"My painting is a celebration of nature, a grateful song to all forms of creation expressed through brush painting ... By drawing from both East and West, I hope to achieve a perspective which is international, a bridge between cultures."
- Araki Minol
An artist who lived between many worlds, Araki Minol (1928-2010) was a prodigious talent who successfully bridged the painting traditions of China and Japan, nature scenes and portraiture, classicism and modernity, and later, the artistic styles that had taken hold in the East and West. His unique hybridity, both biographically and creatively, laid the foundation for his vigorous paintings that not only synthesized these various influences but further revealed a highly original artistic viewpoint. Delicate botanical studies, intimate in scale, were as much a part of his repertoire as soaring mountain vistas, which could grow to multi-panel, room-sized installations. Works of this scale are in the permanent collections of Western institutions including the Minneapolis Institute of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Saint Louis Art Museum. Significant works by Araki can also be found in major museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
This summer, alongside a showcase of celadon-glazed ceramic work, Joan B Mirviss LTD features a selection of remarkable Araki Minol paintings. The landscapes have never been shown in public and the original colors, as the artist intended, are perfectly preserved.
The largest, Dawn, is a sweeping inkscape blooming in rich colors of deep azure, glowing pink, and radiant gold. Apart from the clusters of silhouetted pine trees, this large work is nearly abstract in its composition. Painted in 1999, Dawn is a culmination of Araki's prolific and experimental artistry. In this latter phase of his life, he explored different materials for painting such as minerals and natural pigments, perhaps as a nod to the nihonga tradition, but which he reimagined with Chinese settings and landscape elements.
Dawn also threads an unmistakable line to his mentor and great traditionalist Chinese painter Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), whose own late-career paintings utilized a "splashed-ink-and-color" technique that recalled medieval Chinese ink painting methods and which he ingeniously embraced as his ageing eyesight began to fail. At once ancient and modern, Araki's painting reveals that his close study of Zhang's techniques led to more than a mere re-creation of his mentor's style. After the closure of his design studio and the death of Zhang, Araki became more interested in establishing his artistic identity and "laying the groundwork for his own legacy," curator Aaron Rio writes in the catalogue that accompanied Boundless Peaks: Ink Paintings by Minol Araki, the 2017 Minneapolis Institute of Art exhibition.
Mountain Under the Moon, by contrast, does not utilize the splashed-ink technique, as seen in Dawn, which Araki had been experimenting with for decades. As he grew older, Araki became increasingly interested in exploring Japanese painting styles, materials, and techniques. Establishing an artistic connection to his Japanese heritage grew more important and perhaps more urgent as he entered the last phase of his life. Similar to Dawn, however, the peaks depicted here are of Chinese origin; most probably the landscape is inspired by Yangming Mountains. This painting includes many of Araki's signature elements, such as the block-like mountain shapes and the "ghostly" trees in the foreground. Though the crescent moon appears enshrouded in nighttime clouds, ribbons of light illuminate the trails down and between the slopes. The enigmatic glow from these pathways create gradients of inky midnight blues and blacks up the hillsides. The unusual sources of light enable Araki to showcase his skills with ink and brush, as the abstracted cluster of peaks resolve from a seeming monochrome nighttime scene through subtle colorations brought out with his delicate touch. A scattering of mica and mineral pigments lends the star-filled sky a twinkling quality.
A standout within Araki's oeuvre, the Fire Island series may reveal the most personal glimpse of the artist. His subject matter in his middle age had so far ranged from still life and fruit and birds to portraits and nudes and even to monumental landscapes and nature scenes. Much has been made of his inspiration from the literati ink painting tradition and of the mentorship of modern master Zhang Daqian. The Fire Island pictures, however, intimate in both subject and scale, are a departure from such classical precedents. At once thoughtful and heartfelt, these have the plein air feel of an artist on a shore with sketchpad and a few colors at hand. The dramatic diagonals of sun-streaked sky and cloud bands merging with rolling ocean waves recall some of the less tempestuous works of sea and sky by Turner. Characteristic of Araki, botanic elements are carefully rendered in the foreground – long grasses in this instance, instead of trees.
The Fire Island works are "the painter at his most intimate and unguarded, thinking visually, reflecting, almost unconsciously recording through his brush the visual experiences of a life of close observation and deep reflection," writes Richard Barnhart in the 1999 Phoenix Art Museum retrospective exhibition catalogue. "Araki here seems to me to come closest to a purely personal and relatively unmediated engagement with the making of images."
Contrasted with this unfurling landscape is a smaller river scene from 1978, which was during a particularly prolific period for the artist marked by fearless experimentation and creativity. Mountain Lake and Boat dates to this time between 1978 to 1980 when he was as likely to produce portraits of figures and strange birds as gestural abstractions. Despite his experimental impulses, Araki always returned to the subject of landscapes. This earlier example shows a clear influence of his study of Chinese painting, with an expansive use of negative space that lends the traditional scene a distinctly modern feeling.
"Graceful and sentimental lotus flowers inspire my imagination. Painting the lotus, called the 'gentleman of flowers' in ancient texts, enables me to converse with respected old masters."
- Araki Minol
Lotuses figured prominently in Araki's oeuvre and was a subject he explored continuously for decades. And it was that subject matter that brought him to be introduced to Zhang Daqian by Zhang's artist friend, Yao Menggu, who had, by chance, spotted Araki sketching lotuses in front of the National Museum of Taiwan in 1973. Though they have deep meaning in Chinese history and literature, Araki's interpretations are drawn from this long tradition while not weighed down by its many rich associations. This scroll painting of lotuses was exhibited in the 1999 Minol Araki exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona, and at the National Museum of History in Taipei, Taiwan. In the exhibition catalogue, Steven D. Owyoung writes of this rendition:
"The growing primacy of the lotus flower is apparent four years later in the 1996 Lotus (plate 31), where the fresh glory of the blossoms contrasts with the decayed, dying leaves that are done in a carefully controlled wash and defined by a drying brush. Even the young, furled leaves of the lotus appear more fleeting and transitory in their bird-swift shapes, readily surrendering to the pure luxury of the bloom."
A consummate twentieth-century figure, Araki's influences are as varied as his personal experiences throughout an international life and career. In addition to his most important relationship with Zhang Daqian (although he was never formally Araki's teacher), he counts among his influences Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924), a Meiji-era literati painter, and Bada Shanren (1626-1705), the seventeenth-century eccentric painter also known as Zhu Da. Araki also cites Ben Shahn (1898-1969), a Russian-born New York artist, and Pablo Picasso as additional artistic influences.
1928 born in Dairen, Manchuria (now Dalian, Liaoning Province) to Japanese parents
1945 studied architecture at Nanman Kosen in Dairen
1945 at the end of World War II, "returned" to Japan with his mother and sisters; set foot in Japan for the first time and settled in parents' hometown Shimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture
1947 pursued industrial design at newly established Kuwazawa Design School, Tokyo
1950s-60s professional career as an industrial designer for Nanbu Industries, Tandy Corporation/Radio Shack, Shenpix, and others; frequent travel to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the US. Continued to paint through this period
1959 established his first design company, NOL Industrial Design
late 1960s founded design studio PIPa in New York. Success as an industrial designer took him to Hong Kong, Miami, New York, the US Southwest, and Europe. Sketched and painted everywhere he traveled
1973 met Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) in Taipei, Taiwan
1976 PIPa design studio folded
1977 Exhibition at Hong Kong City Hall with the support of Yao Menggu
1978 Exhibition at the National Museum of History, Taipei, and again in 1980
early 1980s two significant gallery exhibitions at Tokyo Central Annex, titled by Zhang Daqian and catalogue essay by Japanese traditionalist painter Masao Murase (1939-2013)
1980s flourishing period of experimentation, from traditional, Chinese-inspired landscapes to Western-style abstract works and still-life compositions
1983 mentor Zhang Daqian passes at age 84
1999 major retrospective exhibition at the National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan and the Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona
2005 gallery exhibitions in Santa Fe, NM
2010 passed away at age 82
2017 Boundless Peaks: Ink Paintings by Minol Araki, a posthumous exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art curated by Aaron Rio
"Araki has been an eternal sojourner wherever he has been, always following distant roads, and as an artist he has defined himself by drawing into his identity the artistic cultures of Japan, China, Russia, the United States, and France."
- Richard Barnhart in MINOL ARAKI, Phoenix Art Museum, 1999.