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Art: Please Touch

4 minute read
A.T. Baker

Sharp-edged as a sword, erect as a phallus, spare as a symbol, the sculptures ofJapan’s Masayuki Nagare make even the generous dimensions of Manhattan’s Staempfli Gallery seem cramped. They soar through the ceiling,project invisible backdrops of misted mountains against an opaline sea. Within themselves, around themselves, they create their own space. At the age of 50, Nagare has become clearly one of the world’s major sculptors.

Perhaps some of Nagare’s authority comes from his close acquaintance with death as well as life.

At 20, he was a kamikaze pilot. Fortunately, World War II ended before he flew a suicide mission, but while waiting, he picked up a stone, fondled its shape and texture, and never forgot the experience. Since then, he has seldom been out of stone’s reach.

The son of a rich Kyoto banker and educator, Nagare had no need for immediateincome after the war, and spent ten years in remote villages working with stonemasons. Then in 1955 he had his first show in Tokyo — and sold nothing at all. But over the next several years, visiting Americans began to buy his works — Architects Philip Johnson and Marcel Breuer, Collectors William Paley and Joseph Hirshhorn.

Suddenly, architects both Japanese and American decided that a Nagare was just what they needed for their plazas, and he was overwhelmed with com missions. A Nagare dominates the plaza of San Francisco’s Bank of America headquarters; a huge new sculpture will soon be installed at the entry of Manhattan’s World Trade Center.

After a long unsettled period, Nagare established his private world ten years ago. His first wife, also an artist, loved the excitement of Tokyo. Nagare, brought up among Kyoto’s temples, never did. When they parted in 1966, he bought himself a peninsula on the island of Shikoku, 360 miles southwest of Tokyo.

There he built a studio and house. Last February he installed a new bride, Hiroko, a fashion designer, who is also from Kyoto.

They live in a thoroughly Western mode—bacon and eggs for breakfast, blue jeans and shut for work.

With his life, Nagare’s artistic style has changed. In his bachelor years between marriages, he conceived a stylized image of a kimonoed man in contemplation (Thoughts and Angles), derived from youthful memories of his apprenticeship in a Zen temple. Long contemplation also produced the series he calls Bachi, reflecting the shape of the pick with which Japanese geishas play the samisen. Actually, Nagare says, “Bachi tells the importance of being broadminded. The lines spread out as they climb higher.”

The current show is dominated by new, thrusting, pillar-like sculptures, which Nagare labels with obscurantic titles like Time and Motion. Some critics have decided that these dramatic works spring from Nagare’s brief career assisting a maker of samurai swords. That may be, but Nagare himself takes no interest in the sword theory. Says he: “The only way possible to prevent myself from being overwhelmed by the great glories of nature at Shikoku is to turn incessantly erotic.” Each tune he sculpts a male image, he counters it by making something female, like a small piece that started as an image of growth inspired by the classical Japanese temple gate and ended as a powerful straddle of procreation called Inner Space.

Is there anything wrong in being “incessantly erotic,” abstract as the resulting images may be? Not to Nagare. As he admits, he has become shortsighted, and with his new glasses “I see pores on ladies’ faces I did not know were there.

But my fingertips are never wrong. So I pay more attention to texture.” He spends hours and hours polishing the stone to produce surfaces both beautiful and sensuous. In fact, at the Staempfli there is a sign up saying “Please Touch.” That is as it should be.

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