New York

Sadamasa Motonaga, Two in Order, 1985, oil on canvas, 23 7/8 × 19 3/4".

Sadamasa Motonaga, Two in Order, 1985, oil on canvas, 23 7/8 × 19 3/4".

Sadamasa Motonaga

Fergus McCaffrey

Sadamasa Motonaga, Two in Order, 1985, oil on canvas, 23 7/8 × 19 3/4".

One of the coolest pieces of ephemera in the catalogue accompanying this exhibition of Sadamasa Motonaga’s later work is the artist’s “My Abstract Manga Manifesto,” a sequence of four line drawings published in a 1963 edition of Bijutsu techō, a Japanese art journal. Consisting of wordless, biomorphic shapes, the illustrations lay out the knowingly “low” and faintly obscene mode of abstract painting that would become central to the artist’s practice until his death in 2011.

Born in 1922, Motonaga joined the Gutai group in 1955, parting ways with the avant-garde movement a year before its dissolution in 1972. A lifelong fan of manga, Motonaga had let a cartoonish sensibility permeate his work early on—see, for example, the unmodulated white plane of Sakuhin 66-2, 1966 (the only Gutai-era work in this show). After his departure from Gutai, this quality of his work became explicit, settling into an aesthetic of precise lines, vaguely figurative motifs, and shading executed with airbrush, a technique he picked up during a decisive visit to New York in 1966. Given the affinities between this psychedelic work and the commercial illustration of the era, one might see Motonaga’s compositions as a kind of Pop; but, as critic Tomohiko Murakami argues in his catalogue essay, such a label is misleading, for Motonaga is taking mass culture not as a subject—as a thing to be parodied or critiqued—but rather as a kind of grist for the mill, the raw material for a new language of painting.

Though they are ostensibly abstract, many of the works in this show—Polygonal Line, 1979; Howa Howa, 1978; Two in Order, 1985; White Triangle in the Black, 1979; and the more recent White Triangle and Black Flows, 2006—can be read as landscapes. In each, a dark band along the bottom margin delineates the bleak horizon, and an airbrushed field lights up the sky in a chilly, crepuscular gradient. Motonaga fills this empty space with unusual shapes, like floating orbs and folding ribbons, and the impression we get is that of sci-fi spacecraft or quasi-animate kites. Certain of these motifs reoccur across his compositions, but they are always shifting, alive and amoeboid, and never feel routine. The landscape itself is front and center in his drawings for Moko MokoMoko, a children’s book that was released in 1977 and sold more than a million copies in Japan. (The full set of original drawings, dated 1976, were on view here.) The wonderfully bizarre sequence of images, done in dense, saturated acrylic, chronicles the fate of a mountain as it bursts from the ground, devours a brightly colored tree, and then explodes into an array of flying saucers that race off toward the pages’ margins.

Via picture books and public murals, Motonaga sought to bring his abstract art to the masses, and there is a clear affinity between his approach and that of Japan’s Superflat generation of the 1990s, whose anime-influenced Pop was as likely to appear in a blue-chip gallery as on a T-shirt or key chain. Motonaga, for his part, changed directions during this time, bringing back the thick, gestural strokes and drippy cascades of acrylic of his Gutai-era art, and combining these marks with blurry spray-painted forms. To my mind, the integration isn’t successful; the works lose the cohesiveness and subdued, spaced-out whimsy that made his earlier output so appealing.

Lloyd Wise