If your knowledge of Taro Okamoto’s work begins and ends with the sculpture “Tower of the Sun” that he created for the 1970 Osaka Expo, a visit to “Taro Okamoto and His Contemporaries in the Post-War Era,” now at the Setagaya Art Museum, is in order.

Focusing on the years 1946-54, when Okamoto lived and worked in Setagaya, the exhibition provides an excellent introduction to this turbulent man, his turbulent work and to the turbulent times out of which he and his works arose.

Setting the stage for Okamoto’s years in Setagaya, the first section of the exhibition reminds us that the artist left Tokyo for Paris in 1930 at the age of 19 and remained there until, one step of ahead of the Nazi invasion, he returned to Japan a decade later. During his time there, he studied ethnology at the Sorbonne with the eminent sociologist Marcel Mauss, took part in the clandestine ceremonies of Acephale, the secret society founded by the philosopher and writer George Bataille, and was an active member, with artists such as Piet Mondrian and Jean Arp, of the important Abstraction-Creation group.

In this preparatory section of the show, Okamoto’s paintings hang in the company of works by these luminaries, and do not suffer by comparison. In “Kukan (Space),” (1934,1954), the luminous background of shimmering blacks and dark grays demonstrates that Okamoto knew how to achieve with oils the effects he wanted. In the placement of the objects which hover over that background — a leaflike/birdlike form in red and white and a white bar angled just so — Okamoto displays an understanding of how to effectively organize the space of a canvas.

So impressive are the works representing Okamoto’s Paris years, that one can only regret that while Okamoto was serving at the Chinese front, where he was sent after returning from France, the work he had stored in Tokyo was incinerated (early works on display were actually repainted after the war). Thus Okamoto, like his nation, was forced to begin again, and he did so in part by developing what he had learned in Paris.

We see the Surrealism he had imbibed there, invigorated in “Yoru (Night)” (1947). A stylized woman concealing a knife behind her back peers into a tangle of antler-like branches which, with a line of white rocks/teeth at the bottom of the canvas, form a massive face. It is unclear exactly who is being threatened in this scene, and by what. This ambiguity, and Okamoto’s skill in presenting it, gives the image its dreamlike strength.

At the same time, we also see Okamoto moving beyond what he learned abroad, becoming his own artist. Cartoonlike images sometimes enter his paintings, as in the lighthearted “Bijo to Yaju (Beauty and the Beast)” (1949) which calls to mind Felix the Cat. In the darker “Mori no Okite (The Law of the Jungle)” (1950), there is a bright red shark whose body boasts a zipper from tail to nose. Long slashing brush strokes, riots of vibrant colors, and wild imagination give all the work from this period an unforgettable exuberance.

Jomon Era (ca. 10,000-300 B.C.) potters were also instrumental in forming his vision: a 1951 exhibition of Jomon earthenware inspired him to begin creating the sculptures for which, perhaps, he is best known. A small sampling of his characteristic round-faced figures is included in this show. “Dobutsu (Animal),” a little bronze bull imbued with both the energy of the beast and of the ancient artists who inspired Okamoto, stands out, but will be dwarfed in the minds of those who have encountered Okamoto’s more monumental creations that stand in front of the Children’s Castle in Omotesando or elsewhere. Committed to breaking down barriers between art and the masses, Okamoto was always eager to take on public art projects, most notably Osaka’s giant “Tower of the Sun.”

It is useful to view the work of an artist such as Okamoto in the context of work by that artist’s contemporaries. As much as one may enjoy, for example, Tatsuo Ikeda’s George Grosz-like renderings of bloated fish, bloated men and bloated fish-men, or Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Chirico-influenced “Siren-to (Siren Island)” (1951), the first impression of nearly all of the work by Okamoto’s contemporaries is that it is similar to that of one or another European master. Okamoto’s work, on the other hand, leaping off the wall as it does from among the more derivative art with which it is surrounded, is always, unmistakably, Okamoto’s.

Stunned by his originality, one looks forward to following Okamoto’s career further when chapter two of this retrospective, covering the years 1954-70, opens April 21 at the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki.

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