Working across different mediums and materials, Rakuko Naito seems to have had at least four careers, while remaining nearly unknown in New York. Born in Japan in 1935, she studied Nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) at Tokyo National University, graduating in 1958. That year, she and her husband, the painter Tadaaki Kuwayama, moved to New York City, where they have lived ever since. Historically speaking, Naito belongs to the generation of diasporic Japanese artists born before World War II who have lived in New York, including Arakawa, Yoko Ono, On Kawara, Yayoi Kusama, Tadasky (Tadasuke Kuwuyama), and Minoru Niizuma. Of them, she is the least known. This is due partly to the fact that she has no signature style, which is made clear in the compact exhibition Rakuko Naito, at Alison Bradley Projects (November 4–December 11, 2021), nimbly curated by Gabriela Rangel.
The exhibition features nine works (four paintings, one photograph, two wire cube sculptures, and two paper reliefs), all done between 1965 and 2021. In the early 1960s, Naito was introduced to acrylic paint (an American material) by her friend, the painter Sam Francis, as Rangel tells us in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. With acrylics, she began to explore simultaneously two different possibilities, “Op Art with a moiré effect and geometric divisions of the square.”
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In “RN821-65” (1965), Naito rotates a square with the square of the pictorial space, so that each corner touches the middle of the four sides. Within the rotated square, or diamond, she rotates and suspends a smaller square. Limiting herself to two colors (black and a color that is not quite maroon), she alternates vertical stripes, which shift when they cross into the large diamond and again in the smaller diamond. The unsettles the composition by incorporating a visual shift, which suggests that her interest in Op Art was ambivalent. It is likely that Naito’s interest in what Rangel calls a “moiré effect” is the reason that William Seitz did not choose her work for the exhibition The Responsive Eye, at the Museum of Modern Art (February 23–April 25, 1965), which he curated.
In the other three paintings (“RN268-66,” “RN1134-66,” “RN168-66,” all dated 1966), Naito uses hard-edged black lines to define a square or rotated square within the painting. One of the striking things about these paintings is her palette. “RN1134-66” is the color of baked acorn squash, and immediately caught and held my attention when I first walked into the small gallery space where the four paintings are exhibited, along with the two wire sculptures and the photograph.
“RN1134-66” suggests that while working monochromatically, Naito used colors that distinguished her from other monochromatic artists. For one thing, the colors of this painting and “RN268-66” are neither naturalistic nor even tasteful, exactly, but they are not garish either. They are bold and artificial, like the eye-catching color of a hot rod you see racing by. I am curious to know what a focused exhibition of these years in Naito’s career would look like, even as other theoretical presentations of her work come to mind, including a much-needed in-depth survey.
It also occurred to me that moiré effect that Rangel calls attention to might have been Naito’s oblique way of dealing with the feelings of displacement she must have experienced after moving to the United States and beginning to work with a new material, which required her to jettison her entire education. This feeling was underscored by the unique photograph “Shadow, RN2418-91” (1991), which shares something with the earliest painting in the exhibition.
The square photograph of grass is divided vertically. On the left side, starting at the top, we see four irregular horizontal swaths; the top band is a dark shadow cast on the grass and the one below is the grass without the shadow. This repeats once more. On the right side, the top band is the grass without the shadow, making it the reverse of the left side. Tonally, the left side is a slightly different green than the right. The play between similarity and difference, and between looking at a straightforward photograph of grass and shadow and looking at a geometrically abstract photograph in which grass and shadow are components is one of the pleasure of this finely nuanced work.
The themes of displacement and containment are also present in the two wire cubes. In “RNCUBE0-99” (1999), Naito suspended a wire cube carefully filled with tubes of rolled paper within the larger wire cube. The feeling of something hidden, a secret world, that can be glimpsed but not clearly seen is very much one of the experiences of looking at this work.
According to the gallery press release, for the past three decades Naito has dedicated her artistic work to research into the malleability and strength of kozo and mino washi, traditional Japanese papers. She has realized this as an ongoing series of organic compositions that she tears, folds, burns, or rolls inside a thin box. In “RN710-1/4-1-1/2-21” (2021), she has burned one edge of a strip of paper that she has stacked in carefully spaced horizontal rows in a box, suggesting a shutter.
The delicacy of the paper, and the burned, frayed edges thrusting forward, evoke a state of steadfast determination — repeated actions that are never the same, inescapable damage, strength, adaptability, and vulnerability. Yet even as it evokes all these conditions and states, the work is remarkably restrained. There is something both material and immaterial about Naito’s paper work. It is an abstract chronicle of living and time, as well as a rejection of materiality and material excess. This is a kind of art the American art world has never really recognized, perhaps because of its implicit critique of our love of things.
Rakuko Naito continues at Alison Bradley Projects (526 W. 26th Street, Suite 814, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 11. The exhibition was curated by Gabriela Rangel.