It is probable that the name Hiro Yamagata rings only faint bells in the culturescape. Those who attended the premiere of The Source, Chuck Workman's documentary about the Beats, at New York's Film Forum on Aug. 25 may have noted that Yamagata was listed as producer. (The movie had a screening at MOCA on Oct. 13 and goes into theatrical release in L.A. shortly after).
Some might have made the connection with the Hiro Yamagata who had his first major New York gallery show at Marlborough in Chelsea this summer. It was called "American Lips" and consisted of acrylic paintings -- mostly based on Hiro's own photographs -- of the lips of friends like Goldie Hawn, Elizabeth Taylor and Geena Davis.
Still others might recall that a Hiro Yamagata was on the roster a couple of names beneath AT&T as a sponsor of the "Beat" show at the Whitney Museum in 1996.
But for whatever reason -- perhaps Hiro's fairly impenetrable English -- few know the remarkable tale of his success. It's about the Art Sin and Redemption of one of the richest unknown artists in the world.
Four years ago I visited Hiro's Southern California studio, which is across the Coast Highway from Malibu Colony in the building that used to house Howard Hughes' research laboratories. "There were rooms … rooms … rooms … no windows!" said Hiro, a genial guy in his late 40s, wearing a paint-spattered golf shirt. "It was top secret. Government stuff."
I wandered alone around a studio in full production. Part of the work was a suite of commercial pictures for the 1996 Olympics. One young woman was working on a soccer picture. Another was painting an archer. Who decides on the colors, I asked? "Hiro does," she says. "He changes it according to how it looks. Right now, he is changing the pink."
I had been taken to Hiro's by the Los Angeles dealer Fred Hoffman, who wanted me to check out the nine Mercedes Benz Cabriolet motorcars that Hiro was having painted with palm fronds, butterflies and roses floating on swimming pools. Yamagata painstakingly rebuilt and painted 17 of these automobiles. He told me he planned to stop when he had done 50. Hiro figured that the enterprise would cost him about $30 million. The cars were for sale at about $1 million apiece but had so far found no takers. "Nobody wants to buy because it is too expensive," Hiro said with his ingenuous smile.
With numbers like this, Hiro's operation clearly didn't compute. Then the artist explained the vectors of his career. He was born in Japan in 1948. His father was in the lumber business. "Very conservative family," he chortled. "He doesn't think artist is a real job. He came two years ago. He said how old are you, 47? You have to find a job."
Yamagata escaped to Paris in his early 20s. He lived on Quai de Saint Augustins. He met Merce Cunningham. He met John Cage. He met Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. He painted sets for Peter Brook. His flat was so frequented it was nicknamed the "Hotel Hiro."
At the time, Hiro was perfecting a cartoony illustrative painting style that was not particularly Japanese. "Wherever I go I want to be myself," Hiro said. "By chance I was born in Japan." His cheerful colorific manner did well. In fact, it did so well that his work was picked up on by an outfit in California that specializes in selling undemanding middlebrow art in bulk through venues in shopping malls.
His new patrons flew him to Los Angeles in 1978. A fateful trip. Four hundred serigraph prints of his work had arrived before him, and orders were being furiously taken even before he had looked them over and signed them. He realized either he would have to sever his connections with the outfit or stay and assert control. "I decided to work with them. Because I had to see what they were doing. So I decided to stay and live in L.A.," Yamagata says. "Fifteen years passed!"
The 15 years were fruitful, so much so that his work was copied by a forgery ring that sold through a gallery in Los Angeles. He was the only living artist to be so honored. "It was all dead artists," he says. "Chagall, Dali… " Hiro Yamagata and his accountants recently calculated how much his vividly colored prints of athletes and so forth grossed during this period. "$1 billion 200 million," he said. He spoke rather tonelessly for this usually voluble man. He repeated it. "$1 billion 200 million."
In other regards those years were less fruitful. He sent his portfolio around the nation's art museums, hoping for an exhibition. The museums looked over the work and saw where it was being sold. "They saw that all the gallery's names were in shopping centers," he says. "They said we don't care about your works! Your cartoons! One hundred percent of the museums ignored me. All of them. Because of the shopping centers."
Nor was he in any position to focus on work more to the high art world's taste. "I had a contract," he says. The contract required him to turn out huge quantities of his feel-good works, which didn't leave the artist feeling particularly good himself. "This gallery was like a jail," he says "They check on you 24 hours a day. When will you finish? What are you doing? Where are you going? When you have an idea that you want to do, you don't have the time. They don't care about your work. They care about money."
Two years before my visit, the contract had expired. "They wanted to extend it, but I said that is enough," Hiro said. In his platinum sweatshop, he had feasted on memories. "I missed my life in Paris. I missed so much my life in Paris," he says. He was now well-heeled enough to pursue the ambitions of his youth in the hippie avant-garde, and began doing so. The car that he had driven since 1986 was a Mercedes Cabriolet. With John Lennon's psychedelic Rolls somehow glimmering overhead, he decided to paint it with flowers. Thus began the Mercedes project.
Hiro has so far been unsuccessful in persuading anybody to let him paint an airplane. "I talked to friends who have Gulfstreams. None of them agreed. For security reasons. If you have a pink plane taking off, obviously you know who's on the plane." But he has now painted his 22nd Mercedes Cabriolet, with three more parked and waiting, so to speak. Still none have been sold.
Shortly before I met Hiro in Malibu, he had dined with a friend from his Paris days, Allen Ginsberg. From that meeting would come the Chuck Workman movie, The Source. His interest in the Beats also made him one of the largest funders of the Whitney "Beat Generation" show, where I saw him at the opening, talking in his cheerfully fragmentary English to the artists Francesco Clemente and James Rosenquist, the poets Gregory Corso and the late Allen Ginsberg.
Hiro is now working with lasers. Indeed, I heard that he's now looking for a space to mount a big show of laser-based art in New York early next year. I tried to check with Hiro. Last week he called me back from Tibet. "We came about three weeks ago. We are researching," he said.
Are you making paintings, I asked?
"I am with a camera crew. When I get back in early October I am going to have a meeting with the Discovery Channel. I am doing a lot of drawings and a lot of photographs."
He sounded ebullient as ever, despite the sort of sound quality that astrophysicists contend with when probing black holes. So more on the lasers later. Where was he precisely?
"We are at an altitude of 18,000 feet on Mount Kailash," he said. "It is a very important mountain for Hindus and also for Tibetan Buddhism. It is a holy mountain for them."
It's a long long way from the shopping malls, certainly.
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The Roving Tie
Call it the Roving Tie. It was taken off by its owner before he went onto the dance floor at the opening of the "Sensation" show in Brooklyn. It then -- or so he fancied -- disappeared into that Vale of Lost Clothing whence nary a sock returns.
Wrong! Cynthia Broan, who runs a lively gallery in New York's Meat Market district, telephoned the bereft owner -- okay, me -- to say the tie had fallen into the hands of Chadwick & Spector, the artist team whose splendid erotic-baroque photo art she represents. Herewith the results.
It was humbling to see that an item of one's wardrobe has been having a far more vivid life than oneself. The tie is now back, and has been grounded.