I had the good fortune to tour the comprehensive survey of works by textile master Serizawa Keisuke at the Japan Society, curated with admirable rigor by the society's gallery director Joe Earle, with two formidable blondes, Alexandra Peers of the Wall Street Journal and Alice Judelson of I-20 Gallery. As Peers commented, using an old journalistic term, "They buried the lede," by putting the jewels of the exhibition, Serizawa's incomparable kimonos from the 1960s, in a back room of the gallery, where you might miss them.
This is the first scholarly exhibition of Serizawa's work in America, so Joe Earle cannot be faulted for the thoroughness of this collection, the work of a man who mastered mingei, the exacting use of paper stencils to produce functional artworks that dominate Japanese society today. Serizawa designs are far more ubiquitous in Japan than, say, Andy Warhol images are in the U.S. In a lifetime beginning in the closed society of 19th-century Japan, evolving during the military buildup of the 1930s, thrust into poverty after the war and culminating in his absorption of Color Field abstraction, Chinese calligraphy and even Pop in the 1960s and ‘70s, Serizawa craftily adapted small revolutionary visual references to a traditional medium.
Moreover, Serizawa's line, in a a stenciling process given to muddiness and mistakes, was so crisp that it appeared, over the course of 80 years, on entry sashes, matchbooks, curtains, signs, furniture, lanterns, just about every surface imaginable. Walk into a Tokyo department store today and your eye will be dominated by Serizawa's subtle, understated imagery.
The kimonos, which my female companions wished to walk out of the museum wearing, are one-of-a-kind prints of enraptured delicacy. Banana Leaves resembles the pale blue and ivory of Wedgwood pottery. Seabream envelops schools of fish in a burnt orange background. Trees alternates two light brown forests on a rich burnt umber background. Mountains of Tsumara reduces the ranges to a droll field of colored mushrooms.
Serizawa loves to play with motifs of scale in which the largest forces of nature disappear in to the subtle control of his fabrics. It's probably blasphemy to suggest it, but the Japan Society could make a financial killing by marketing reproductions of Serizawa’s kimonos to the public. In any case, this is a show which rewards the traditional verities of art making, observation, patience and slow craft as the true paths to innovation and visual revolution, a nice antidote to the one-note visual jokes that clutter the current world of art.
"Serizawa: Master of Japanese Textile Design,"Oct. 9, 2009-Jan. 17, 2010, at Japan Society Gallery, 333 East 47th Street, New York, N.Y. 10017
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).