The best pick and mix of modern art

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

The current exhibition at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art could be considered a retrospective of Toshio Hara’s career as a collector. Surprisingly, given that the museum was founded in 1979, it’s the first time that the director and president has personally curated a show there, and the title is the pretty no-nonsense: “My Favorites: Toshio Hara Selects from the Permanent Collection.”

The exhibition is in two parts, with the first, which runs until March 11, focusing on work collected from 1977 to the mid-’80s. This first selection includes pieces by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Yves Klein and Edward Ruscha, and, apart from anything else, reveals that opportunities to see seminal postwar modern art in Tokyo are quite rare. Contemporary art shows in other major museums tend toward current international art stars, or new emerging talent.

The 83-year-old Hara, an autodidact when it comes to art, has said that his buying choices have been a matter of pure subjective reaction to the works and getting to know the artists personally. In an interview published in 2008 in the excellent book “Art Space Tokyo,” however, Hara noted that in the early years of the museum, the artists’ relative standing in the international art scene was also something he considered.

Incidentally, the period covered by this exhibition coincides with the development of post-colonial theory and the opening of art history to greater inclusion of non-Western narratives (Edward Said’s book “Orientalism” first appeared in 1978), and just over a third of the artists in the exhibition are Asian. As much as the museum has been a conduit for foreign modern and contemporary art to reach an audience in Japan, it has also been keen to support the development of Japanese artists in finding their own voice.

The first room of the show has work by three Japanese artists: “Proliferous Chain Reaction in Plane Circulation Substance,” a mixed-media piece by Tetsumi Kudo, and works by Tomio Miki and Yayoi Kusama indicative of their trademark obsessiveness. There is also a 1944 art brut painting by Frenchman Jean Dubuffet. If this introduction to Hara’s choices tells us something about the collector, it could be that he is partial to the awkward and contrary, and to the idea of art as a free exploration of the subconscious liberated from meaning, or historical or regional determination.

The general mood of the exhibition, though, is predominantly cool, rather than demonstrative. With Hiroshi Sugimoto’s very formal and meticulous photographic work “Sea of Buddha” and Buckminster Fuller’s “Duo-Tet Star Polyhedra,” the coolness comes in the form of an exploration of geometry. While with works such as Yves Klein’s “Monochrome Red” color field painting, fellow new realist Arman’s “Garbage Piece,” an assemblage of rubbish set in polyester resin, and Lichtenstein’s acrylic painting of the back of a canvas “Stretcher Frame With Cross Bars IV,” coolness comes from a sardonic disdain for high culture.

With artists such as Nobuyoshi Araki, Yasumasa Morimura, Yoshitomo Nara and Miwa Yanagi provisionally listed for the second part of “My Favorites,” the Hara Museum will illusrate that native artists have become a key part of global postmodern culture. Although the exhibition as a whole is nominally one person’s pick and mix, it shows that if Hara had once hoped that Japan would be more vitally connected to the world through art — that hope has, in fact, come to fruition.

Part one of “My Favorites: Toshio Hara Selects from the Permanent Collection” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art runs until March 11, ¥1,100. For more information, visit www.haramuseum.or.jp.