Asia Society Texas Center Chats with John Teramoto

John Teramoto. (SLMotley)
John Teramoto. (SLMotley)

HOUSTON, June 22, 2013 — John Teramoto, Curator of Asian Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, organized Universe Is Flux: The Art of Tawara Yūsaku for the IMA and produced the catalogue for the exhibition, now on display through September 15 at Asia Society Texas Center.

Teramoto delivered a public lecture in conjunction with the Texas Center opening. He also sat down with freelance writer Fritz Lanham to discuss the sources and power of Tawara’s art.

You write in your catalogue essay that Mr. Tawara believed the nature of the universe is flux and that the impermanent bunching together of vibrating waves of energy comprises all of existence. You say this vision of reality underlies Tawara’s art. Where did he get this idea?

You can trace it back to two things, both of which have roots in Buddhism. First is the idea of impermanence. That nothing is permanent is a very basic Buddhist tenet. Each individual, for example, is a temporary coming together of different elements—form and matter, sensation, perception, psychological constructs, and cognition or consciousness. These come together to form an individual, but they’re constantly changing, so the individual from moment to moment is not the same. The idea of change being the nature of things is one of the basic tenets of Buddhism.

Second is the idea that the microcosm, which is the most elemental element, and the macrocosm, which could be the universe itself, are interchangeable because they are identical.

These two aspects are both mentioned when he talks about the idea of flux.

It’s interesting that these are two very ancient ideas but also congruent with contemporary cutting edge ideas in science. Is that a fair statement?

It’s a totally fair statement. I immediately went out and bought The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene and tried to read about string theory, where everything is the product of vibrational modes of these strings. I came back and asked Mr. Tawara about that and he said, “What?” So it did not have anything to do with string theory. He had no concept of what that was.

Talk about what motivated him as an artist. What inner need drove him to create?

That’s a reasonable question but one that I intentionally shied away from because I would either be speaking for him or getting into his head through his works. I don’t think that’s quite fair yet since his oeuvre is so huge and since he himself was such a deep person.

Let’s talk about his techniques. When you first look at his paintings you may think they are gestural works done in one grand stroke of the brush.

That’s not the case. The best place to start there is to look at the characters—there are two in the show, one kyo, which means “emptiness,” and the other ten, which means “heavens.” The characters look as though they were done with broad gestural strokes because you see the white streaks that are within the body of the stroke. That’s caused by insufficient contact of the inked bristles with the paper, either through dryness or through speed or pressure.

These are captured in his characters, but they’re actually painted with smaller strokes to depict the energy of a broad stroke. It’s so successfully done that only when you look very closely do you realize there’s no way a single brush could make all the various patterns and squiggles and things that are there.

Then you realize that this is tied to the idea that all things are composed of vibrational waves and that he’s painting these vibrational waves to create these huge concepts like emptiness or heaven.

Where does Mr. Tawara lie in the tradition of Japanese art? Is he an outlier? Would you call him a traditional artist? And was he influenced by non-Japanese and non-Asian artistic traditions?

Was he influenced by non-Asian traditions? Definitely. When he quit painting [for nearly 30 years, from the 1960s through the late 1980s] because he doubted the integrity of what he had been painting, he devoted himself to studying the meaning of art. And he studied art of all cultures and all times. He was particularly close to folk arts.

When you think of his ink works and his characters, he’s firmly set in some sort of calligraphic tradition. But when you say that’s not calligraphy, that’s painting, you take him out of the tradition at the same time.

In short, it’s hard to pigeon-hole him, but from the very beginning he can be considered a person who has one leg in traditional Asian art influenced by Buddhist thought and one leg in contemporary art, whether abstract expressionism or whatever.

Was he familiar with the American abstract expressionists with whom there are obvious surface similarities?

I’m sure he had to be because he was a very well-educated person, very studied person. They themselves were influenced by Japanese calligraphy. But they were trying to give expression visually without worrying about the content. Tawara-san is very much about content, this idea of hado or flux.

This exhibition is the first major showing of his work in the West. Is he well known in Japan?

He’s not well known as a painter. He was well known as a painter in the 1960s for his Western paintings—there’s a huge painting of his hanging in one of the city offices in Hiroshima Prefecture, where he was born. But for the work in the current exhibition, he’s not known for that at all—only among close friends.


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