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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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One admires the paintings all the more for the strict rules Fujimura has set himself. Nihonga calls for a limited range of binders and natural pigments—sometimes based on powdered minerals or semiprecious stones. Fujimura’s pigments all seem to be opaque; translucence and lightening are achieved by controlling pigment densities, and overlapping rather than blending colors. A powerful personality operating within strict limits has produced much of the greatest art we have: Bach’s sublime achievement in (say) the Art of Fugue, and in the even more restrictive passacaglia or (equivalently) chaconne forms; Beethoven’s in the fugues of the gloria and credo of the Missa Solemnis, or the variation-form last movement of the final piano sonata. And so on. But important art must surprise us as well—without trying; not by PR hucksterism. (If your art is not inherently surprising there is nothing you can do about it, any more than you can make yourself be inspired or fall asleep.)

Fujimura does surprise us. And a significant artist must drive his language as hard and far as it will go, and then burst that barrier and go farther. Think of the coda of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the closing theme of the first movement of his final piano sonata, or the end of the Grosse Fuge. Will the Nihonga technique Fujimura has chosen give him enough breathing room to surprise us repeatedly, and go farther and farther as his art evolves? There’s no telling. But we can say that Fujimura is a major artist, and his paintings are serenely beautiful.

You won’t have read much about Fujimura in the art world’s prestige press: a hopeful sign. The establishment (now and forever) is incapable of recognizing important new art—although it is doomed, Sisyphus-like, to try and fail again and again. Often its attempts are honest, and once in a while they even succeed. More often the reigning experts make themselves ridiculous, and wind up with such P. T. Barnum-style masterpieces as Damien Hirst’s shark carcass slowly rotting in translucent blue jello (or whatever the stuff is) now wowing visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But in the modern art world, the relative neglect of such masters as Fujimura is more complicated than the old story of the pompous Academy versus the rebellious outsiders. Only a couple of generations ago, the official New York art world had achieved the marvelous state of recognizing great contemporary art and enforcing no style or party line. That idyll was celebrated at the Met 40 years ago in the epochal New York Painting and Sculpture 1940-1970 exhibit—a show that marked the end of an era with the urgent brilliance of a dying, frying light bulb. (In some ways it resembled the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair.) But why did the idyll die? Can it ever be re-created?

Look back at that exhibit and you see the sky blaze as the sun sinks. Inevitably the show was dominated by de Kooning: As the 20th century falls back, we see de Kooning, Matisse, and Giacometti emerge as its presiding geniuses. But the Met’s show included great art by a strikingly varied and original group: Edward Hopper’s powerful realism, Stuart Davis’s jazz cubism, the profound and moving microcosms of Joseph Cornell, along with other abstract expressionist masters, and the brilliant pop draftsmanship of Jasper Johns—and for good measure, the wit of Claes Oldenburg, among other important artists. 

What happened to that movingly brilliant art world? Art for its own sake has always been an irresistibly juicy peach of a target to ideologues and intellectuals. By the 1970s the established museums, newspapers, and universities, fresh from the triumphs of the Cultural Revolution, had an agreed political message to deliver. And the Academy had always been uneasy about art as an end in itself rather than a delivery truck for ideas. The 1960s, ’70s, ’80s saw the dark blossoming of “conceptual art,” which usually amounted to snide and bitter political message-flaunting, as primitive as Socialist Realism. “Conceptual art” equals “conceptual cupcakes” equals nonsense. Cupcakes don’t exist to convey concepts. You can hear the characteristic false note of modern art-talk in the first sentence of an (otherwise fine) essay on the Wilton Diptych, published by London’s National Gallery in 1993: “Who could have devised the complex interplay of ideas which makes the Wilton Diptych so intriguing?” (The late 14th-century diptych shows Richard II and patron saints addressed by the Virgin and Child and a crowd of angels.) 

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