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Rand Castile, distinguished Asian art curator

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Special To The Japan Times

Rand Castile, a curator of Asian arts who was compared with Sherman Lee, died May 16. He was 78. I came here in 1968 because he and his wife, Sondra Myers, sponsored me.

I met Rand a year earlier in Kyoto, because of James Byars. Later an internationally renowned conceptual artist, of whom Rand once said, “If I were not convinced he is a genius, I would think he is a madman,” Byars was, when I first met him, an eccentric American. He walked about in a tuxedo, wearing a Lincolnesque top hat and a red rose in his lapel, occasionally handing out large, scarlet square envelopes he held under his arm. Opening one, you found a smaller envelope, say, blue. Open that one, you found an even smaller one, say, white. They were all made by a famous Japanese paper craftsman, says Shinobu Sakagami, who has just published a book, “James Lee Byars: Days in Japan.”

One day Byars invited me to his happening, “A White Carpet,” telling me to do something white. It was there that I met an unusually handsome man of medium height, Rand Castile. After introducing himself and finding that I was an English major at Doshisha University, he asked if I could help him as an interpreter in the coming days. He was studying chado, the way of tea, at Urasenke, and he wanted to visit some of the chashitsu (tea huts).

As it turned out, Rand, on a Fulbright scholarship, had lost the bulk of his notes on the tea ceremony and all its paraphernalia that he’d made in the preceding half year. He had parked his motorcycle by a bank to get some cash when his briefcase containing the notes was stolen from its rack. The Kyoto Shimbun headlined the theft with Sen Soshitsu XV’s appeal for the return of the notes, not the briefcase, but to no avail.

To spend time with Rand and visit places was eye-opening. Though a six-year resident of Kyoto by then, I had visited only a few of the many notable temples that dot the ancient city. I’d been to none of the tea huts or, for that matter, kilns making “tea bowls.” But I don’t mean this in a touristy sense.

Rand had a quiet, persuasive intellect that rendered everything seem and sound fresh, fascinating and of utmost importance. Once, he played a record for me and hummed along with it, explaining how it worked. Thus, Beethoven’s Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in A Major became a discovery to me and, thereafter, a treasure.

Rand seemed to grasp the heart of anything effortlessly, quickly. Once we went to Oyamazaki on the border of Kyoto and Osaka to see Tai-an, the oldest and smallest tea hut that survives. According to tradition, Rikyu built it, and moved it, to Hideyoshi’s camp during the climactic Battle of Yamazaki in 1582. A few minutes after we entered the two-tatami room and sat down, Rand started describing the distinctive features of the “grass hut” — the ceiling, the pillars, walls, tokonoma — as if he had already examined each, at length.

As I learned in time, Rand was perfect for studying chado and destined to become a great curator. Like most Japanese, I’d thought of chado as a means of learning traditional manners and refinement. In truth, it embodies “Japanese history, art, aesthetics, philosophy, and life,” as Sen Soshitsu XV wrote in his foreword to Rand’s book, “The Way of Tea.”

Rand, taking a different tack, wrote: “Tea ceremony, like Indian ragas and jazz, is 90 percent improvisation and 10 percent technique when conducted by a master.”

When his time in Japan was up, Rand said that he and his wife would sponsor me if I wanted to come to New York City. I jumped at the offer, without much thought. If I had given any thought to it, I might have hesitated. He was far from well to do, with two young daughters to raise, and he was just a few years older than me.

When I arrived, he was teaching at St. Thomas Choir School while serving the Japan Society as director of education. In 1971, when the society got its own building completed near the United Nations, he became founder-director of Japan House Gallery. For the next 14 years, he curated more than 40 exhibitions of Japanese arts.

He featured several living artists, such as New York-based Ushio Shinohara, the Neo-Dadaist who famously constructed a motorcycle with jelly beans. But Rand’s forte was the traditional arts. He brought a great many National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties from Japan to New York. His most impressive show may have been the one he curated and mounted to mark the 75th anniversary of the Japan Society and 10th anniversary of his creation, Japan House Gallery: “Horyu-ji: Temple of the Exalted Law.”

No exhibition from Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple, domestic or overseas, had ever been attempted. It was truly “unique and epoch-making,” as the Japanese commissioner of cultural affairs noted.

In 1986, Rand moved to San Francisco to become director of the Asian Art Museum, expanding his scope and coverage beyond Japan. Ten years later, even as his plan to move the museum to a larger building was approved and underway, he abruptly announced his resignation, pleading fatigue.

If you take a look at the Horyu-ji catalog, you will understand why. To plan and execute an art exhibition like that, you must raise funds and manage a delicate web of negotiations with responsible parties, line up art historians and translators, and maintain attention to a range of details to the very end. Rand had done this work for a quarter of a century.

Hiroaki Sato is a poet, essayist and translator based in New York.