A Japanese Painter’s Cosmic Love Letters to Hawaiʻi

MARUGAME, Japan — In 1974, Gen’ichirō Inokuma found a new home in Hawaiʻi. The 71-year-old Japanese artist had suffered from an illness during a visit to Tokyo the year before, and was on his way to pack up his New York City studio when he stopped in the state’s capital city of Honolulu. After living and working in New York for two decades, Hawaiʻi was a revelation for Inokuma. In a diary entry that July, he described it as “an Eden of an entirely new order,” and a place where the artist would take his “second first steps in America.” Shortly after that visit, he set up a home and studio there and would live and work between Honolulu and Tokyo until his death in 1993.

Gen’ichirō Inokuma: Honolulu at the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art, founded just before the artist’s passing and located in his hometown, explores Inokuma’s pivotal relationship to Hawaiʻi. For him, it was a place of boundless creative freedom and experimentation. His sense of excitement and curiosity about his new environment sings across the exhibition in vibrant, large-scale paintings from this period, as well as intimate 35mm film photos. Documenting the island’s weather, nature, and scenes from around the studio, Inokuma’s sensitive snapshots offer insights into not only what he saw in Hawaiʻi, but also how it shaped his vision. 

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Hawaiʻi is known as “The Rainbow State,” and the nickname echoes in Inokuma’s early paintings: In “Rainbow Z1” (1976), an austere black-and-white grid pattern typical of his late New York work is interrupted by strips of vivid color. After years in the city, his dark palette and cramped compositions were increasingly replaced by open bursts of color that likely draw upon Hawaiʻi’s frequent rainbows. The exhibition includes several photos of rainbows taken from the artist’s car and studio windows, revealing Inokuma to be a keen observer of the phenomenon.

An avid follower of the moon landing, Inokuma was also captivated by the modern collision between technology and the universe. Hawaiʻi offered him clear, dark skies, and photos on view in the show depict a telescope stationed near his studio window. Stars, constellations, and robots appear repeatedly in the titles of his works, and in “Space is a Playground for Machines No. 2” (1981), angular red satellites float across a brilliant blue background. In this and other works, the edge of the canvas cuts off Inokuma’s forms as if to suggest that they belong to a vast, cosmic field of space.

Inokuma seemed equally taken with Hawaiʻi’s unique plant life. There’s a clear throughline connecting his photographs of flowers, branches, leaves, and seed pods observed in nature and arranged in his studio to the organic forms that populate paintings like “Germination Age” (1985), in which geometric sprout- and trunk-like shapes stretch toward each other over a stark white background. And the vivid pink tones that dominate “Words in the Plaza” (1984) — which surely took inspiration from the palm tree-filled plaza below Inokuma’s Honolulu studio — seem to come straight from the flesh of a tropical fruit or a fresh hibiscus bloom.

Building a new home late in life is a bold move, but Inokuma had worked in a range of styles and moved to New York when he was already in his 50s, after establishing his career in Japan, in addition to time spent living in Paris before that. As this exhibition proves, he was highly adventurous, innovative, and joyful in art as in life, infusing his work with new energy culled from rainbows and palm trees alike.

Gen’ichirō Inokuma: Honolulu continues at the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art (80-1 Hamamachi, Marugame, Japan) through June 2. The exhibition was curated by Mizuki Takezaki.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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