Japanese Art

John and Kimiko Powers share their gorgeous collection at the DAM.

A final fork offers "Popular Arts and Artistic Revivals" to the left and "Governmental Artists" to the right. In the first of these, which is devoted to cultural pursuits, there's a tremendously charming Hokuba scroll from 1820-1830 titled "Beauty Catching Fireflies in the Sumida River" and showing a geisha collecting fireflies. Like the rainbow in the screen, the fireflies refer to a specific time of day, making it unusual for the form. Across from it, representing official art, is "Equestrian Archery Drill," by an artist of the Kano School from 1640, featuring a scene of precision riding in a formal courtyard carried out on twelve panels. It definitely looks like a palace piece, and probably was. The composition is densely populated with bowsmen on horseback bracketed by trees and clouds. Adjacent to it is the multi-panel painting "Tigers," also in the Kano style, circa 1650 to 1675, that's out of this world.

Considering this particular show, you might think that the Powerses were mostly interested in Japanese art, but they are actually better known as collectors of post-war modern art. Their collection of abstract expressionism and pop art is among the most important in the world, and is, as museum director Lewis Sharp told me a few months ago, worth billions. John was the president of Prentice-Hall, a publisher of many important art books, and he began to collect contemporary art in the 1950s. In the early '60s, he met Kimiko while publishing Sherman Lee's History of Far Eastern Art, still an important work in the field. The couple continued to collect contemporary pieces together and added Japanese art to the mix.

As you walk through the show, you can see that the Powerses sought out pieces that seemed to anticipate modernism, and many of the fine things have forward-looking abstract elements. This connection between Japanese art and modernism is a well-established fact, and it could be argued that the modern movement was initially launched as a Western reaction to the opening up of Japan. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, modern artists borrowed a raft of aesthetic concepts from their Japanese peers and appropriated approaches such as flatness, simplicity and expressionism. This show contains pieces that are hundreds of years old but look impressionist, post-impressionist, cubist or abstract-expressionist.

"Mount Fuji and Miho no Matsubara," by Soga Shohaku, twelve-panel screen.
"Mount Fuji and Miho no Matsubara," by Soga Shohaku, twelve-panel screen.

Details

Through September 9, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000.

Otsuka noted how interesting it is that the historical works from the Powers collection are on view at the same time as examples of contemporary Japanese art. Specifically, he mentioned both the Tatsuo Miyajima installation in the atrium and the important works by Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara that are included in RADAR.

On February 12, Otsuka is going to rotate the works on paper in Japanese Art, replacing many pieces in the show with other, comparable examples, so that the exhibit will actually wind up being two different shows. If you haven't seen the first rendition, you have only a couple weeks to do so; and those who have already seen it now have an excuse to come back. If my experience is any indication, it clearly holds up to repeated viewings.

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