Art

Tokutaro Yamamura: A gatekeeper of art history

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

The Nishinomiya-based glass entrepreneur Tokutaro Yamamura (1926-86) spent 30 years assembling a collection conventionally presented as having three foci. First, as a survey of postwar Japanese art trends. Second, as the abstractions of Gutai Art Association (1954-72) painters. Finally, as one that covers the rise of expressive works driven by color and content in the 1980s, as seen in Tomoko Sugiyama’s installation, “The Start — A Man and Mamorigami” (1984).

As such, the Yamamura Collection, presently on show at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art — comprises 167 works by 68 artists and is considered indispensable to postwar Japanese art history’s sense of identity.

Yamamura started collecting with his mother, Haru, and planned a museum tracing lineages of Western and Japanese modernism. In 1963 he acquired works by Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro, and Fernand Leger. But following his mother’s death in 1965, he donated his foreign artist works to the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, and elsewhere. Thereafter he prioritized collecting Japan’s postwar art.

Yamamura’s Japanese art collecting began in earnest during the mid-’50s when he met and began buying works from painters living close by in Hyogo Prefecture. His first encounter was with the poet-cum-abstract painter, Waichi Tsutaka (1911-95), whose “Mother With a Child” (1951) he decided he wanted for himself. Subsequently he met the radical Gutai art group founder, Jiro Yoshihara (1905-72), whose “Work (Birds at Night)” (1951) he acquired. At Yoshishige Saito’s (1904-2001) abstract painting exhibition in Tokyo’s Ginza district in 1960, Yamamura also picked up two large paintings on the spot, one being “Work 3” (1960). A fourth pillar of his collection became his acquisition of various works spanning the career of the Gutai-associated painter, Sadamasa Motonaga (1922-2011), the first of which was secured in 1961.

Realizing in the early ’80s that he lacked comparable sculptural works, Yamamura went about obtaining significant pieces like Yoichi Takada’s (1956-) kinetic “Wing for Y, Wing for N” (1984), and one of Lee Ufan’s (1936-) boulder on cracked glass works, “Relatum” (1983). Then in Europe, in the summer of 1983, he picked up two paintings by Hisao Domoto (1928-2013) and 17 Gutai works. These late acquisitions gave his collection one of the foci it is renowned for today.

More controversial, however, were Yamamura’s final years of activity in the mid-’80s in which he recreated art history in consultation with pioneering artists. Collecting related materials and records of lost works by Gutai and the avant-garde art collective Hi-Red Center artists, Yamamura then commissioned those artists to reproduce no longer extant pieces, or what were once ephemeral works for outdoor exhibitions or stage performances. Nine were refashioned, including Kazuo Shiraga’s (1924-2008) performance costume “Sanbaso-Super Modern” (1957/85) and AtsukoTanaka’s (1932-2005) “Work (Bell)” (1955, reproduced in 1985).

This later escalated with Yamamura’s desire to turn early Gutai performances or happenings into paintings, only one of which was realized. Shiraga’s corporeal performance, “Challenging Mud” (1955), was turned into an elegant 1985 painting.

Admired by Yamamura from his sickbed, the painting was returned to the artist following Yamamura’s death, then donated to the present museum in 2003. It stands today as a somewhat contentious reminder of collector involvement in the production of art and history.

“The Yamamura Collection: Gutai and the Japanese Avant-Garde 1950s-1980s” at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs until Sept. 29; ¥1,300. For more information, visit www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp/eng.