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Robert Kushner (b. 1949)

“White Peonies: A Cumulus Accumulation” 2013

Oil, acrylic, ink, and gold leaf on Japanese woodblock printed paper mounted on Japanese paper.
45.7 x 325.1 cm. (18 x 128 in.)

Artist’s initials written in black twice on the front; signed, titled, and dated in pencil twice on the reverse.

Nine large peony blossoms are painted against a ground composed of pages of predominantly
calligraphic texts taken from 18 Japanese woodblock printed books dating from the 18th to the
20th century. The pages were either left intact or cropped as they were being worked into the
collage that serves as background for the painting. The collage, each of its pieces oriented in a
strict vertical alignment in keeping with the lines of calligraphy written from top to bottom, is
enhanced and further stabilized by the application of vertical panels or columns of gold leaf and
black paint, the gold and black applied adjacently in panels of irregular width, accommodating
or providing the appropriate background for the painted images, and dividing the background
into roughly five sections. Four of the nine peonies were painted in opaque white with outlines
and details in black while five blossoms were drawn with white outlines only, the calligraphic
ground visible through the transparent petals, while the last floral form materialized as the
background calligraphic paper was applied with gold leaf and black paint to produce the desired
form, a section of this blossom appearing to have a further overlay of text in rectangular format.
The peony blossoms and additional peony buds, the buds formed with white outlines revealing
text below with a single bud in the center of the painting left in reserve, issue from stems
outlined in green, the calligraphic texts beneath serving to texture the stems, the entire assembly
glued to a backing of plain Japanese paper, the long horizontal work existing in two parts for
easy transport, each section initialed by the artist in ink and each section signed on the reverse
in pencil along with the title of the painting and date.

A working title for the present exhibition, until we concluded that it was not applicable to each and every work in the show, had been “Elegant Solutions.” As it turns out, however, this particular title seems tailor-made not only for a handful of his works but for a significant portion of the oeuvre of the artist, Robert Kushner, and unquestionably applicable to “White Peonies: A Cumulus Accumulation.” The word “solutions” implies more than one question or problem. The minor problem was to produce or provide a work that would fit into a specified area in our gallery on 79th Street in New York City. Kushner is an artist of multitudinous accomplishments, innumerable one-man and group exhibitions, and voluminous output, an artist whose works are held by major museums—the Metropolitan, National Gallery, Whitney, MOMA, the Getty not to mention international holdings—but who is also well-known for his public pieces in the U.S., Japan, and at least one in Europe, as well as for works done to specified dimensions, for example, in an airport building, on a restaurant wall, or even in a New York City subway station.[1] Creating something to fit along our balcony wallwas not difficult. The bigger question is why did we, specialists in Asian art, and traditional Asian art at that, believe that Robert Kushner, born in Pasadena, California and long-time resident of Manhattan, an established and highly acclaimed master in the world of contemporary Western art, belong at Kaikodo?

Bob has acquired a stellar reputation for his eye for design, for color, for discovering the ways and means to create works of powerful beauty that reverberate in ways far reaching and profound. He was, in fact, a primary figure during the seventies in a movement devoted to promoting the often-denigrated concepts of pattern and design in serious works of art. It is thus not surprising that he would find kindred spirits in the world of Japanese art and attributes to the Japanese more than a modicum of his own insights, methods and means. This influence commenced in the 1980s with his first trip to Japan and momentous encounters with the gilded splendor of Japanese byobu (folding screens) and fusuma (sliding doors) major components of Japanese interior design, and was reinforced by seeing a retrospective at Asia Society of the incomparable evocations of nature by the Japanese master of color, Ito- Jakuch– (1715-1800). The gorgeous and the splendid, the karai of Japanese aesthetics, from then on constituted one grand area of exploration.

Our introduction to Bob’s work and to paintings that expressed this side of his creative character were paintings of our own tropical garden on Onomea Bay on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Bob would sit for hours, for days, like a Buddha, or a present-day Monet complete with straw hat, in front of our lily pond or stroll through the grounds, capturing on his Japanese paper images of torch ginger and blue ginger, golden bamboo, heliconia, and birds of paradise, and all manner of foliage, the monstera, the ti leaves, the staghorn ferns draping from the monkey pod trees. When he left us, we had thought those great colorful wonders that had hung throughout the warehouse were the final products. But they were not. In his New York studio, Bob applied the gold that gave the works, along with their brilliant and seductive color and organic florid designs, the splendor of the Japanese fusuma and byobu that were in his blood. He had made our garden paradise even more paradisical.

The painting here, however, is subdued in color, only the green of the stems punctuates the chromatically stark world of black, white and gold. And in place of the purely organic images of previous floral studies, the painting here is on a grid-like ground of insistent horizontals and verticals, one that reminds us of the patchwork robe worn by a Buddhist monk. Bob sees the peonies as clouds, gatherings of cumulous floating above a landscape of calligraphy, hence the title. The peonies, however, from another perspective, might be seen as figures emerging from the texts, memories of the ancient gardens frequented by the writers of the texts or even perhaps the subject of their writings, some fully manifesting themselves in the pictorial world, others only as ghosts, transparent and tentative. The flowers also contribute abstract compositional value, providing rhythm and an organic dynamism as they bend this way and that, and they provide a unifying feature as they sometimes become one with the background. The calligraphy in fact spills out of the background into the painting when Kushner’s brush picks up the spindly line of a character and drags it into the nearer plane where the flowers exist, or grabs the thick curling stroke ofanother calligraphic style and uses it to outline his blossoms.

The calligraphic pages were selected by the artist because of their beauty, which exists in their formal, abstract qualities apart from literary content, an appreciation long current in Asia. Although Bob notes the range of sources and subjects, from waka poetry to architectural discourses, the content is of no immediate import, the pages themselves, he points out, being easily purchasable curiosities. Here, however the written word is not only a symbol but a true relic of human culture. In “White Peonies,” the calligraphy, in fact, appears to exist as the permanent component of the picture; the flowers/ clouds are floating, diaphanous, and while not amorphous, suggest transformative potential— maybe floating away, maybe withering and falling.[2]

The idea of fleeting nature, the poignancy of a falling leaf or a fading blossom, is at the heart of much ancient Japanese poetry. Often these poems were written in delicate calligraphy, sometime on paper beautifully emblazoned with floral images or abstract designs in silver or gold. Poetry and painting combined in a single work, the creation of extraordinary ornamental design, and the use of mesmerizing color, reached heights of accomplishment in the collaborative works of two giants in the world of Japanese art, Hon’ami K–etsu (A.D. 1558-1637) and Tarwaraya S–tatsu (d. A.D. 1643), their decorative style propelled into the future by generations following in their paths. If Kushner’s fabulous flowers—the Onomea series and related works—take us to the heart of Jakuchu-, his “White Peonies: A Cumulous Accumulation” is heir to a great tradition born in aristocratic and courtly circles of late Heian period Japan.

Bob is the first to unabashedly list artists who have contributed to his vision—from Matisse and Bonnard to Klimt and Redon to O’Keefe and Demuth to Jakuchu-, and S–tatsu. However, do any of the works that span Bob’s almost four decades of work “look like” the works of any of these exemplars and mentors? They do not. Despite the influence and inspirations, Robert Kushner’s works are his own; they are something new. In that sense Robert Kushner is living his life as an artist in good Chinese fashion, which holds that great artists are born from the achievements of the past, but when the borrowed idea, the inherited method, undergoes a true metamorphosis, what the Chinese call bian, a genius is born. Robert Kushner fits the bill artistically, and his literary achievements in the world of art history and criticism complete him as a literatus, a wenren in the true sense of the Chinese term.

Although this all makes Robert Kushner part of the Kaikodo fold, there are a few further observations that need to be made. The world is Bob’s treasure trove. His curiosity and quest for materials to quench his thirst for the ornamental, the decorative and, simply, the beautiful, have provided him not only with ideas and inspirations but with the “stuff” of culture, such as the woodblock prints of the current work. And, although his exhibition schedule has been and is phenomenal and his output nothing less than voluminous, and despite his great commercial success, his goal has nothing to do with fame or commerce. Rather, it is for him as if there can never be enough beauty, as if there were never a place where nor a time when beauty has not potentially existed, and as if there can never be enough expressions of it.


1. For his solo exhibitions and groups shows—with venues in fourteen European cities, several major cities in Japan, Canada and the USA— as well as his collaborations, workshops, commissions, performances, awards, list ofpublic collections with works by the artist and articles published by the artist, please see Robert Kushner has also been the subject of study by numerous art critics and historians; a look online will guide you to these many sources.

2. A precedent for the present work is the artist’s staggering production, Scriptorium: DevoutExercises of the Heart, produced over a two year period by the artist using printed texts as background for painted images, mounted on a wall in D.C. Moore’s Chelsea gallery’s inaugural exhibition in 2010. Kushner notes that Scriptorium consists in total of 1400 individual drawings, each on one antique printed page from cultures all over the world, and various centuries as well. It has been installed six times, each in a different museum or gallery. “White Peonies” is also a part of an ongoing series, begun in 2011, where pages of script are collaged together and then overpainted, the collage/paintings related to one another but also existing as independent works. See the essay by Robert Berlind in the D.C. Moore Gallery exhibition catalogue Robert Kushner: New Paintings; New Collages, New York, 2012, especially pp. 31-40.

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