “out of necessity,” with his unfinished works. The Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki meanwhile opened in October 1999.

Toshiko, however, is happy with how the Aoyama museum is presented.

“Visitors are all delighted that they can see a real Taro Okamoto here,” she said. “This museum is filled with his energy, which I think is a very nice thing about it.”