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Master in Depth

The multidimensional Makoto Fujimura.

Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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In a small but magisterial show that stopped in Paris and then (late last year) at the Dillon Gallery in Manhattan, Makoto Fujimura emerged as a major artist, one of the dozen-odd most compelling painters at work today. Fujimura is a Christian who paints within the Nihonga tradition of a limited palette of natural pigments; his brooding, soaring abstractions often rhapsodize on religious themes. His paintings were interspersed at the show with pieces by Georges Rouault (1871-1958), whose Christian images fit almost as badly into pre-World War II Paris as Fujimura’s do in modern New York. The exhibit has closed, but the Dillon Gallery continues to show Fujimura’s work, and a small catalog called Rouault Fujimura Soliloquies is available from the gallery.

At their best, Fujimura’s new paintings have the depth of the night sky, and seem to blend as you study them into a sort of cosmos. Most of these new paintings make striking use of gold leaf. Gold for gilding is ordinarily prepared and sold in small squares, several inches on a side. Fujimura uses the squares themselves as a motif. Often he assembles them into grids aligned with the edges of the painting; sometimes the squares balance on point, or coalesce into secondary grids at odd angles to the main one. The sheer gold leaves are caught at a moment of flutter, as if in a mild breeze. Sometimes they dissolve into powder and become as translucent as ancient cloth. Fujimura exercises impressive control over translucence: We see a black void through a golden grid, or square leaves superimposed on one another three or four deep. Fujimura’s golden grids of fluttering leaves give these paintings the lapping rhythm, the serene and fascinating aliveness of gentle waves in a large, deep harbor.

His colors collect into clouds with a slightly gritty feel, like sparkling tiny ice crystals; color-nebulae drift sometimes in front and sometimes behind the planes of gold. Scanning the cosmos of these pictures you spot a lovely pale cerulean blue made bright by surrounding gold; a vermilion turned hot and luminous by the cool brown underneath; a pale gold on salmon pink, a turquoise over cobalt blue—subtle and lovely color-chords.

One large painting includes several lines of biblical text in tiny loopy letters running like a golden flute-trill across the surface; but otherwise the pictures are pure abstract. They resemble the color-field paintings of a Morris Louis or Helen Frankenthaler, or the work of Gerhard Richter, more than the gestural abstraction built around eloquent brushstrokes in which the greatest abstract painters spoke. But Fujimura’s gold, his characteristic palette, and the spiritual depth he builds out of his drifting color-clouds make these paintings original and powerful.

Depth of field is a rare quality in abstract art. Abstraction emerged, after all, when the rear plane of the picture-space (like the back wall of a giant aquarium), having moved steadily forward over half-a-century, finally collided with the front plane—leaving a flat field to be decorated rather than a volume to be filled. This gradual squashing of the picture-space was evident in Manet and urged forward by the startling, nose-pressed-to-the-glass immediacy of van Gogh and Cezanne. The cubists were left with staved-in, flattened figures inhabiting the narrowest of gaps, and the conclusion was inevitable. Most abstract paintings are accordingly flat—but Fujimura gives us a surface with a vast space opening behind it. In this respect he brings Mark Rothko to mind, and the Jackson Pollock of The Deep (1953)—an atypical and stunning painting.

Garden-variety abstract painters give the impression of having hit on some pattern almost at random and then pressed it into service as their own trademark style. Then they repeat themselves like a child persevering until you give up and look. Fujimura is one of those rare and superior abstract painters whose visual language seems as natural, inevitable, and uncontrived as his own speaking voice. His paintings speak of his personality like the surface of a pool expressing the motion of a deep-gliding swimmer. The artist who emerges in these paintings is a man of spiritual depth and impeccable taste, and the visual language he speaks is enchanting.

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