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Hawai‘i’s Abstract Expressionists

Honolulu Museum of Art-Raymond M. Sato
Honolulu Museum of Art-Raymond M. Sato

A new Abstract Expressionist exhibit at the Honolulu Museum of Art is highlighting connections between Hawai‘i artists of the 1950-s and ‘60’s and their brash counterparts in New York.  The storied “Chateau Metcalf” cadre of local artists experienced America’s mid-century avant garde, then went on to shape Hawai‘i’s art and esthetics.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports.

Honolulu Museum of Art
Credit Honolulu Museum of Art
Tadashi Sato (American, 1923?2005). Surf and Water Reflections, 1969?70. Oil on canvas. Honolulu Museum of Art, Gift of The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, 2011, and gift of the Honolulu Advertiser Collection at Persis Corporation, 1974 (TCM.1974.1.239). Reproduced by permission of Jan Shimamura.

Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West continues at the Honolulu Museum of Art through January 21st. 

Conversation with one of Hawaii's most important contemporary artists, Satoru Abe. Abe is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he has shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and continues to produce both paintings and sculptures while supporting fellow contemporary artists of every stripe.
An extended conversation with painter Harry Tsuchidana, who worked in both Los Angeles and New York before returning to Hawai'i on a John Hay Whitney Fellowship. This interview as done on the occasion of his first career retrospective at the Honolulu Museum of Art/First Hawaiian Center Gallery. His wonderful wife, Violet, joined us in the conversation.

Estate of Ruth Asawa
Credit Estate of Ruth Asawa
Ruth Asawa (American, 1926?2013). Untitled (S.540, Hanging, Seven-Lobed, Interlocking Continuous Form within a Form), c. 1958. Brass and copper wire. The Shidler Family Collection. Artwork © Estate of Ruth Asawa.

Artist Satoru Abe says it was 1950 when he decided to be an artist.  He was a cottage cheese assistant at Dairymen’s at the time.

Abe:  I woke up.   my eyes opened. I saw the light.  The light said, Are you going to do this the rest of your life?  I said, No way!  So all my friends and co-workers I told them, I quit.  I going to the mainland, I going to be an artist.

Okay, you decided, I’m going to New York, your parents supported you.  Kinda crazy.

Abe:  They didn’t support me, I told them No worry, I’ll send you money!  I thought the street was--- all you have to do is work and then there’s money.  That’s the beauty.  The beauty is to be young, naïve, and have a dream, that’s all.  That’s true… that’s all you need.  You don’t need skill, skill comes from repetition of things, and the rest, time, you going learn everything.

Harry Tsuchidana:  I always felt New York was the Big Apple, the center.  These guys were like big brothers to me. Abe six years older than me, Tadashi is nine years older, they treat me like a younger brother, right?

Honolulu Museum of Art
Credit Honolulu Museum of Art
Tetsuo Ochikubo (American, 1923?1975). All Things Exist, c. 1960?70. Oil on canvas. Honolulu Museum of Art, Bequest of Patches Damon Holt, 2003 (12682.1). © 2017 Reproduced by Permission of Jeanie Ochikubo and Estate of Tetsuo Ochikubo.

Abe:  Bumpei and I and Spencecliff, we going open, rent studio in M?‘ili‘ili, by K?hi? Grill.  Bob Ochikukbo and Tadashi going have a gallery at Central Pacific Bank today, on King and Hau‘oli street I think.  They used to have a tavern over there and they were renting upstairs. 

Every night about 9 o’clock, they would paint through the night and come.  So we end up at K?hi?  Grill, which was three or four doors..and we order the first round of beer, and that’s it.  Omiya-san going take out all the beer, and the chef going take out all the so-called left overs right? 

So Bumpei one day going say there’s a house for rent in June after students leave, so we going rent that house on Metcalf Street.  Six months later, we’re going vacate that place, so we going have a show there.  Get some photographs.  Jerry wore tuxedo and bow tie, all of that.  And the Academy going come in, so it’s going to be moved to the Academy.  And that show going be moved to the Academy in one month, front room, now! 

We had a reception, my guess is maybe 50 people came, and most of them are relatives.  (He laughs.) Even Tadashi’s father happened to be there …all the years that’s gone by I hear so many people say I was there!  I was there, and it’s growing!  Now, the only person who can say that has got to be over 85!

Abe:  I was one of the lucky ones.  Almost every year I would sell about two thousand dollars worth of artwork.. I joke and say, if I made three thousand dollars, I’d probably never go back to New York.  But Hawai‘i, you know, hana yori dango (food over flowers), that era.  Today, man cannot live by bread alone-- See, changed already.

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Artist Satoru Abe, 91 years old, at the opening of an exhibition at the First Hawaiian Center.

Painter Harry Tsuchidana has blazed his own trail over the decades, adhering to a formalist esthetic especially in a series of "Stage" paintings.  These works are divided horizontally with a sort of valance section above and curtains below.

Tsuchidana:  That’s the intrigue on this.  I started this in 1979, it still intrigues me.  That’s what I was doing today, this morning.

Yes, it’s had the same proportions, right?

Tsuchidana:  Yeah, it took me a while to figure this one out, the earlier ones are just slightly higher.   This proportion is just right, it looks right.  The intensity of this area and this color, proportion to this has equal weight.  Equal weight, this is just equal to the white area--- that fascinated me too.

So you’ll go with another color, and that will shift…

Tsuchidana:  Yeah, it change it shift, the mood change, the feeling change too.  If I were to do one, there,

This blue and this green, what are they for you, what you feel like when you put those on there?

Tsuchidana:  It’s a queer sensation.  And you always have to think in proportion.

Violet Tsuchidana:  Do you like this part over here?

The wash?  We were talking about the wash today.

Vi Tsuchidana:  You need that to complete the work.

Tsuchidana:  It creates a little softness to it, rather than to do it directly on the white.

Vi Tsuchidana:  It’s not as rigid as the others.

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Violet and Harry Tsuchidana in Harry's studio, interviewed on the occasion of his career retrospective at the Honolulu Museum of Art First Hawaiian Center in 2016.

Tsuchidana:  You see how she put the input?  Imagine, I still feel excited about these things, after so many years.

So it’s about balance?

Tsuchidana:  Yes, balance definitely, it’s kind of musical for the eye too. 

What do you think about abstraction, Harry?  Why are you doing abstraction, Harry?

Tsuchidana:  You know in words, like growing up, we’d see cowboys and Indians?  And the Indians said, white man talk with a forked tongue?  That’s abstract! Forked tongue, hey!  (He laughs.)  And I remember in the service they say, shit hit the fan, hey that’s pretty abstract!!  So abstract is kinda old.  I mean it’s been there.  Once you learn to play chess, you don’t want to play checkers, right?  Because chess has more moves.  Doing abstract, I have more moves.

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Harry Tsuchidana. Study detail.

Along with the Chateau Metcalf group, the history of contemporary art in Hawai‘i has to include others working in the same period, the 1940’s and ‘50’s.  Watercolorist Ben Norris, who taught at UH M?noa for 39 years (1937-76) was a huge influence on Honolulu’s art scene, in part through the people he brought to the islands, including Jean Charlot, Max Ernst, Josef and Annie Albers, and Dorothea Tanning.  James Park appears in photos of the period and Abe often mentions Edmund Chung as a deep and sensitive painter.  John Young is another prolific and influential painter of the period.  Satoru Abe and Harry Tsuchidana are working artists in Honolulu today (September 2017).  

Can you tell from the extended interviews, these guys are fun to spend time with?  Harry and Satoru often turn up for show openings especially at the Hawai‘i State Art Museum on First Fridays.  Drop by and meet living artists who shape Hawai‘i’s visual environment.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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