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.)

In Fujimura's art, too, sensual joy and spiritual fervor coexist. In one notable painting in the Four Quartets series, brilliant white light flashes forth like revelation from between two ominous dark cascades of blue and black. In Halcyon Day, a surface of gold squares touched by black and rust-red is interrupted by an outbreak of blue, like an electrical storm or a glimpse of heaven. Few people would recognize these works as explicitly religious unless they had been tipped off beforehand, and I suppose that this is a shortcoming of Fujimura's paintings--as of all abstract religious art. But the spiritual content of Fujimura's work is plain if you look for it. And it is wonderful to discover an artist who aims to convey something ecstatic about God instead of loading his paintbrush with the usual horse manure about the vileness of America and the white male and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, and then spattering it in your face.

FUJIMURA IS BY NO MEANS the first abstract expressionist to make religious paintings. Barnett Newman made unsuccessful ones. Rothko painted a fascinating series, for an ecumenical chapel. Those brooding dark chapel paintings came at the end of his career (they were painted from 1964 to 1967); he was tired and depressed, and three years later he died a suicide. The light that made his paintings glow from inside was failing--although he also made brightly-colored paintings in his final years, paintings on paper that seem to hark forward to Fujimura's work. Rothko's chapel paintings speak of tragedy--as though we were reaching a low point in American history with our national will to live scraping bottom. Abstract expressionism seemed to be reaching the end of its life.

But now comes Makoto Fujimura, whose spiritually eloquent paintings might almost have been kindled from the embers of Rothko's art. Rothko was an agnostic Jew, and Fujimura is a Christian. But Fujimura's religious art gains depth from Rothko's. The darkness of Rothko's late works makes Fujimura's new paintings burn brighter.

THE JAPANESENESS of these paintings adds to their allure--but ought to be seen not only in the context of Fujimura's art but of the extraordinarily cosmopolitan traditions of western art in general.

Fujimura paints in a medieval Japanese technique called "Nihonga." Pigment-bearing minerals are ground up and glued directly to the surface, along with gold and silver. The artist favors a traditional Japanese paper called Kumohada ("cloud skin"). Merely to list his materials (azurite, malachite, cinnabar, silver, and gold) recalls the compressed sensual glory of Biblical passages that name the raw materials of the desert tabernacle: Gold and silver and bronze; and ultramarine, and purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen (Exodus 25:3-4). These ingredients are vividly wonderful. Yet to judge from the catalogue, they send some of the artist's admirers into slightly suspicious ecstasies, as if we are supposed to regard these paintings as intrinsically precious, regardless of what they actually look like.

IN FACT, the role of the artist's Japanese materials and techniques seems to me more psychological than aesthetic: They put artist and viewer in the right frame of mind, and that is important. But in the end, Fujimura's achievement is a matter of his artistry, not his art supplies. He could have accomplished similar art with western techniques.

We must also keep in mind that the specifically Japanese quality of these paintings--the distilled elegance so intense as to be sublime--also occurs in the work of certain conventionally Western artists. Matisse, Klee, and Franz Marc are capable of it (in their distinctive ways)--sometimes Calder and Barnett Newman, too; often Rothko, and the sculptor David Smith; the architects Luis Barragan and Louis Kahn; and others.

Some Western artists were directly inspired by Japanese art. Of all Asian artistic traditions, Japan's seems to mesh best with American seeing and thinking. No twentieth-century artist is more characteristically American than Frank Lloyd Wright--who was obsessed with Japanese art and architecture. Japanese elements blend seamlessly into his art, which pleased Japanese as well as Western tastes. In combining Asian and American artistry, Fujimura carries a remarkable tradition forward.

He doesn't always hit the mark. Some of his paintings ramble. Occasionally his crushed-mineral pigments seem lifeless--in some of the sparser paintings, where colors have less opportunity to heighten and play off one another. His recent Manhattan show included a short video called Nagasaki Koi, of which Fujimura writes, "I took this video in a pond in Nagasaki, not far from where the second atomic explosion took place." These smug sleek fancy fish become mobile sculpture or living Celtic interlace as they glide and intertwine. Some of the stills are striking, and the video sounds alluring--but isn't as good as it sounds. It seems bland and superficial next to Fujimura's best paintings.

BUT HIS BEST PAINTINGS mark Makoto Fujimura as a superb artist who does honor to the Japanese traditions he uses, and helps fan life back into several magnificent western traditions--traditions as new as abstract expressionism, as old as Christian art.

His paintings point not to the past but to the future, in which art is raised gently and lovingly from the gutter and reinstated at the center of modern life. For thirty years, abstract expressionism has been neglected by the American art establishment in favor of the toothless tedium of Installation Art, Conceptual Art, Computer Art, Porno Art, Excrement Art, Dead-Animal Art. The pinball has caromed from boring to infantile and back again, while the world looks on in complete indifference. But it takes far worse than this to kill the artist's impulse to take a canvas, panel, or sheet of paper and cover it with line and color. Art survives; art triumphs. Makoto Fujimura proves it.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.