Mokuma Kikuhata, A Song for Spring 3, 2015, oil on canvas, 8' 6" × 19'.

Mokuma Kikuhata, A Song for Spring 3, 2015, oil on canvas, 8' 6" × 19'.

Mokuma Kikuhata

Mokuma Kikuhata, A Song for Spring 3, 2015, oil on canvas, 8' 6" × 19'.

When Takashi Murakami opened his Kaikai Kiki Gallery in 2008, it was natural to assume that the program would be all Superflat all the time. That hasn’t been the case. In particular, over the past year or so the gallery has organized a number of quietly impressive exhibitions for older artists who operate outside Murakami’s usual circuit, from the lauded Mono-ha figurehead Lee Ufan to the underappreciated abstract painter Kazumi Nakamura. The latest entry in this informal series is Mokuma Kikuhata.

Born in 1935 in Nagasaki, on the island of Kyushu, Kikuhata rose to stardom in the early-1960s anti-art scene in Tokyo, where he became known for totemic sculptural installations and mixed-media assemblage paintings. Soon enough, however, Kikuhata repudiated the postwar avant-garde, dedicating himself instead to researching the work of the naive coal-miner artist Sakubei Yamamoto, and grappling with the legacy of the propagandistic “war campaign record” paintings commissioned by the Japanese military in the 1930s and ’40s. Although he has continued making art in the years since, opportunities to see it in Tokyo have been few and far between.

This perhaps explains why the works at Kaikai Kiki seemed to have come out of nowhere. For the exhibition, Kikuhata made a series of four massive multipanel oil paintings, each measuring more than sixteen feet across, titled “A Song for Spring,” 2015. The paintings combine different modes of abstraction with gestures toward figuration and graphic design. Set on an off-white ground, each composition features two pastel-hued trapezoidal “wings” of solid color—blue, green, yellow, or pink—flanking a central grouping of vertical bands, or “zips.”

Running up and down the length of the canvas, the bands are roughly a few fingerbreadths across—some thicker, others thinner. In contrast to the wings’ stuccolike expanses of color, they contain within their pencil-lined edges marbled eddies of white-on-blue washes, grading into peach or the faintest yellow, and either elongated swaths of lavender and orange, which evoke watercolor brush play and miniature painting, or slivers of sky, illuminated by sunset and obliquely reflected in the glass-curtained facades of skyscrapers towering above some futuristic metropolis. In places, they are also scored by flurries of sooty, diagonal brushstrokes of what could almost be graphite, while in the voids between the bands, Kikuhata has added effervescent dots of green, pink, blue, and other colors. Given their size and rhythmic alternation of motifs, the paintings suggest backdrops for some kind of performance. They also do weird things with scale and perception. Viewed from a distance, the bands recall the lines of rain scoring the surface of an ukiyo-e print. Drawn in for a closer look at the details, one is suddenly embraced within a haze of color, projected from the wings on either side and filtered through one’s peripheral vision.

In a side gallery, a group of smaller canvases from the series “Spring Breeze,” begun in 2007 (the works that were on view are all dated 2015), were more explicit in their exploration of the graphic dynamics between pattern and color field. Spring Breeze 12, for example, is divided by the intersection of a vertical column and a horizontal band, with four squares of pale blue, bordering on white, occupying the resulting grid. Here, too, the bands contain the familiar “sky” patterns, only interrupted by broad, assertive strokes of glossy black paint.

Without seeing more of Kikuhata’s post-’60s works in person, it’s hard to say how these paintings relate to his broader practice. The show’s generic title, “A Song for Spring,” is almost maudlin, but the work upends cliché through its confident interplay of technical complexity and studied bafflement, and through its heady negotiation between the ephemeral and the absolute.

Andrew Maerkle