Watching on television as the second plane hit the World Trade Center in 2001, Japanese sculptor Masayuki Nagare’s thoughts were not with his most famous sculpture, “Cloud Fortress” (1975), which was located at the base of the towers. The then 78-year-old was recalling a time 58 years earlier when, as a pilot with the Imperial Japanese Navy, he too had been trained to dive a plane into U.S. targets.

“I was astonished,” he told The Japan Times last week. “The very thing (we had learned) happened in front of my eyes.” Sitting up straight on a leather sofa in a visitors room adjoining Ginza’s swanky Galerie Nichido — which is staging an exhibition of his recent sculptures — Nagare’s voice became grave, momentarily losing its characteristic boisterousness. “I wasn’t sad,” he says. “I was just thinking that we had entered a terrible age.”

Now 84 years old, Nagare has seen enough ages to know a terrible one. During the militaristic 1930s in Japan, he was a rebellious youth making trouble for his well-to-do father. Often playing truant, he preferred learning swordplay and sword-making from a martial-arts expert than going to school. During the war, he piloted a Zero fighter plane — having escaped being made a kamikaze pilot because he got good grades in his exams. (Zero pilots were still taught how to dive planes into enemy ships in case they were winged.)

After Japan’s defeat he traveled, keen to witness the depth of his war-ravaged country’s suffering. It was the sight of endless gravestones — in many places, the only things left standing after the bombing — that prompted him to apply his sword-smithing hands to stone. Nagare even experienced firsthand Japan’s dramatic postwar turnaround, with his own meteoric rise in the art world echoing that of his country.

Some of his earliest stone sculptures, shown in a gallery in Tokyo in 1958, were seen by Lincoln Kirstein, founder of the New York City Ballet. It took just two years for them to be purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and for the public commissions that were to make him famous to start rolling in.

Nagare is a very active octogenarian. “I’d be maybe among the five most prolific sculptors in the world,” he suggests, and — looking around his 50 or so works at the current show — it is hard to disagree. Since 1966, he has been based at his studio on the Aji promontory of Shikoku, where at any one time, he is working on up to 10 pieces.

“The granite ones take up to about half a year,” he says, waving a hand at a handsome vertical ring-shaped object about a meter long and high. He has two or three assistants, “and some strong young guys on hand to help with the heavy lifting.”

“I chose Shikoku because it is inconvenient to get to,” he explains, smiling. “I wanted somewhere I could concentrate on my work. The nature is wonderful, and the seafood’s great.

“The other thing,” he says, is that “people like me, who become famous in New York or overseas, they’re not interested in us in Tokyo. I couldn’t be bothered to deal with that, so I came to Shikoku.”

While Nagare has completed dozens of commissions in Tokyo and throughout Japan, much of his Shikoku labor has been destined for venues overseas. Public commissions came from as far afield as the St. Louis Art Museum (1965) to the Bank of America’s headquarters in San Francisco (1969; now the Bank of America Center). His works were purchased by institutions as diverse as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington (1963) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1965). In 1967, Time magazine named him — along with film director Akira Kurosawa, architect Tange Kenzo and writers Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata — as one of Japan’s most important cultural figures.

Then in 1969 came the commission that became the “pinnacle of my career” — but only after he got over the surprise. “In theory, the World Trade Center job should have gone to (Japanese-American sculptor) Isamu Noguchi, who was 19 years older than me (and obviously the senior artist),” he says. “It also shocked me that the Americans would give so much work to an artist from a country that lost the war. They had a no-nonsense attitude and were very open. I liked that.”

In Japan, Nagare had always been “rebellious,” so it was not difficult to jettison conservative Japanese virtues — of deference to the old or to the vanquisher — which obviously had no place in the competitive American market. With newly acquired assertiveness, he skillfully negotiated one of the best sites for his WTC piece (a number of sculptors, including Alexander Calder, were also commissioned) at the entrance to the Central Plaza.

He constructed two pyramids, wedging them together at their bases and then tilting each up inwards, forming two cantilevered masses counterbalancing each other at the center. Incorporating his trademark warehada (split-open skin) style, in which he would polish some faces of his stone to a glass-like shine, while leaving others in their natural rough-hewn state, “Cloud Fortress” became his most visible and most successful work. “Making public sculptures like that is always about trying to represent in three dimensions something that exists only in human memory,” he explains.

The work survived the collapse of the towers in 2001, but was demolished by emergency workers shortly after. When asked how he felt about the loss, he smiles, “I guess the sculpture has itself turned into a memory now.”

I asked Nagare what he thought differentiated him from his fellow Japanese artists.

“Japanese artists, in particular sculptors, are mostly university teachers. You don’t see them out there making so many works and having shows in New York,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “I’m the Japanese artist who eats delicious food the most” — referring to the Japanese habit of measuring happiness by whether or not one is eating tasty food.

So, for an artist still so productive, and still enjoying life so much, what does he make of the recent call to have his studio preserved, after he too becomes a memory?

“Yes, I’ve heard about that idea,” he bellows. “It’s a problem, because I’m still alive!”

“Nagare Masayuki: Recent Sculptures” is showing at Galerie Nichido till Sept. 21; open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m Saturdays (10 a.m.-4 p.m on Sept. 21). For more information call (03) 3571-2553 or visit www.nichido-garo.co.jp

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