An artistic way with words


Special To The Japan Times

“Shoichi Ida, Prints (1941-2006)” focuses on works bequeathed to The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, by the artist’s studio and family. Though mostly forgotten today, Ida could count among his acquaintances such renowned artists as modernist painter Robert Rauschenberg and minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, and his works can be found in illustrious collections, including at New York’s MoMA and London’s British Museum.

Few postwar Japanese artists can boast such international recognition and yet the exhibition introduction describes Ida as “supplementary” to Japan’s art progress in the decades after World War II. This is because art history focuses on and sets down the avant-garde Gutai movement as predominant in the 1950s and ’60s and then Mono-ha (“School of Things”) as its successor in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

That tale is largely overblown because Gutai and Mono-ha were part of a much larger matrix, and the contemporary fixation on these movements ignores the grander and more interesting complexities of the whole. Pigeon-holing Ida as a “footnote,” however, is mostly correct, given that prints, what he is most famous for, failed to achieve a status in modernism commensurate with painting and sculpture, and that Ida was much the individual in a group-oriented sense of modernism in Japan.

His print expressions did, however, resonate with international currents such as abstraction, minimalism and pop art, and these positioned him as part of their wider international reception and uptake. An intriguing example of his pop focus is “Wall Paper (Pink Pig in the Wall)” (1972), where he suggests his work is commercial home-decoration.

Ida is best at conceptual plays on the history of art, though it requires more than a rudimentary knowledge of art history to appreciate. “La Vie en Rose — Fresh Wind” (1973), for example, is a cerebral play on the work and persona of the French-born artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s transsexual alter ego was named Rrose Selavy, which when pronounced, sounds something like “Eros, c’est la vie,” the French for “Eros, that’s life.” Ida’s “La Vie en Rose,” which means “The Life in Pink,” is a reference to Japan’s erotic entertainment “pink” industry.

“Fresh Wind” plays upon the title of another of Duchamp’s works, “Fresh Widow” (1920), which, modeled on a French door/window, is itself a play on words. Ida adopts the general composition of “Fresh Widow” but places roses on the window panes rather than Duchamp’s black leather. Ida’s colorful “flowering” adds an additional layer of meaning to Duchamp’s blacked-out bondage panes, the color of which suggests mourning, and brings about a new sexual availability of Duchamp’s widow.

If the 300 or so prints do not satiate, you can always head across the road to the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art and see a very different exhibition of Ida’s works (till June 17). Here you’ll find Ida’s large-scale painted sculpture, monochrome paintings in acrylic, ceramics, installations and his early oil paintings.

“Shoichi Ida, Prints” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs till June 24; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥850. Closed Mon.