Smithsonian Presents “Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art”

By the Archives
March 12, 2015

Kuniyoshi in his studio near a partially completed painting.

The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art will explore the remarkable career of American modernist painter, photographer and printmaker Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889–1953) in the exhibition, “Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art,” The exhibition will be on view at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture from March 30 through July 10.

The exhibition will feature newly discovered papers, including the artist’s personal correspondence, photographs, writings and scrapbooks, revealing both his personal and professional life. The exhibition is organized in conjunction with “The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

When Kuniyoshi left Japan in 1906 at the age of 16, he had not planned to live permanently in the United States, and he never imagined a career as an artist. Yet in 1910, he moved to New York City to pursue his interest in art, and by the 1920s, his paintings were receiving critical attention. When Kuniyoshi died in 1953, he was considered one of the most brilliant painters of his era.

This exhibition will be divided into three sections, documenting the varied facets of Kuniyoshi’s prolific career as a principled artist, an influential teacher and an able organizer of activist causes.

Kuniyoshi was an immigrant of Japanese descent, excluded from citizenship and classified an “enemy alien” during World War II. Just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, Kuniyoshi drafted a letter to fellow painter George Biddle: “A few short days has changed my status in this country, although I myself have not changed at all.” Kuniyoshi was forced to negotiate his personal and artistic identity over increasingly tense terrain. Throughout his life, he remained a keen observer of everyday life and endeared himself to a wide circle of friends and colleagues.

Included in the exhibition are reference letters written by leaders in the art world in support of Kuniyoshi after he was declared an enemy alien, lively photographs of Kuniyoshi with his friends and students, ephemera from his 1948 Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective, his notes on teaching and typed lectures supporting activist causes, as well as organizational files documenting Kuniyoshi’s leadership of the Artists Equity Association. These documents will come together publicly for the first time to reveal the complexity of both the man and his art.

“This rare, never-before-seen archival material provides an extraordinary prism through which we can examine the historical and personal context of Kuniyoshi’s work,” said Kate Haw, director of the Archives of American Art. “In particular, these original records help illustrate Kuniyoshi’s singular immigrant experience in America.”  

This exhibition also celebrates the substantial discovery of additional Kuniyoshi papers by Tom Wolf, co-curator of the upcoming “The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi” exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The papers were subsequently donated to the Archives of American Art in 2014. The Kuniyoshi papers have been partially digitized by the Archives of American Art and are available online.

About “The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi”at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is organizing a major retrospective of Kuniyoshi’s work, surveying his career through 70 of the artist’s finest paintings and drawings. “The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi” is co-curated by Joann Moser, deputy chief curator at the museum, and Wolf, professor of art history at Bard College. The exhibition will be on view at the museum from April 3–August 30, 2015.