New York

Kenzo Okada

Marisa del Re Gallery

Kenzo Okada (1902–1982) was an intimate, it seems, of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, and he supposedly affianced their sense of broad, flat plane and carefully modulated touch to a Japanese sensibility. But that is like saying he gilded a lily that was already his by birthright, for the flat, divided surfaces of these Western artists’ paintings, in which division seems like a divining rod pointing to an invisible depth, can be seen as derived from 19th-century japonisme.

So what did Okada gain by supposedly drawing upon Newman and Rothko’s work? He seems to have recovered the sense of nature as an irreducible, lyrical presence that they either abandoned or repressed. While his work, with its discrete images of nature that evaporate into wispy color planes, at times seems like diluted Milton Avery, it is just its unembroidered yet elegant quicksilverness, its slippery coherence, that bespeaks the traditional sense of nature as a symbol of the eternal in the transient. In a postmodern world blindly rhapsodic about change, Okada’s work revives an old code of nature and shows that it doesn’t have to be parodied to be made viable. It is viable not because Okada Americanized it or reaffirmed it as a Japanese birthright, but because it has remained an underlying constant, a symbol of a lost spiritual symbiosis with the world.

One of the oldest uses of art is as a means of articulating what would otherwise remain elusive. For Okada, the sense of the sacred was one of those “unrealities” that could be re-realized by art. The true theme of Okada’s work, then, is not nature but the sense of the sacred available through it. Newman and Rothko too were religious artists. “Religion has always lived,” Daniel Bell has written, “in the dialectical tension, of release and restraint,” conditioned by “the fear of nothingness,” that is, death. Both Newman and Rothko gave us a highly disguised—abstract and seemingly “unnatural”—dialectic of release and restraint, a technically superb playing of the theme of death and rebellion against it. Yet in their work the restraint embodied by flatness and the release of their gesturalism seem at once ritualistic and embarrassed, as though the sacred had to be compulsively ritualistic if it was to exist at all but was nonetheless embarrassed because it existed in mundane American circumstances. Okada’s unembarrassed—unrepressed—relationship to nature shows less struggle than we find in Newman and Rothko: a sense of the sacred beyond any sense of the tragic, emerging through a calm awareness of death in the form of the ephemeral. The real interest in Okada’s paintings is that they revive the code of the sacred in a world and an artworld that either mask it with a sense of tragic conflict or else ignore it altogether.

Donald Kuspit