New York

View of “Kazuko Miyamoto,” 2022. Photo: Naho Kubota.

View of “Kazuko Miyamoto,” 2022. Photo: Naho Kubota.

Kazuko Miyamoto

The trio of pieces that greeted visitors at the entrance to this memorable survey of Kazuko Miyamoto’s art at the Japan Society succinctly triangulated the intellectually nimble, technically adroit artist’s practice. These three works—Stunt (181 Chrystie Street, 1981), 1982, a photocopy collage featuring Miyamoto, nude except for a Mardi Gras–style mask, executing a yogic leg raise in her studio in front of a pair of Sol LeWitt cube constructions; Untitled, 1973, a wall-mounted grid made from black cotton string and nails; and a large acrylic-on-canvas painting from the same year called Ways of Fern, in which a Minimalist lattice seems to have been jostled off plumb—functioned as a kind of interleaved precis to her ongoing five-decade-long career. This grouping, like the show as a whole, made a persuasive case for the richness of Miyamoto’s wide-ranging oeuvre, which has included painting, drawing, textile works, performance, and sculpture.

Born in Tokyo in 1942, Miyamoto came to New York in 1964 and settled on the Lower East Side, where she quickly became engaged with the downtown art world and still continues to live and work. The untitled wall grid—which presages the more complicatedly elegant, perceptually confounding string sculptures she created later—was initially installed in her first live/work space at 117 Hester Street, the same building where LeWitt famously also had a longtime studio. The two were close friends, and Miyamoto assisted the older artist with the fabrication of sculptures such as the ones seen behind her in Stunt, which also gives a flavor of the modes of performativity the artist has typically favored. Meanwhile, Ways of Fern, with its balancing of precision and disorder, is suggestive of Miyamoto’s relationship to Minimalism proper: Her geometries and serialisms are always tempered by the aleatory effects of the hand, and her images and forms are constitutionally open to the sorts of variabilities that cut against the movement’s chillier, more mechanistic tendencies.

The show was designed in a way that shorthanded certain aspects of Miyamoto’s sprawling practice—her performance career was distilled into a photo wall installed in a hallway, somewhat randomly, without any didactics. Viewers also saw no examples of the large, vividly gestural sculptures fashioned from rope, paper, and twigs that she began making after the early string works. Thankfully, however, the presentation provided an overview of the artist’s many signature forms and gestures, especially via a selection of dazzling string constructions from the 1970s. The originally site-specific works, which Miyamoto created by weaving black or natural cotton thread between a largely geometric array of nails she would pound into the floor and the adjacent wall of a given space, express the labor of their production, yet are almost supernatural in how difficult they are to fully apprehend. Male, 1974, is the first of her string pieces to conjure a volumetric connection between vertical and horizontal surfaces: a web of black lines that seem to dance and twist despite the fact of their utter stillness, the work was installed here next to its companion, Female, 1977. The suite was completed by two larger works from 1979—the luminous Sail, a torqued cataract of undyed string some eleven feet high, wide, and deep, and Black Poppy. The latter, which relies on nearly two thousand anchor points to achieve its intoxicating state of curvilinear grace, was originally created for Miyamoto’s final show at A.I.R. Gallery, the exhibition space run by the pioneering all-female SoHo collective of which the ardently feminist artist was an early and active member. (She also founded her own space on the Lower East Side in 1986, Gallery Onetwentyeight, which is still in operation today.)

The artist’s consistent concern with the relationship of her forms to her body and life became more apparent as one went deeper into the show. String around a cylinder of my height, 1977, for example, was originally one of a pair, with its counterpart (now lost) modeled on the height of the artist’s then-partner. And the exhibition’s final gallery was devoted to a collection of Miyamoto’s “Kimono Series,” 1987–, in which the artist has explored the traditional Japanese garment, which she was taught to sew as a child, as a repository of both individual and collective memory. Hanging in space via an innovative display design and accompanied by works on paper and paintings from across her entire career, the robes provided the show with a tangibly corporeal aspect, suggesting a gathering of a community of the sort that Miyamoto’s half century of making has both drawn upon and fostered.