1966, the year Kikuo Saito came to America from Japan, was rather late to drop in on the unfolding story of modernist painting. Saito was 26 years old. He found his way to abstraction via the Gutai Group, whose manifesto extols Jackson Pollock and Georges Mathieu thus:
Their work reveals the scream of matter itself, cries of the paint and enamel. These two artists confront matter in a way that aptly corresponds to their individual discoveries. Or rather, they even seem to serve matter. Astonishing effects of differentiation and integration take place.
By 1966 the scream of matter had gone hoarse. Painters only a little older than him such as Frank Stella, Walter Darby Bannard, and Larry Poons were painting concerted rebuttals to the emotive excesses of gestural oil-slinging, efforts that later would be called Post-Painterly Abstraction. However, the Gutai Manifesto goes on to read, “No matter how many Pollocks have emerged after Pollock, his glory will not diminish. We must respect new discoveries.” The timing of Saito’s immigration allowed him to exercise a natural catholicity in a cultural atmosphere of experimentation and freedom.
In one of the stranger coincidences of modern art history, Saito, en route to New York from Japan via Hawaii and San Francisco, encountered Ellen Stewart of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club while they both were viewing the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her beneficence led to his involvement in multidisciplinary performance, even as he developed his own voice with respect to abstract painting. Matter, as conceived by the Gutai, always remained at the center of his work.
It’s worth noting how intense some of the arguments around art and art-making had grown at the time of Saito’s arrival. In 1972, Bannard published an essay titled “The War Against the Good in Art,” which observed,
Today this attack is manifold. It came to the fore in the early sixties, when Abstract Expressionism had spread to a choking mass. The reaction came, as always, but this time it was different, for there was not one reaction but many. Suddenly, everywhere, the idea of innovation caught up to innovation itself, and everyone innovated with brutal regularity. Obvious newness was sanctified. Surprise became the safe substitute for esthetic experience.
Bannard, who described himself as an artist cursed with the ability to write, couldn’t avoid getting drafted into that war. Saito, in contrast, was able to avail himself of this innovation without coming into conflict with it. His work entered the theater, and elements of the theater entered his work. Operating out of the reality of matter and action, at a distance from language, he found a way to situate himself, not via a dialectic of competing movements, but purely by way of his own inclinations, and achieve a rare and absolutely undogmatic modernism.
Saito’s work points out an uncomfortable gap in criticism and aesthetic phenomenology. Arranging an image inside of a rectangle is an ancient convention, dating at least to the low relief carvings of the Sumerians. Without ever formalizing their knowledge, at least as far as we know, those early artists sensed that there were better and worse ways of organizing images within those rectangles. Abstraction, first as decoration and later as an explicit mode of art-making, demonstrated that composition hinges not on imagery but on shape itself. But what causes the feeling of rightness in certain arrangements of shapes with respect to their containing rectangle? If it’s a special case of the ability to detect beauty in general, why does that case exist?
This problem has gone all but untreated since the days of the Sumerians. I know of two exceptions, both partial. One is from Paul Crowther’s Phenomenology of the Visual Arts (even the frame):
Literally, the framing devices define and emphasize individual planes wherein specific items or states of affairs are clarified visually through selective presentation of their key aspects. Pictorial space becomes explicitly separate from the visual space of the physical world precisely through its role in this cognitive enhancement. Framing devices, then, have the practical effect (intended or not) of clearly demarcating pictorial space, and signifying its difference from ordinary perceptual space…. [Rectangular formats have] the signal advantage of appearing to extend outwards in two equal directions, either horizontally or vertically. This dynamism suggests the virtual extendability of pictorial space left, right, and above the stationary viewer as well as in front of him and her. Its framing function is thereby one which focuses on the main represented subject but which situates it in a relatively open space.
The other is from a charming and wise little book by the painter Terry Fenton, About Pictures. Having noted that pictures are usually rectangles probably because walls and pages usually are as well, he describes this phenomenon:
In its simplest sense figure and ground refers to figures in a setting, against a background. As painting became more abstract, foreground “figures” often threatened to detach from the ground, making pictures that looked thin and incomplete. There were as many solutions to the problem as there were successful painters, but three basic tendencies stood out. One was to make the “figure” occupy most of the picture surface, hence the allover painting of Jackson Pollock, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, and more recently John Griefen. A second was to make the figure and ground appear to sit side-byside in a kind of optical space as with Adolph Gottlieb, Kenneth Noland, Jack Bush, William Perehudoff and several others. A possible third was to make the ground, itself, take over much of the picture surface with various small accents added, for example Barnett Newman and Helen Frankenthaler. Needless to say, these aren’t hard and fast categories. Some painters, among them the vastly underrated Darryl Hughto, used them all.
Saito too could be said to have used them all. But to my eye, his best pictures are of the second of Fenton’s types, the side-by-side arrangement of figure and ground. This is to contrast his approach with the allover strategy, which prompted Allan Kaprow to say of Pollock that “the confines of the rectangular field were ignored in lieu of an experience of a continuum going in all directions simultaneously, beyond the literal dimensions of any work.”
Saito’s most productive conception of a picture—put in terms of these insights from Crowther and Fenton—sets up two forces for collision. One is the demarcated rectangle, the physical edge of the painting, exerting pressure towards its own center via an encroaching ground. The other is a “figure” that resists this encroachment as if in defense of its own existence, exerting pressure outward towards the rectangle. The equilibrium of the two produces a satisfying stability, as if one was pressing one’s palms together.
Take for instance an untitled painting from 1980. The ground consists mainly of black acrylic paint, and the figure (I’ll desist from putting it in quotes), mainly of raw canvas. Those elements by themselves would have resulted in the malaise of thinness that Fenton describes, an abandoning of the ground’s encroachment on a helpless figure. But Saito creates the effect of opposing pressures by making the figure push back through pours of thinned acrylic, one ribbonlike shape each of fuchsia, crimson, teal, green, yellow, purple, blue, and white. Despite the relatively lower volume of paint application, the colors drip onto the black at the edges, causing paint otherwise soaked into the raw canvas to reach slightly in front of the dark ground. Around the rectangle, separate from the figure, small triangles of unpainted canvas, gaps in the encroachment, have also received dabs of color. This invokes Fenton’s third type of abstract picture, in which accents have been added to an area overtaken by ground. As he remarks, one could build a whole picture this way. But in this case, the device serves to amplify the sensation of the figure’s resistance.
Saito gouged lines into the dark ground with a brush handle, and they bear particular scrutiny. Some echo the outline of the figure, without redrawing it. Others echo the physical edges of the painting, without becoming strict horizontals or verticals. The gouged lines seem to bend in the compression between the centrifugal force of the figure and the centripetal force of the rectangle.
This work was painted in a small number of moves, which is not to say that it was easy to make. The speed at which acrylic dries tells us that Saito painted the ground in one exuberant effort, as it would have been impossible to gouge those lines into it after a short while. Pours such as appear here can’t be amended. If you imagine drawing abstractly by pouring a glass of wine on a table- cloth, you have an idea of what happened.
This untitled Saito is typical of his work at the end of the 1970s and the start of the '80s, what we might call his classic mode. In the '90s, however, his grounds started to push out his figures, and were filled with a mysterious stenography. In these canvases, Saito improvised an indecipherable script in white colored pencil on blackboard-like applications of oil paint, sometimes appearing to read left to right, other times right to left, alternating between failed math, failed cursive English, and failed hiragana. They speak of the futility of language, perhaps personally in the artist’s case, perhaps more broadly regarding its powerlessness in the face of art. Even so, a painting like Irish Wind (1992) contains a central, drawn loop, serving as a kind of figure, from which radiate lines akin to the gouges of his classic period that flatten and square off as they approach the edge of the painting.
A few months after Saito arrived in the States, Barbara Rose conducted a panel discussion with Bannard, Poons, Donald Judd, and Robert Rauschenberg on the question, “Is Easel Painting Dead?” A recording of this sometimes illuminating, sometimes madcap exchange is preserved in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian. The transcript concludes with (I think) unintentional humor with a note from the editor that reads, “Not included here is an extensive question-and-answer session held at the end of the panel, which began with an angry audience member lambasting the panel participants for a number of minutes.” Saito’s whole career as a mature painter took place in the time since then.
Hardly anyone remembers the details of these hoary animosities anymore, and easel painting is obviously not dead. Myriad preconceptions about modernism and its dramas stand to be put aside, in favor of a renewed look at an artist whose work began in Nihonga, was informed by experimental theater and dance, and was conducted in an ethos that regards the wide variety of creative practices as sisters. Saito’s modernism was, and continues to be, of the most generous sort.