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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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.