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

Japanese Art

To celebrate the Denver Art Museum's new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, three special exhibitions are being presented simultaneously in the three galleries dedicated to changing displays. I've already looked at Virginia Vogel Mattern's collection of contemporary American Indian pottery ("Breaking the Mold," November 23, 2006) and the cutting-edge work of several major international artists assembled by Vicki and Kent Logan ("Logan's Run," December 28, 2006), but I've saved the best for last: Japanese Art From the Colorado Collection of Kimiko and John Powers.

The exhibit is installed in the ground-level Gallagher Family Gallery and was put together by Ron Otsuka, the DAM's esteemed curator of Asian art. Otsuka has been at the helm of the Asian department since 1973, building an important collection that's highlighted in the fifth-floor galleries of the North Building. Thirty years ago, Otsuka established a friendship with Kimiko and John Powers, and he convinced the couple to put their collection of 300-plus Japanese masterworks on long-term loan to the DAM. Otsuka chose more than 100 pieces from that group to include in Japanese Art.

In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the Powerses were among the most important figures in Colorado's art world. They were generous donors and supporters of the Aspen Institute, which was not far from their home in Carbondale. (Though John died in 1999 and Kimiko now spends most of her time in Japan, the couple's ranch near Aspen is still maintained.) The Powerses also shared their staggering wealth and largesse with Colorado State University and, of course, the DAM.


Japanese Art

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

As collectors, the Powerses were old-fashioned connoisseurs who chose things for their innate fineness. "They were certainly very selective," says Otsuka. "They had great advisors; they made friends with university professors, with museum directors and curators, and knew the best dealers in Japan. They collected very much to their taste, so even though it's a collection that really covers many, many centuries -- I think twelve centuries of Japanese art -- it's not what you would call an encyclopedic collection, in that they didn't get one of these and one of these to show the full history of Japanese art. And there are major areas where the collection is totally lacking. There are no Japanese prints, there are no netsuke; they had no interest in them." What they were mostly interested in were paintings on screens and scrolls, and, to a lesser extent, lacquer pieces and small sculptures.

Upon entering the Gallagher, visitors find themselves in a serene and contemplative world. The walls were painted a light green, which works perfectly with the art. "I wanted the walls to be the color of fresh tatami mats," explains Otsuka, who worked on laying out the show with the DAM's exhibition designer, Leland Murray. The quiet atmosphere in the Gallagher is enhanced by the soft lighting, which is necessary to protect the pieces from fading. Otsuka arranged the exhibit according to different categories, with some defined by geography while others are aligned according to conceptual relationships. He presents some of the key distinctions in traditional Japanese art on a level that can be appreciated by both the general museum-going public and experts in the subject. "I didn't want the show to be intimidating," Otsuka notes.

The first section is dedicated to the "Kyoto Workshops." Although you might think the grand pieces included here were made for aristocrats, they were actually made for the middle class. One real eye-catcher is "Mount Fuji and Miho no Matsubara," a twelve-panel screen in two six-panel parts that was done by Soga Shohaku in about 1765. Mount Fuji is conveyed by a series of stacked, sensuous lines placed at the extreme left, and on the far right is a rainbow. Otsuka notes that Japanese painting does not typically refer to a momentary event such as a rainbow, and the Powerses acquired it partly because they were interested in unusual pieces.

Next is a selection of "Religious Artists" that includes some of the oldest Japanese depictions of the Buddha in the form of bronze bas-relief panels. Off to the right are some of the most strikingly modern-looking pieces in the show. The two crude wood carvings of religious figures, "Eleven Headed Kannon" and "Shinto God of Kumano," by Enku circa 1685, have a very contemporary form, with the holy men reduced to intersecting flat planes containing just enough detail to show that they are depictions of people.

Following this section is a fork in the floor plan, with "Encounters With Europe and China" ahead and "Scholar Amateurs" to the right. When the Powerses collected the Western-influenced pieces, virtually no one was interested in them. One showstopper is the lacquer nesting boxes decorated with views of Western-style ships and sailors that was done around 1630 by an anonymous artist. In the scholarly section is one of the most elegant pieces in the show -- and that's really saying something. It's a screen titled "Rocks," by Buson from 1783, on which there are depictions of scattered boulders arrayed across a white paper field. Nearby is the equally compelling Buson hanging scroll of rocks. Otsuka explains that it was radical of Buson to show rocks alone and not as part of a landscape.

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.

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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