Throughout his prolific career, Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889–1953) practiced in a breadth of media, incessantly expanding his artistic vocabulary and constantly reinventing himself in his art. His early work is characterized by an expressive play with form and perspective, which was in part inspired by the artist’s cultural hybridity and early interest in American folk art, Japanese traditional printmaking, and European Modernism. Like Marsden Hartley, John Marin and other American artists of this era, Kuniyoshi developed a semi-abstracted modernist language to mine the personal qualities of the American landscape, transforming it into a vehicle for personal storytelling. Kuniyoshi’s sketchbooks exemplify the artist’s sensitivity to his social and emotional environment, while always maintaining a foundation of elegance and control.
In 1916, Kuniyoshi found a home and family in the surroundings of The Art Students League of New York. He tried and failed to get into George Bellows’ popular painting class and instead studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller, who ultimately deeply influenced Kuniyoshi’s artistic course.
It was at The League that Kuniyoshi met painter Katherine Schmidt; the two married in 1919 and lived in Brooklyn. During the winter months, Kuniyoshi worked as an art photographer to supplement the modest sales from his paintings. Together they saved enough money to afford summers in Ogunquit, Maine. Kuniyoshi’s sketches from the 1930s and 1940s adhere to a more realistic tradition in their use of linear perspective, which suggests depth and spatial continuity. He depicts these Maine landscapes like ghost towns: melancholy images of empty streets with headstones overtaken by long grass, rendered so softly they seem to dissolve into the atmosphere. The artist’s gestural, but nearly feathery, use of graphite highlights the process of desolation, erasure and erosion. Scholars have asserted these quiet images may emerge from a deep anxiety about the war and its effects both overseas and on the home front. Cows too appear frequently in Kuniyoshi’s oeuvre, and records show the artist closely identified with this animal, since he was born in a “cow year” according to the Japanese lunar calendar. Kuniyoshi’s enthusiasm for collecting American folk art was described by a newspaper reporter in 1924: “I heard that most of the summer colony in Maine last year went mad on the subject of American primitives, and that Robert Laurent, Dot Varian, Adelaide Lawson, and the Kuniyoshis stripped all the cupboards bare of primitives in the Maine antique shops.”
Kuniyoshi’s first solo exhibition was in 1922 at the Daniel Gallery. In 1925 he made his first trip to Europe, spending much of his time in France, where he was greatly influenced by the Bulgarian painter, Jules Pascin, as evidenced in Kuniyoshi’s drawings of nude or partly dressed women in casual poses.
Kuniyoshi began teaching at The League in 1933 and continued until his death in 1953. He notably mentored artist Bruce Dorfman during this time. In February 1940, Kuniyoshi gave a speech at the Museum of Modern Art entitled, “What is an American Art?” He argued against the rising tide of nationalism in the United States, asserting, “If the individual lives and works in a given locale for a length of time, regardless of nationality, work produced there becomes indigenous to that country.” Despite his career in the United States as a celebrated artist, Kuniyoshi never officially became an American citizen — a 1924 act of Congress made it illegal for Asian residents to be naturalized, and American women who married them lost citizenship as well. While Japan and America were at war, Kuniyoshi was labeled as an “enemy alien.” His lifelong desire to become an American citizen was never realized; he completed the application in 1952 but died the following year of cancer before it was approved. Today, he is remembered for being among the most important figures in American modernism.
The Art Students of League of New York thanks Mr. and Mrs. Stephen and Charlotte Diamond and the Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi for their generous donation of fourteen works on paper by the artist to the Permanent Collection.