Discovering the Essence of Art: Renowned American Artist, Tadaaki Kuwayama

A New Appreciation Contemporary Japanese and Asian Art

Tadaaki Kuwayama at Whitestone Gallery Taipei

In our ongoing series, we present the digital archive of the book 'A New Appreciation Contemporary Japanese and Asian Art' This book delves into internationally acclaimed artists and the dynamics of the Asian art market. In the 23rd installment, we present a conversation between the late Tadaaki Kuwayama, who passed away at the age of 91 on August 20, 2023 with art critic Aaron Becky.

Art is Beauty Produced by Humans

Tadaaki Kuwayama - Artist
Aaron Betsky - Art Critic

You can feel something from good art. It might be something spiritual. You may not be able to recognize it but you can feel it. That is the most important aspect of art. If a work is excellent, observers can feel it.
Tadaaki Kuwayama

Aaron Betsky (l) Tadaaki Kuwayama (r.)

The Viewer is More Important than the Artist

Betsky: I would like to ask you a few questions about how you make your art and what it means.

My first question is a very simple one: How do you begin?

Kuwayama: I’m not sure. I start a painting, for example, and in the middle of it I think about how it should be. Then I won’t change it until I finish it. The next painting is another idea.

Betsky: Do you ever destroy any of your works?

Kuwayama: I do, yes. Maybe some years later. Sometimes I can’t stand my own work. When that happens, I destroy it.

Betsky: On the question of how you begin, it seems as if you’ve always had a plan, something you’re trying to achieve. And that each painting is a way to get closer to that.

Kuwayama: That’s true. And I did make a statement, I think for the journal Art in America in 1964, and that is what supports my idea.

Betsky: Can you describe that idea in some detail?

You were trained in nihonga Japanese traditional paintings and made some very beautifully crafted paintings. After you came to America, you started to move to Minimalist art.

Kuwayama: Not immediately.

Betsky: But you saw the traditions of modern art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Kuwayama: Yes, sure. I learned a lot from the Museum of Modern Art.

Betsky: And you started making art that became ever less and less. Some of your colleagues who also moved in this direction eventually did more and more and more. But you keep going for less. Why?

Kuwayama: I have not reached the final point yet, inside myself. I am still trying new things. New creation is so important for an artist. And when I finish one work, the next one is another creation. I am moved by my own creation.

Betsky: It is interesting that your creation is also a kind of erasure, because you don’t want any evidence of your craft or your personality. In your early work, you would layer very thin washes of color one upon another until the object of the painting disappeared. And now you have gone even further, because now you very precisely dye color in titanium.

Kuwayama: That’s correct.

Betsky: So what are you erasing?

Kuwayama: For instance, to select the titanium, I go to the factory to see the color gradations of their titanium. And I ask the factory for a certain size and to see how they make it. It might take a week or so to decide. I so many times watch and ask about the character of the titanium. It’s not there right away. It takes time to decide. Once decided, I am satisfied. That has to do with the way the color changes with the angle of view, light, and distance. So when you walk in front of the titanium and see the color changing, that means that the atmosphere is involved. That’s why I covered all the walls instead of one or two.

Betsky: Can you tell us a little bit more about the effect of the atmosphere, the air? You speak a great deal about your paintings and the space around them.

Interaction of Art and Exhibition Space

Kuwayama: It starts once the artwork is hung on the wall. There is interaction between the space and how the work looks, and also the reaction of the viewer’s own thoughts or perception. Distance is also relevant. If there are numbers, they also make an atmosphere. I thought this was wonderful.

Betsky: But at the same time, because you use very intense colors, and very precisely, your objects command our attention and draw us to them.

Doesn’t the space then disappear?

Kuwayama: No. For instance, the works I did with sticks. The first exhibition of this was in 1996 at a large museum in Japan. I hung 136 works, I mean sticks, and I covered three walls.

And the remaining wall was all white. There was a feeling of intimacy. I was there on the opening day, after working for a few days for the installation. Many of the people who came were ordinary people who may have been enjoying the park-like grounds around that museum. Those people looked at those sticks and said “Wow, is this art?” Somehow, they were impressed and wanted to know more. I was just watching their reactions as they stood and gazed. Different people said different things about what they saw. Because the angle is different. Distance is different. They knew it was the same but looked different depending on the angle of view and their distance from the work. That means they feel the atmosphere of the room and the air itself. I thought, this what art is. To feel the atmosphere, the object and distance.

Betsky: The way you describe it, the implication is that you disappear as an artist and maybe even the work of art disappears or recedes and the art comes out by the action of the viewers.

Kuwayama: The viewers, yes. So the artist isn’t very important, not the artist himself. How the viewers react is so important.

Betsky: So your art is like a trigger? Something like taking LSD and looking at your art.

Kuwayama: It is difficult to explain.

Betsky: Maybe a better comparison would be with some form of meditation where you center yourself and something triggers that, like the ringing of a bell. That seems to be part of what you’re after.

Kuwayama: Maybe. And I thought that this is the definition of art. First, I say that art is spiritual. Nothing else. But art is what the observers feel and if what they feel is close to my thought, I’m lucky. That’s about it.

Betsky: Is there a craft to evoking that and, if so, how did you develop that craft?

Kuwayama: For instance, if you think of metallic doors, the surfaces are all different. And the jointing, the color...such as the primary colors in the early works. I started in 1965 with metallic spray paint on 4 or 5 works. One was selected by the Guggenheim. The biggest one. It was pink and the blue. In those days, I didn’t care for painting. I just wanted something that was nothing. But it still feels like something, right? That is art, I thought.

Betsky: But it’s interesting that when people ask you about color, you’re very tricky about it. You seem to be very conscious of how certain colors not only behave, but how they trigger, how they evoke a particular reaction from the viewer. And it seems like you’ve been working on that for a very long time.

Kuwayama: Yes. So some people say that I’m still doing same thing. That may be true. I’m not tired of that. I find it really exciting.

Betsky: But you never made something that was pure black or pure white?

Kuwayama: Some of my early works.

Betsky: Very early. That’s right. But why not since then?

Kuwayama: I don’t really know.

Betsky: I think you know what you’re doing with the colors though maybe not consciously. We have many clichés about color - that black is death and white is something new or virginal, but also that red comes forward, blue recedes. When you use red, you either seem to try to find a red that doesn’t do that, or you use it in combination with other colors as a set.

Kuwayama: Not really. I see each color as having same quality.

Some people like red, some people like blue, but red or blue, they are not different. That’s my thought.

Betsky: But to achieve that, to make that clear, you manipulate the colors so they don’t behave in the way that we’re used to them behaving. Blue, for instance, is also supposed to be very luscious.

Kuwayama: There are many kinds of blue. For me it’s same.

Tadaaki Kuwayama exhibition installation, Whitestone Gallery Taipei

Commitment to Color

Betsky: But back to the original question, how do you begin? I asked about colors because that’s the last thing that remains in many of your paintings - very intense and often very changeable colors. For a metallic piece, if your move around it slightly you see a little bit of yellow, that’s inherent in it or maybe under it. So you worked very hard at this and yet you deny that you’re making any choices or that there’s a plan with it. I have a hard time believing that.

Kuwayama: In the middle of the 1960’s, I made a 7 foot square piece of 4 joined panels in 5 different colors - blue, of course red, yellow, brown, and gold. There was no reason for the placement. My dealer said that it was a whole with the 5 different colors. About 5 or 6 curators get together and were talking. I didn’t know that they were talking about which one to take. One said they should take the red one. Another said the yellow one was better. I said that the color qualities are all the same. Each one has a different quality according to the light. One is not better than another.

Betsky: So you throw it back again on the viewer? It’s what the viewer finds in it?

Kuwayama: Yes. And then they said, ok we will take everything. The next question was how to arrange them for hanging. I said it doesn’t matter and you can do it differently each time.

Betsky: So it leads me to two questions. One is that it would be a natural progression for you to start to make architecture, to start to make buildings. Your daughter became an architect. And since so much of what you do is about establishing those colors in space, why not do that literally? Why stick with painting. Why not paint a wall and then paint another wall in a different color?

Kuwayama: I did that, too. I started out studying nihonga and I learned about color and paper.

Nihonga is paint on paper. It is the technique rather than the materials that matters. I’m not professional in the way architects are.

Betsky: Let me ask it the other way. A few years after you made your first mature works, you showed them at the Green Gallery and at the Guggenheim. There was a moment when people observed you and the early Frank Stella, Carl Andre, and other people who were trying to erase art in a similar way. A few years later, on the west coast, a number of artists took that to a logical next step of making pure light or pure space. James Turrell is the most famous but there was Irwin about 5 or 6 people working in this mode and some of them went towards pure color. Some went to pure light. Did you know about that work? Did it interest you? Were you tempted to go in that direction?

Kuwayama: I was interested in what was happening in California.

Betsky: And why was it only California?

Kuwayama: I don’t know.

Betsky: You moved to New York in 1958?

Kuwayama: 1958, yes.

Betsky: And have stayed there ever since. is there something about New York your art? Or how did time and in this place affect your art?

Tadaaki Kuwayama

Being an Artist in New York

Kuwayama: At that time, we had to have an interview at the American Embassy and be approved before going overseas. It was not possible to travel freely in those days after Japan lost the war. We also were not allowed to use airplanes. We had to travel by boat. I was asked why I wanted to go to the United States. You know, artists should’ve been interested in going to Paris. I said that Paris was destroyed by war. Germany was occupied and economically a poor country after the war. Art cannot grow without financial support. I said I thought the United State could support art. I also thought that new things were happening in art in New York and that was why it was the only city I was interested in.

Betsky: Were you aware of what was going on in New York - the action painters, the early Combines, all those kinds of things. Did you know about this?

Kuwayama: Not really. I knew the names of Jackson Pollock and Alexander Calder. That’s about it. I liked Calder’s floating sculpture invention.

Betsky: When you arrived as an artist trained in nihonga, everywhere around you, people were throwing paint and making very heavy objects. Claes Oldenburg and Rauschenberg. There have been interviews with Carl Andre and people like that who said they very consciously did not want to this. Was it a conscious decision for you that you did not want to continue what you had learned to do, but that you wanted to react against what was being made in New York?

Kuwayama: I really liked Barnett Newman and Rothko and those types of artists at that time that I saw for the first time. I was also impressed by the large scale that

I never seen before. But I didn’t want do that. I thought I should find my own way.

Betsky: And when you encountered some of the other people at the Green Gallery and other venues, was there a sense of recognition? Did you talk about work together?

Kuwayama: Not much. My English was bad.

Betsky: But Donald Judd reviewed your work very early on. Was that inspiring to you?

Kuwayama: I must say that I didn’t properly understand it.

Betsky: So you’re in New York, a big city with all these things going on, and you find a way to work. You show your work with other people. Those are the people going in different directions and their work becomes more and more complicated, either as a system, like Andre or Sol Le Witt, or in expressiveness like Stella.

Kuwayama: I didn’t follow them.

Betsky: Did you ever feel like they were betraying something?

Kuwayama: No. I thought art should be an artist’s own creation, not following someone else. Creativity is more important.

Betsky: It’s so interesting that, with all the things going on around you, you describe your work as a very inward search towards a kind of spirituality. Yet you remain in New York and you remain very engaged. Did you ever feel that you needed or wanted to retreat to be able to concentrate?

Aaron Betsky


Kuwayama: In the mid 1960s I had a first show, and it was outside United States at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It was a big show of mainly artists from New York. Almost 80% were American artists.

Betsky: That was when Sandberg was running the museum, I think.

Kuwayama: I had been picked that time, and I sent out three paintings, all about 6 feet square. One was 4 triangles joined together. The others were squares, or something. In Europe, people had never seen such things before. My work was featured in a big local article. After that, I had an exhibition in Zurich. Bischofberger called me on the opening night. Of course, I didn’t know him but he said he wanted to see me. A few days later, he came to my place and we talked. He said he liked my work and that he would give me a monthly stipend. At that time, nobody was buying our work. It meant that I could have a contract for two years and would be able to live. He gave me a studio, an apartment, and an assistant. That was the beginning of Europe. In the US, nobody was buying my kind of work. Betsky: Well that was true for many people and that’s why a lot of the museums in the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark have excellent collections of works from the 1960’s.

Kuwayama: That’s right! They supported young American artists.

Betsky: That’s very true. One of the questions that people were fighting about at that time was indeed what art meant, and if we had moved beyond representation and were not making pictures of the world anymore, but we also moved beyond the artist being something in itself. Some people experimenting with systems, Judd and Le Witt. And it’s not about the work, but about creating social relations in a system. Other people were trying to get to absolute nothingness, maybe just light. What were you trying to do? And are you still trying to do it? How do you describe what you started out doing then and what you’re still doing now?

Kuwayama: What I want is very difficult to describe. If I knew, I would tell you. Betsky: I was very happy that you don’t feel embarrassed to use the word ‘spiritual,’ to say that you’re after something spiritual. Can you talk a little bit of what that means to you?

Kuwayama: Art is man-made, right? Some part of you cannot express or explain it, but you can feel it, right? With good art, you feel something you cannot see. That is the most important part for art, I think.

Betsky: It’s interesting that you take it immediately to emotion, to feeling. Usually we associate emotion with something much more expressive. And your work is the opposite in many ways, not in all ways, but in many ways. Can you perhaps describe emotion or feeling a little bit more?

Kuwayama: Everyone has different feelings. That’s what I mean by spiritual. Betsky: There is a very famous quote from van Doesburg who said that as art develops, first architecture disappears and dissolves and then sculpture will dissolve, and we will be left with painting and then painting will dissolve, and pure spirit will descend. But that pure spirit is very like a blinding white light and the self disappears. In your model, the self of the artist disappears, but the artwork is still there. And what’s more important is that it actually becomes alive. You keep emphasizing that each and every individual person is different. And most of the models I know of spirituality of the 20th or 21st century in relationship to art are about personality, individuality disappearing. Maybe even humanity disappearing. But you don’t seem to believe that.

Kuwayama: I believe that art carries us on.

Changing with Different Materials

Kuwayama: Humans will disappear. But artwork remains, right? When someone sees an artwork, they will feel something they cannot explain. That is a very important point. It’s very hard to explain what it is, but they are.

Betsky: If humans disappear, who is there to experience the art? Does it matter?

Kuwayama: It doesn’t matter.

Betsky: Okay. I wonder how you feel when you speak this way. The first thing that comes to my mind is Soto Zen or some of the other schools of Japanese spirituality. And I wonder whether you ever feel ‘yes this is what I mean,’ or if you are instead being pigeonholed as being a Japanese artist.

Kuwayama: This is my own way. Nothing to do with so called spiritual philosophy. I am not involved in Zen or something else.

Betsky: It’s your own quest.

Kuwayama: For art. So simple.

Betsky: Over the years, your work has a series of different technologies, and each of those technologies gets further away from the hand. First, it’s brushes and then it’s layers, and then it’s spray paint, and then it’s metal and now it’s the electrolysis of titanium. What’s next?

Kuwayama: I don’t know. You tell me.

Betsky: Can you imagine getting even further removed?

Kuwayama: Maybe. If I find something and ... maybe I’ll try.

Betsky: For all these decades you have worked with your studio right next to that of your wife who’s also a very good artist. And she makes work that is very different from yours, and yet you can see certain reverberations, so do you feel that you have had a dialogue with each other, that you’ve consciously or unconsciously influenced each other.

Kuwayama: Maybe somewhat, of course. We are in the same house and living together. But we don’t talk about technology or art. She is paper cutting and I’ve been doing something different. But you know we can help each other, of course.

Betsky: She speaks about your work very eloquently as well. Do you always agree with what she says?

Kuwayama: Sometimes not. Well, she knows what I’m thinking. Also it’s true that I am changing a lot and use different materials.

Betsky: And she stays with paper?

Kuwayama: Yes.

Betsky: Not always. She sometimes uses metal.

Kuwayama: That’s right.

Betsky: But you have used paper too.

Kuwayama: Japanese paper, yes.

Betsky: But that was a long time ago. Have you ever gone back to it?

Kuwayama: Yes, I did, a long time ago. I feel something. I like those paper works and once the National Museum in Japan asked me for a big show in a really big space. Perhaps 100 square feet. Usually they divided that space into many rooms to make a show.

Kuwayama: When I went to see the space, I was so surprised. It was a huge and nice space. I asked to make a wall in the center and make 2 rooms. One white wall was about 25 feet wide. And I used only this wall. On one side, just 2 plain rectangle shapes, and both jointed together in maybe a 4’x4’ square. Just I pasting paper and just joining together. This size, with just one line, a joining line. The show was just like that, and I really liked it. But some people could never understand.

Tadaaki Kuwayama exhibition installation, Whitestone Gallery Taipei

The Effect of White Space

Betsky: That’s interesting. So you were very much working with the space. You don’t do that very often, you put your things in the space. But you would like to do that again?

Kuwayama: Yes.

Betsky: We will have to find an opportunity for you. So in this exhibition, you’re working with a variety of different spaces, but there is also a character that has been set to this place by architect Kuma Kengo and he has made a very strong entrance and this very strong space where we are sitting. How do you feel about that?

Kuwayama: It hurt me, my work. Actually yes, honestly.

Betsky: So you had to screen it out. But doesn’t it also give you something to react against?

Kuwayama: Not really.

Betsky: You want pure white?

Kuwayama: Yes.

Betsky: The time you began making your art coincided with the emergence of the ‘white box,’ and your work has always occurred or almost always occurred in that kind of white box environment. And the white box stands for a whole attitude towards art, not just philosophically but also towards the place that art has in our economy and everything else. I was reading a book about those early exhibitions and the early artwork. And they very explicitly made the relationship to the fashion of that time, to the kind of people that were buying art, and the political movements. But you’ve tried to divorce yourself from them. Do you think you really can divorce yourself from all those implications?

Kuwayama: It is very hard. Sometimes I cannot say no. And for the museum shows I am doing these days, the curators agree to completely change the space.

Betsky: One way to think of your work is very much within the flow of art history itself. And you can say there’s a progression from Malevich at the beginning of the century doing white on white and then black on black and then Ad Reinhardt doing almost black and people making white paintings. Robert Ryman making white paintings but there’s still always something about the brush stroke. Then Group Zero saying no art. Do you see yourself as part of that progression?

Kuwayama: No. I don’t think so. I know them. Yes, but I want to be on my own. Aaron Betsky: Most people who say they want to be on their own, retreat. But you yet are very engaged, and you still work in New York and with a gallery system. Your work is for sale. How do you be by yourself and be alone and yet be part of this larger social economic physical system? How do you do that?

Kuwayama: I’m doing it. I’ve been showing all over the world.

Exhibitions as Career Retrospectives

Betsky: You talked just now about how you found a much more receptive audience in Europe and I would say especially in Northern Europe. Now it seems you were finding a receptive audience in Asia and specifically in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and maybe China. How do you explain that?

Kuwayama: I don’t know. The museums in Japan were sleeping. Doing nothing. And the artists were always in groups. That’s why I left Japan. I guess the system has improved.

Betsky: Maybe a dangerous question. We were joking yesterday about not having a work on hand to show, and I made the joke that you could do like de Chirico and remake a painting. But seriously, since your work is very much about choice of a particular color format and removing the hand, the craft from it, why not make the same piece again?

Kuwayama: I’m not interested in doing that.

Betsky: Why?

Kuwayama: As an artist, I am just not interested in repeating something.

Betsky: In a sense, you do keep repeating, not exactly the same thing but trying over and over again. But somehow not doing exactly the same thing.

Kuwayama: That’s true. Material wise I’m changing. If i see something, interesting material, I like to use it.

Betsky: Perhaps I’ve pushed this too far, this notion that you are on a quest and that you’re progressing and the work goes ever more abstract. At the same time, you will go back and use material but when you have an exhibition, you want to show your latest work, but also representation from almost all the periods.

Kuwayama: Actually, I was asked to do that.

Betsky: Okay. But I noticed that you do this in a lot of your exhibitions. it must be something you also like to do. No? Or would you rather show only your latest work?

Kuwayama: Many times people ask about my early work from the 1960s. That’s my work, too.

Betsky: And you still believe in it.

Kuwayama: For me art is endless.

Betsky: It’s endless as an activity but it’s also endless in its purpose. It has no end.

Kuwayama: We don’t see the end.

Betsky: But it’s also endless in the work itself.

Kuwayama: Some work gets old, it’s finished. I don’t want those.

Betsky: When I asked you how you begin, I thought you would say, I don’t begin. I proceed or I keep working.

Kuwayama: Everyone has a beginning.

Betsky: But you don’t make sketches, you don’t wake up in the morning and say I want to do blue. So in a way there is no beginning.

Kuwayama: That’s right. I keep continuing.

Betsky: So there is also no end?

Kuwayama: No end, that’s right.

Betsky: This is also maybe dangerous question. You have worked for many years. At some point there would be an end, there will be an end to all of us.

Kuwayama: Yes.

Betsky: And your work will remain.

Kuwayama: I hope so.

Betsky: How do you hope it will remain? When you are no longer here to install it and to guide it?

Kuwayama: I don’t know. Maybe that time is when there is no art in the world.

People become not interested in seeing a wall or perhaps they don’ need it but maybe then they need the art. That means art is endless.

Betsky: Thank you so much. I’m very grateful to hear your thoughts and for your art. Thank you!

Kuwayama: I enjoyed the interview.

Betsky: I also enjoyed it.

Book Information
Title: A New Appreciation Contemporary Japanese and Asian Art (English Edition)
Publisher : Whitestone Co., Ltd.
Release Date : February 26, 2020

*Information in this article is at the time of publication.

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