Collector steps into the void

With museums gone AWOL, Ryutaro Takahashi snapped up amazing artworks


How a psychiatrist from Yamagata came to possess one of the world’s most important collections of Japanese contemporary art — meaning art made in the last 15 years — is almost embarrassingly simple. Ryutaro Takahashi had the savings and liked the art, so he bought it. As far as the 62-year- old is concerned, that’s all there is to it.

A more impartial account would note two other factors that were crucial to his success: His taste is good, and he had almost no competition. Since 1997, when Takahashi started assembling the 1,500- plus pieces that make up his collection, he was essentially the only person making regular, large-scale purchases of work by young Japanese artists.

Take Makoto Aida, for example. Christies’ auction house, art historian Yuji Yamashita and former Mori Art Museum director David Elliott are just some of those who have suggested the 43-year-old is one of Japan’s most important artists. Aida’s “A Picture of an Air Raid on New York City (War Picture Returns)” is a giant screen-painting that tackles the country’s complicated relationship with the United States through a fantastical depiction of Zero fighters that form an infinity symbol as they bomb the Big Apple. The painting was one of Takahashi’s first major purchases, and since then, he’s acquired “about 10” of Aida’s “big paintings.”

Usually, “big paintings” by such respected artists would find their way into public collections. But not in Japan — or, at least, not in these last 10 years in Japan. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, has just one Aida, and the five national art museums have none.

The story is similar with other 40-something artists such as Akira Yamaguchi, Hisashi Tenmyouya and Tsuyoshi Ozawa. Each has been given large-scale, midcareer retrospectives at major Tokyo venues, but none is well represented in any public collection. Takahashi’s holdings, by contrast, include several major works by each.

Of course, collections should not be judged by the name value of the artists. How do Takahashi’s purchases stack up in terms of quality? Museums worldwide have given them a seal of approval — over 100 have borrowed works from his collection for exhibitions since 2002. And perhaps more tellingly, “Neoteny,” an exhibition made up of 80 of his works has been touring regional public venues in Japan since autumn last year. The exhibition, which opened this week at the Ueno Royal Museum in Tokyo, will eventually have hit seven venues, making it one of the longest tours in recent years.

Takahashi’s first encounter with art came in the late 1960s.

“I used to hang around Fugetsudo Cafe in Shinjuku,” he tells The Japan Times, describing the coffee shop that was a hippie Mecca during the counterculture years. “We’d hear about the happenings that Yayoi Kusama was doing in New York. She was like a star to us.”

Takahashi was not an artist himself, but the period left him with a fascination for the avant garde.

“In 1997 I saw an exhibition of new work by Kusama,” he says. “At about the same time, a show of new work by Makoto Aida was being held at Mizuma Art Gallery. So, in a short time I saw work by someone I thought was a star and also an important up- and-coming artist. That lit the spark within me.”

The spark quickly flared into a wildfire.

“Once I had bought a few I realized that if I was going to do this, I had to do it properly,” he says. He focused on young artists from Japan, spending Saturdays roaming cutting-edge galleries: Mizuma, Ota Fine Arts, Tomio Koyama. Soon he was plowing all his resources into the project.

“I had some land in Australia, which had increased in value three or four times,” he says. “I had some shares. I sold them all, and I have put all my income except my living expenses into the collection.” Although unable to put a precise figure on his total outlay to date, he says “the first two or three hundred million yen disappeared a long time ago.”

Gallerist Sueo Mitsuma recalls Takahashi’s appearance on the scene a decade ago. “It was so pleasing. At the time no one was buying works by people like Aida,” the gallerist says. “All of a sudden we had a collector who really appreciated the cutting-edge stuff we were showing.”

The late ’90s were particularly tough for dealers like Mizuma because the long-running economic downturn had translated into severe funding cuts for public museums. The reason recent art is so underrepresented in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, for example, is that from 2000 to 2004 it had no acquisitions budget. Takahashi was able to snap up dozens of pieces while the nation’s museums went AWOL.

The collector points out, however, that he wasn’t deliberately taking up their slack. Takahashi also says he never thought of himself as a patron of the arts.

“I buy what I like. I would never buy something that I thought was boring simply to support the artist,” he says.

The closest the self-professedly “shy” Takashi has come to describing why he likes contemporary art is in the catalog for the current “Neoteny” show.

“I used to be mad about Argentine samba dancing,” he says. “When you dance there is a certain joy that comes from being moved around by your partner. Collecting is the same — it is most fun when you feel you are being toyed with (by the artist).”

Still, one normally thinks of successful psychiatrists such as Takahashi as preferring to remain in control. When looking at the works of these artists, is he ever tempted to analyze their creators?

“I wouldn’t dare,” he says. “It would be so presumptuous of me to try to analyze people of such talent.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t take stabs at criticism. He came up with the title of the current exhibition, Neoteny, by himself. The term, which refers to the retention of juvenile characteristics in adults, hints at the slightly frustrated, juvenile approach to sexuality seen in manga, anime and the artworks — such as those by Takashi Murakami — that they have inspired.

“I think Japanese art at the moment is in the process of breaking away from the Western art canon, which has sort of hit a dead end,” he says.

Some of the works in the “Neoteny” exhibition lend credence to that claim. Yayoi Deki’s stunning, large paintings, which are rarely seen in public now that the young artist has recoiled from the spotlight, have mesmerizing repetitive patterns and a mysterious lack of formal perspective — all of which make them seem entirely divorced from Western traditions. But, listening to Takahashi, it is also tempting to think his “breaking with the West” interpretation entails a degree of wishful thinking.

Speaking about his disappointment at the tendency for good Japanese artworks to be sold overseas, he says, “you know, if Japanese artworks are sold overseas, and then allowed to be interpreted by foreign critics, they are no longer really Japanese contemporary art. I think it is good that the works in my collection have been able to remain in Japan.”

Remain, yes. But at the moment they are leading a somewhat itinerant life. In 2004, Takashi opened his first dedicated viewing room in Kagurazaka. That was replaced in 2008 with a new facility in Shirokanedai, which has been replaced too, this time by a new site in Hibiya.

Called Takahashi Collection Hibiya, the new gallery that opened earlier this month is provided free of charge by Mitsui Fudosan, which is in the middle of refurbishing the building. Takahashi has use of the space through December next year, after which time, he says, he may revert to his Kagurazaka venue.

Takahashi says he hopes that in the future a museum will offer to create a “Takahashi Room” and let him play a role in the way it is run. “That would be the best resolution,” he says.

Though he assumes that such an arrangement would at first involve the long-term loan of his entire collection, he says it is conceivable that he might eventually donate it.

“The worst thing that could happen would be for it to end up dispersed around the country, so you wouldn’t be able to see it in its entirety,” he says.

Wandering through the current exhibition, it is easy to sympathize with that view. Rather than the works all representing a particular world view — much less one I would call neoteny — they instead provide something less ambitious but no less important: an extraordinarily detailed snapshot of contemporary art in Japan at the turn of the millennium.