Masaaki Noda’s Trajectory
Curator, Fukuyama Museum of ArtPreface
New York is the most important market and laboratory for modern art in the world. It is also, along with Paris and London, an international center for art publishing. Masaaki Noda went to that city nearly thirty years ago, in 1977, with a youthful ambition of “becoming an artist who can be understood anywhere in the world.”
New York is a tough city for artists who want to show their works in galleries. Unlike Japan, where galleries for rent abound and any artist with money can show his or her work in an authentic setting, such galleries are exceptions in New York. As a result, in most cases gallery owners, not the artists, decide which artists and artworks to exhibit. This means that for the artists just to be good is not enough. They must search for the right gallery owners and persuade them, which necessarily becomes a continuous effort for survival. Besides, competition is fierce because the city draws a great number of talented artists from all over the world. Again, unlike Japan, where the schools you graduated from and the list of your shows carry weight, in New York “you are appreciated for good works only and ignored if you turn out bad ones. Your good reputation today doesn’t mean your good reputation tomorrow,” Noda said in 1988.2 It’s the kind of observation only someone who has lived and worked in New York for a number of years can make. It is in that terrifying urban milieu that Noda has continued to evolve as an artist—without losing sight of himself, without getting swallowed up by the waves of change that constantly sweep through the art world—moving from printmaking to painting, then on to sculpture.
This exhibition is the first retrospective of Masaaki Noda which gathers together his earliest to his most recent works. Here I wish to explore Noda’s development as an artist beginning with his childhood, linking his changes to those of society and history where possible.
Masaaki Noda was born the first son of Minoru and Sumiko on December 19, 1949, in Shin’ichi, Ashina County (now part of Fukuyama City), Hiroshima. Minoru manufactured the traditional Bingo-kasuri (ikat), though he later expanded his business to cover apparel in general. Masaaki was a shy boy and wasn’t good at sports. The turning point in his life came, Noda told me, when his house burnt down in a fire caused by a short circuit. Standing before the burnt house his mother said, he remembered, something like, “Whatever has a form is destroyed; whatever you have in your mind is not.” Noda, then in first grade in middle school, understood this to mean: “You shouldn’t depend on things alone; you must acquire some solid skill and work hard to live.” This has remained Noda’s motto to this day, and his creative work derives strength from it.
His family’s move to a new house, in a new environment surrounded by abundant nature, made him realize that passivity was not for him. He grew to be an energetic, mischievous boy, who loved to go to the neighboring town, in Futchu City, with his little sister and friends and swoosh down the Saburo Waterfall, a 100-foot natural water slide.
Since his grammar school days Noda was good at painting and making things, so he joined the art club at Shin’ichi Chuo Middle School. But he resented drawing and painting as instructed, and because several members of the club displayed superior skills, he gradually lost interest in painting. In 1965 he passed exams to go to Tode High School and joined the judo club. Doing judo enabled him to put distance between himself and art and look at the attraction of art from a different angle. In the second year of high school he joined the art club again, with the specific aim of going to art college. He devoted himself to learning the basics and as he understood their importance, he took drawing more seriously, which used to bore him at middle school.
In 1968 he went to the Osaka University of Arts. At first he pursued realism in painting, conscious as he was of the striking quality of European art after the Renaissance. At the same time he began to explore his own style, a search that produced a conflict which would last until the second half of his junior year. He also belonged to the karate club where he developed different kinds of friendship.
Noda’s real starting point as an artist was his encounter with Prof. Shigeru Izumi (1922-95). A painter and a founding member of the Society of Democratic Artists in 1951, Izumi was popular among his students as he provided them with up-to-date information on artistic developments in Europe and elsewhere and talked about his thoughts on the basics of artistic creation. When Noda finally took five realistic and five abstract paintings he’d done to his office for criticism, Izumi observed that the realistic paintings with their technical mastery looked back to the past and encouraged him to pursue his abstract instinct. Noda had done the abstract paintings just as experiments and had no idea how to proceed, and he honestly told that to his teacher. Izumi’s response was: “If you don’t know what to do, keep at it until you do.” Emboldened by these words, Noda imposed on himself the task of making ten paintings a month and showing them to Izumi.
As Noda recalls, Izumi at the time had returned from studying in France not long before, and was beginning to use circles and triangles. Overseas he’d realized that printmaking wasn’t highly regarded and begun to give more weight to painting in his own work. He was turning away from his “humanistic” approach and beginning to employ an air-compressor on his paintings to erase brushstrokes. When Izumi exhibited works with cold, metallic surfaces, Sadajiro Kubo (1909-96), whom he had followed as his teacher, disapproved of them. Noda’s works from this period, in the early 1970s, shows Izumi’s distinct influence, including the use of an air-compressor and silvery colors. It was also the time that “technology art” was becoming a fad with the advent of the computer and the Gutai Art Society was showing the last burst of activity; as it turned out, it was shortly before the death of its founder, Jiro Yoshihara (1905-72). Yoshihara was an Osaka-based artist, and his influence also reached Noda in the form of Art informel.
Noda would not associate with any artists’ groups, however, preferring to show his works independently. The first competitive show to which he submitted his works was in 1976, four years after his graduation from the Osaka University of Arts. That was the 26th Modern Art Exhibition, and he won the Osaka Mayor’s prize.
His works from that period, about 200 of them, typically used geometric forms and compositions based on circles and triangles. They used non-transparent materials such as poster colors and oil paints to create matte effects, showing the influences of, among others, Minimal Art and Op Art. Examined chronologically, we can see that Noda gradually changed from simple arrangements of rectangles alone to more organic forms full of variety. We can also see increasing sophistication in the use of colors, with greater use of subtle color changes through gradation and complex contrasting of colors, a reflection of his continuing exploration of his own style. He told me that he deliberately tried to bring in new elements in each new painting he did and felt that he was getting closer to what he was aiming to achieve with every piece.
Before Leaving for New York
Just before graduation, from January 31 to February 5, 1972, Noda had a one-man show at Shinanobashi Gallery in Osaka. He wanted to give an overview of what he had accomplished during his years at the university. One of the artists who came to this show was Yoshio Kono (1921-99), a painter also from Osaka. Within days after meeting, Noda started to live in Kono’s house as a printmaking assistant. Printmaking was one area that hadn’t attracted much of his attention, but partly because of his curiosity to observe how an established artist really did work, Noda helped Kono in printmaking from morning to night, without once stepping out of his studio for the first two months. At the time printmaking was being re-evaluated and creating a boom, mainly with the advent of Masuo Ikeda (1934-97).
As Noda recalls, Kono, who had just returned from his travels in Europe and the United States, often told his young assistant to go to New York because he had been particularly impressed by the scale and power of that city. Initially Noda was resistant to the idea. His hope was to make it in Japan. But as he had one exhibition after another, he became increasingly aware of the seniority system that determined much of the evaluation of art in Japan. He began to be concerned that he might not be appreciated through his work alone. He also found out that only a handful of artists in their 50s and 60s made a living as artists. Yoshihara, for example, ran an oil business.
Noda’s decision to go to New York came suddenly when he was twenty-four, and he realized his plan three years later. He waited for three years because, he explained to me, he wanted to “create a solid base in Japan” before leaving his country. During those three years he energetically exhibited his works: in one-man shows at Shinanobashi Gallery and Gallery Miyazaki, and in a group show at Gallery Fine Art, “Six Artists in Silkscreens,” all of them in Osaka.
He was beginning to see in prints the kind of charm and potential he did not find in painting. The “Revolution” series, which were printed in silkscreen directly on acrylic plates, and the “Moving Panels” series, which allowed the viewer to move panels to change the compositions to his liking, were the works in which he fully realized the potential of printmaking. He also created the large-scale work: the “Expression: First Period” series, which consists of a number of panels linked together.
These works, which show the influence of Op Art and are based on mathematical formulas, are all made to create visual illusions through geometric compositions. The forms look afloat in a void. Also, with the use of the “cutting” technique unique to silkscreen they create a sharp impression. Through these works Noda was trying to reinterpret the Concrete Art advocated by Max Bill (1908-94) who pursued beauty on the basis of precise mathematical calculations.
In 1976 Noda became the guest artist for “Art Now ’76” at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art on the strength of these works. During the months of 1977 before going to New York, Noda worked on the “Expression: Second Period” series, which was to be his largest print work. In particular, “Expression 88-A” links together sixteen panels. This series was Noda’s attempt to compete with painting which at the time was growing ever larger. It also displayed all the techniques he learned in printmaking.
Arriving in New York
As soon as he arrived in New York, in September 1977, he started attending the Art Students League, which is located in a building on 57th Street, across from Carnegie Hall. The League’s history dates from the establishment, in 1825, of the National Academy of Design, though the League itself came into being in 1875. Still an important art school in the United States, it has produced a number of famous artists. Among the Japanese, there are Kotara Takamura (1883-1956), Toshi Shimizu (1887-1945), and Eitaro Ishigaki (1893-1958). Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953) taught at the League for some years.
Noda studied at the League for three years on an Elizabeth Carstairs Scholarship. On advice from friends, he chose jobs that had as little to do with art as possible to make money: house painting, construction, delivery. For the first two months in New York, he lived in a hotel but then moved to a loft near Chinatown, previously a warehouse for discarded building material. He renovated it into a studio-cum-living quarters with his own hands. In time he invited his wife and son from Japan with a determination to make a go of it in New York.
The “Expression: Third Period” series marks Noda’s transition from the geometric conception attempting to capture movements in limitless space to the expression of dynamic forms in transparent space. He then would move to “Dimensions,” his first series started after moving to New York.
“Dimension 3-N” (cat. no. 18) is his attempt at a multilayered expression in transparent colors in silkscreen, which was the direct result of his awakening to the possibilities of transparency and profundity of color which he saw Rothko achieve in his paintings at his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. About this time Associated American Artists offered to handle his work done in Japan. This gave him the first impetus to focus on his artwork.
In 1979, at the 31st Annual Printmakers Exhibition in Boston, his work “Dimension 6” (cat. no. 19) won the Purchase Award. He was thinking of packing up to go back to Japan if he did not win an award at this show. With that award a total of eleven galleries started handling his works. His one-man show held that same year at Shinanobashi Gallery, in Osaka, elicited these comments from the art critic Kazuo Yamawaki.
A silkscreen exhibition by Masaaki Noda who went to New York several years ago and has since continued to do creative work there, this show reflects the tension of an artist living in a foreign country in a positive sense. These prints create hard surfaces through combinations of color bands of straight lines and circles.
In Noda’s work, colors, sharp, metallic forms, and the spatial compositions of those forms make up the three principal elements. Among these, his colors are printed in silkscreen in such skillful chiaroscuro that you think they are watercolor. Through the blurring, the forms, albeit in soft colors, are given a hard, three-dimensional feeling and, where they are layered, they create space with depth in certain places and melt into the uniform surface in other places. You can discern the influences of Stella and other American artists, but in Noda the spatial consciousness is stronger than the planar one. I appreciate Noda’s resolve to compete with Western artists by strengthening the sense of space and composition in his work, which tends to be weak with Japanese artists.3
Noda himself noted his deliberate effort to reflect the influences of American art in his work. He remembered the strong impression he had when he made the rounds of galleries in Soho for the first time. “When I first saw Soho galleries, I was amazed by the scale of the work. Not just that the colors, forms, compositions were good. There was some kind of weightiness about them. I felt keenly that all that was a result of the cumulative effect of living….What’s truly strong is not a powerful line or color, but what stays in the viewer’s brain. I aim for much softer prints which aren’t like prints at all.”4
After five years in Chinatown, Noda moved to an apartment in Soho, in 1982. The new residence had about 2,000 square feet, enough for a work space and living quarters.
About this time he began drawing three-dimensional, fluid forms in his prints. These forms would finally lead to real three-dimensional works, and Op Art would gradually turn into dynamic forms that are unique to Noda. Here we also see clear attempts to commune with the spiritual world alongside images suggestive of some of the basic forms of nature such as atoms and DNA.
Noda was also inspired by the ideas and thoughts that Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) jotted down for the drawings he made as a scientist. The conical shapes seen in silkscreen prints such as “Magnification and Motion” (cat. no. 27) are based on the suggestions he derived from those drawings. “I inferred spirituality from da Vinci’s sketches of flowing water and such,” Noda told me. He put forward these flowing, dynamic forms as a force to contend with the Neo-Expressionism that swept through the 1980s.
Somewhat later, he was drawn to William Turner (1775-1851). By looking at the Turner catalogue raisonne and his works at the Frick Museum in New York he found the style of expression he’d been looking for: dynamic painting with a sense of structural mass. From this painter Noda also devised a technical innovation in silkscreen printmaking: scorching the perforated edges of the film before pasting it on the screen to soften their sharpness. The technique enabled him to produce blurred edges like watercolor. He also tried complex and subtle chiaroscuro, treating the transparency of space by changing the blend of paint and other mediums. Through this he gradually perfected a unique expression with flowing colors in a composition that makes you feel as if you’re being sucked in, which at the same time suggests different dimensions. One result of this was collaboration with Nam-jun Paik (born 1932) who was captured by Noda’s printmaking innovations and thought highly of them. In the past twenty years Paik has given Noda bare outlines of his ideas for prints, leaving the actual printmaking entirely to him.
Still, it was also during this period that the number of print dealers started to disappear in New York. Noda began to pay greater attention to painting. Also, during this period he came under the influence of Shii.saku Arakawa (born 1936) through his friendship with his assistant Nobuyuki Oura (born 1949)-an influence most clear in Noda’s incorporation of physical theories and ideas into his work.
In 1992 the daily newspaper Chugoku Shimbun asked Noda to file occasional reports on the New York art scene. These reports, which began in February of that year and lasted until February of 1995, gave Noda an invaluable opportunity to learn not just about some of the more prominent of his fellow artists, but also art curators and art dealers, each of whom he interviewed. Among these people were the artists Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Christo , and Lucas Samaras; the curators Alexandra Munroe, of the Japan Society, and Lynn Gumpert, of the Grey Art Gallery, New York University; and the master printer Kenneth E. Tyler. In one of these reports which numbered twenty-nine in all, Noda observes: “I was forced to realize that it was easy to lose yourself in the art scene; in order to survive in this city you had to establish your own self” (February 10, 1992); in another, “Through his paintings he makes us realize once again the self-evident principle that an artist is properly appreciated only by his art” (September 20, 1994).
Turn to Sculpture
Noda’s first turn to sculpture occurred in 1982, when he made a three-dimensional work for the International Aerial Art O rchestra tion, an event sponsored by the Rainbow Art Foundation to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the friendship between the Netherlands and the United States. Nine artists from nine countries were invited to participate. Noda was one of them.
Noda’s work for the occasion, shown in Central Park, was a combination of a large balloon and parachute material. This construction, which floated up into the air, subsequently inspired him to make small paper sculptures. He told me that by then he was beginning to sense that what he wanted to express was becoming too large to be contained in two dimensional work-that to fully realize his idea of space in painting, he often felt the need to construct a three-dimensional form first before turning it into a two-dimensional work.
In his painting Noda, from around 1983, gradually switched from charcoal and paper to acrylic and watercolor. At the same time Noda persevered in his attempts to create a greater three-dimensional illusion in his prints, which continued throughout this decade.
From 1988 he began to use iron, copper, and other metals in place of paper for the small-scale sculptures, which till then he had made to give himself structural ideas for paintings. As that happened, he started making them independently as well. At the end of this line of work was “Perpetual Flight,” a large-scale pair in stained glass, one called “Rising to the Firmament,” and the other “Coming and Going and Vicissitude.” He made this in 1997 for Keihan Uji Station. It was Noda’s first effort in that medium; it was also his first public monument.
In 2000 his hometown Shin’ichi’s Lions Club commissioned him to make a sculpture to commemorate the 35th anniversary of its founding. The result was the sculpture in stainless steel, “Perpetual Flight II: Beyond Time and Space.” Made with a combination of skillfully bent mirror-finished steel pieces and erected at the northern end of Fukudo Bridge, it is large: the sculpture itself is nine feet high-eighteen feet when the pedestal is included. It changes its form greatly depending on the viewer’s position. It surely suggests something in flight as the title says, and its subtitle, “Beyond Time and Space,” seems to urge the viewers-especially children-to transcend the here and now, to go and visit all parts of the world. Noda himself has explained that the sculpture should be a point of confluence from which to leave with renewed or different thoughts.
Noda made this sculpture out of a paper model. Later he would make clay models to gain a better sense of mass, but he learned a good deal from the experience of making a sculpture out of stainless steel-addition of side plates for reinforcement, determination of welding angles, and the art of delicate cutting-which all gave him impetus for his next step.
In 2002 he made “Perpetual Flight III: Dream Catcher,” another stainless steel piece which was installed in his high school.
In 2003 he made the next one in the series, “Perpetual Flight V: Luminary,” for Hirano Nursery School, in Kannabe-cho, Hiroshima. The one that followed, “Perpetual Flight VI: Rising to the Firmament,” was for the Shenzhen Museum of Arr, just outside Hong Kong. The fourth in the series was commissioned by the museum to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chinese-Japanese Treaty for Peace and Friendship.
The sculpture attracted a good deal of international attention and directly led to yet another stainless steel sculpture, “Apollo’s Mirror,” in Delphi, Greece, in 2005, on the grounds of the European Cultural Centre of Delphi.
“Apollo’s Mirror,” set midway up Mt. Olympos (2,400 feel high), where the Apollonian Pantheon stands, rises like a flame and has a striking sense of movement. The viewers can see their own reflections, along with those of the surroundings, clearly on the elegant, mirror-finished surfaces of the steel pieces that make up the sculpture, which stands almost twelve feet high. Noda says he made this sculpture as his offering to Apollo. Ancient Greeks considered Delphi as the center of the world. In this retrospective we have included “Nexus” (cat. no. 85), the much smaller work he made in 2002 that served as the model for ”Apollo’s Mirror.”
The Delphi Cultural Centre’s permanent collection holds works by representative artists of the twentieth century, such as Salvador Dali, but Noda is the first Asian artist to be included there. The Centre also has residential and studio facilities for artists from all over the world.
While making these sculptures, Noda was exploring new territory. “Convolution III” (cat. no. 103), his 2002 work with acrylic, is typical. A mass of geometric forms which are piled up one upon another appears to spill out of the two-dimensional frame or even jump out of it. In the background is dripped paint; you can also see paint rubbed in with a knife. These are metier he hadn’t used before. If you pay attention to the details, the painting may appear chaotic, but stepping back and looking at it as a whole, you see that the colors are carefully distributed for balance. Also, some geometric forms are moving outward while others are moving inward, creating a three-dimensional illusion, suggesting the Big Bang that created the universe. A group of similar works by Noda were exhibited in a one-man show at Andre Zarre Gallery, in Soho.
Noda also made bronze sculptures, mirror-finished and golden, such as “Pursuit,” “Potentiality,” “Rumination,” and “Reflex” (cat. nos. 94-97). Noda, who has tried his hand at brass, copper, corten steel, stainless steel, says that in bronze with its tactility and mass, he finally found a medium in which to express an enveloping sense of life. More importantly perhaps, he has sought to preserve forms and shapes that are naturally born as extensions of his painting, rather than something structurally independent. Indeed, it is fascinating to see how images of flowing liquid, along with the sense of speed and tension, transform themselves into livelier, more organic shapes and forms through each new medium he employs.
Noda has had the growing sense, he told me, that New York, or the United States, is inseparable from his life and art. During the Gulf War, in 1991, for example, he feared that sometime in the future his son might be drafted into war. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, affected him even more directly. He did not just witness the disaster-the World Trade Center buildings were only several blocks away from his apartment-but his son, an accountant, worked in one of the buildings. By sheer luck, the son’s work hours had been changed slightly that particular day, and he escaped the disaster. Noda did not know this and it was several agonizing hours before he learned his son was safe.
Since then most of the surrounding buildings have regained their normal appearance and now retain few of the scars of the destruction. But for quite a while Noda’s neighborhood suffered the eye-stinging smoke and foul smell. Countless numbers of people were mentally, physically, damaged. Even to this day photo mementos and such are found in a number of places. Noda saw many a New Yorker slowly recover from the shock and grief.
In retrospect, even someone like Noda, who had spent three years to prepare himself carefully for the foreign city of New York, found it difficult to focus on his creative work and continue it for a number of years. He had fully recognized that New York would not be all freedom and dream-come-true as it is made our to be and expected the difficulty of establishing and maintaining a stable living environment for himself and his family, but the reality was tougher.
“For a Japanese to live in a foreign country,” Noda once wrote of his life in New York, “it is necessary to be prepared to forget Japan for a while and start anew. You can not bring in your Japanese values and customs and live here just as you do in Japan. You need to acquire the objectivity of looking at yourself and the world from ourside, then to contemplate where your identity is.” He wrote that in his fifteenth year in New York.5
When we look at the trajectory of Noda’s creative work, we see that he has made his own lineage by examining each subject matter he had to deal with to move on to the next work. He has been influenced by Shigeru Izumi, Minimal Art, Op Art, da Vinci, Turner, and so forth, but he had always had the work method of his own devising upon which to work out his way of expressing himself The one thing we can say is that he has not pursued superficially sophisticated beauty in art. In his works in which he has explored fluid, organic forms, we see his increasingly refined sense of himself as an artist.
“Aggressive paintings do not last long. Through the ‘swell’ (uneri) in my work I have tried to express the energy that flows in matter,” Noda wrote elsewhere. “From now on, I hope to create works that suggest cohabitation with nature, as I have, offer works that suggest ‘a limitless world’ to the viewers.”6
This may be something only someone like Noda can say-someone who has retained the characteristics of the small, simple locality in Japan we know as Fukuyama, even as he has lived in the politically, socially intractable metropolis called New York for three decades. You can sense this in many of his works-in painting, in print, and in sculpture. We can expect him to continue to grow as he moves forward toward the next stage of his life, toward a new potentiality.
1Omae thanks Masaki Noda for responding to his questions in interviews.
2Quoted in Kazuyuki Kawamoto’s dispatch from New York, Chugoku Shimbun, October 18, 1988.
3Kazuo Yamawaki, “Tempyo,” Bijutsu Techo, May 1979, p. 251.
4Quoted in Yamawaki’s dispatch in Footnote 1.
5Noda Masaaki, “Taiken no art (Art as Actual Experience),” Kaigai Shijo Kyoiku. April 1991. Kaigai Shijo Kyoiku is the monthly magazine for the education of the children of those who are required to live abroad for a number of years.
6Masaaki Noda, “Kanbas no shi (Poetry on Canvas),” Yomiuri Shimbun, August 18, 1986.