Masaaki Yamada (1929-2010) is like a mystery man of modernism. He apparently had no specialist art training of note and is known only by a skeleton biography that is mostly blank before 1943, and patchy thereafter. Said to have begun painting from the so-called tabula rasa of bombed out World War II Tokyo, his unforgettable memories of conflict forced him into a covenant with painting in which he sought meaning and direction in a world he could control.

Yamada assiduously documented his 2,281 oil paintings and 2,777 works on paper in 56 handwritten notebooks detailing his production processes from 1948 to 1972, and photographed most of these. His cryptic but suggestive artist-statement sound bytes, stenciled on the gallery walls between works, also create a distinctly sage atmosphere. Yamada’s magisterial career retrospective at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, is both obsessive and attractive. It also potentially warrants some rewriting of the major art-history narratives of modernism. He was certainly an anomaly, and no one seems quite sure what to do with him now.

He produced a compelling three-tiered oeuvre in which he initially rehearsed 20th-century Western modernism’s major moments, subsequently caught up with its achievements and then anticipated some later developments. His entire career is almost illustrative of the mid-20th-century American art critic Clement Greenberg’s theorizing of modernist painting’s progress toward withdrawing from content and celebrating the medium’s paint and inherent two-dimensionality.

Yamada began relatively late with conventional still lifes, such as his “Still Life no.7” (1948) painting of a vase with a flower laid beside it. He then pursued the cubist fragmentation of those subjects resulting in planes of color and a shallower pictorial space. He thereafter went the route of the post-cubist Piet Mondrian who dissembled pictorial space by gradually abstracting from nature subjects, eventually bringing foreground and background together on one plane of arabesque formalism. That was the end of Yamada’s first career phase.

The second began with Willem de Kooning-type painterly abstractions; then he appeared to pay homage to Josef Albers’ series, “Homage to the Square” with “Work B.154” (1957-58). His later 1950s paintings are said to foreshadow (though he was entirely unconnected) American 1960s minimalism and artists like Ad Reinhardt (who Yamada met in Tokyo in the 1966), Ellsworth Kelly, and Agnes Martin. The latter is particularly apt because Yamada’s paintings of 1959 utilizing repetitious lines led to him become a stripe painter from 1960, the production of which he serialized.

With stripes, crosses, grids and their variation, Yamada made bands of color that were not entirely straight. The paint could drip and run, sometimes intentionally so, and layers poked through from underneath in expressive ways. Paint was thickened or thinned, colors were harmonized or conflicted. Cumulative subtlety was the creative direction. Then the colors he used year by year diminished until in 1965 they became monochromatic, within mechanical compositions.

Color was later subtly reintroduced, and his lines gradually expanded into colored planes in geometric combinations. These also reintegrated coloristic linear elements, as in “Work D.301” (1978), recalling the contours of the vessels he painted in his early still lifes. His flat, mechanical application of paint then returned to expressive exercises in brushwork within his grid structures. By late 1994, Yamada had reached what he called his “capacity,” and brought the production run of this second phase to an end. Final pieces, such as “Work F.220” (1994) are arresting.

His third phase, the “Color” series beginning 1997, followed an eye operation in late 1996. These works fused minimalism with post-painterly abstraction using seemingly single colors over entire surfaces, but with smudgy or sometimes unpainted edges betraying an under-painting and layering of colors below the surface. It is unclear whether these pieces were indeed finished — Yamada usually spent at least a year or two working on any single painting.

Some critics have seen Yamada’s oeuvre as an almost too-perfect chronology, one that, despite the early career blank spots, is missing much of an artist’s common messy or directionless moments of doubt, indecision or groping around. His youthful landscapes of Ginza and figure paintings from around 1950 that eye-witnesses say he created, apparently are missing or no longer exist. Rumors have also circulated that Yamada falsified some production dates, presenting new works as older ones. This exhibition attempts to quash these through specialist reports on the authenticity of particular paintings, though some doubts may persist.

But such rumors are also the kind of suspicions that often surround artists who work in isolation without the usual early career build-up of supporters and advocates. Yamada’s first solo exhibition was actually a retrospective of two-decades of painting, held in Tokyo in 1978. Its startling appearance and the sudden acclaim it garnered resulted in solo exhibitions year after year thereafter, with major museums acquiring his work in the ’80s and ’90s, leading to a career retrospective at the Fuchu Art Museum in 2005.

In March 2010, after various health concerns, Yamada was made aware of death’s imminence. Always the consummate and meticulous organizer, he holed up in his atelier and arranged his production notes for posterity.

“Endless: The Paintings of Yamada Masaaki” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs until April 9; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.momak.go.jp/English

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