The Magazine

A Faithful Art

Makoto Fujimura and the redemption of abstract expressionism.

Mar 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 23 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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MAKOTO FUJIMURA'S PAINTINGS ARE A joyful gusher from a well that had long run dry--or so the world assumed. Abstract expressionism has yielded little that is new in recent years. Granted, some distinguished abstract painters who made their mark in the 1950s and 1960s continued to paint in the new century: Robert Natkin (born in 1930), Gerhard Richter (born in 1932), and Cy Twombly (born in 1928), for example, and Andrew Forge, who was born in 1923 and died in 2002. But younger abstract artists able to make original, striking paintings have been scarce--which is one reason among many to celebrate Fujimura.

He was born in Boston in 1960 and educated at Tokyo National University as well as at Bucknell in Pennsylvania, and he paints in a manner that is all his own--a manner that is just as commanding and compelling as de Kooning's, Pollock's, or Rothko's. He is not yet the equal of these legendary masters, but he might be some day; his talent is large.

The world has begun to notice. Fujimura's recent one-man show in Manhattan, "The Splendor of the Medium," was full of striking pictures. It closed in December but left a first-rate catalogue. Fujimura has had many shows in the United States and Japan, and museums are beginning to buy his work. (He is also on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts, as am I.) Fujimura condemns "the splintered and degraded aesthetic language of the day" and argues that his paintings must help "to redeem the language of art." These are inspiring aspirations.

His best paintings have poise and nobility, and they seem to emit light. Fujimura is the rare modern artist who has mastered metal foils, especially gold leaf. His color-sense is lovely, and he has an exquisite feel for the details of pigment--its relative translucence, its surface texture, the kind of drip-trail it leaves behind if you let it slither. His fondness for painting large pictures on paper rather than canvas suggests the nuanced fineness of his touch. But all these points are secondary to the quality of his design sense--the vision he sees before he starts.

Take Zero Summer, a large painting on paper (around seven feet tall by five wide) whose title refers, Fujimura says in the catalogue, to "the unimaginable horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki." It's sad that such a beautiful painting should appear with the noose of wartime disaster thrown around its neck. On the other hand, the painting is easy to read as an abstract view of catastrophe. Smallish gold squares crowd close together in the right half (the rust-red background peeking through occasionally); on the left the grid-like crowd falls apart, and gold squares (some stained black with tarnished silver) tumble earthward. The design is perfect and so are the colors--mainly warm gold plus soft red, blues, and blacks.

You have to stand in front of this painting to get any kind of impression of it. The same holds for nearly all of Fujimura's paintings--and for many other abstract expressionist masterpieces, especially Mark Rothko's. Superficially Rothko's paintings are nothing like Fujimura's, but Fujimura seems closer to Rothko (who died in 1970) than to any other abstract expressionist. Rothko's best paintings glow from inside like supernatural storm clouds. Fujimura's glow too; the glow draws you and holds you. To leave the scene requires that you concentrate and pull back, as if you were trapped in a gravitational field. (Or some kind of field.)

Take Splendor (for M.K.), roughly five-and-a-half feet tall by seven-and-a-half wide. Two gold squares float in a black cloud that blazes softly with bursts of gold dust. Rivulets of color stream earthward from the blue, moss-green and vermilion cloudbanks surrounding the blazing black cloud. The painting seems less an abstraction than a realistic picture of a transnatural apparition--as if the sky itself had imagined this image.

TWO FACTORS add to the fascination of these pictures. Fujimura is an American who is devoted to his ancestral Japan and its artistic traditions--and he is an abstract painter who is a devout Christian and describes his paintings as religious art. He writes that in 1987, "I transferred my allegiance from art to Christ"--which seems like a puzzling statement at first, since Fujimura's paintings luxuriate in the sheer wanton gorgeousness of pigment and metal-leaf. But other artists have combined sensual joy with religious feeling. Titian used to get color-drunk all the time, but was capable nonetheless of profoundly religious moods, especially in his late paintings. Matisse's exuberant joy in color was one of the big stories of twentieth-century art, but he was able to create movingly spiritual auras in which God's presence seems to hover just out of sight or around the corner. (Matisse was an atheist, but his eyes and hands were wiser than he was.)