Kenzo Okada


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Painter. His abstractions from the 1950s and later temper abstract expressionism's scale, richly worked surfaces, and accidental effects with the sensibility of his native Japan. He is known particularly for poetic, delicately colored compositions that often suggest landscapes or refer indirectly to the natural world. He generally left much of the canvas free of pictorial incident, while clustering simple forms asymmetrically to create intriguing, serene effects. Born in Yokohama, he studied at the Tokyo Fine Arts University (now Tokyo University of Arts) from 1922 to 1924. For the next three years he lived in Paris, where he worked briefly with his countryman Tsugouharu Foujita, met a number of leading artists, and painted views of city life. After returning to Japan, he painted figurative works and landscapes in an impressionist style based on western tradition. In 1950 he settled in New York and ten years later became an American citizen. He at first felt nearly overwhelmed by unaccustomed personal and creative freedom as well as the city's raw energy. Through Betty Parsons, who mounted his first New York show in 1953, he became familiar with leading abstract expressionists and their work. Like many of them, he was drawn to automatism as a means of revealing the unconscious, a practice that meshed with familiar Zen Buddhist meditative techniques. He called the process “doing without knowing.” Explaining the marked shift in his approach after moving to the United States, he remarked that when living in Japan he thought all the time about the West, while in New York he dreamed only of Japan. Memories (Whitney Museum, 1957), conceived on the large scale of abstract expressionism, engages totally abstract, floating forms in a decorative yet restrained evocation of his aesthetically rich Japanese heritage. Okada made his first return trip to Japan in 1958, by the late 1960s traveled there often, and eventually established a second residence in Tokyo. In 1963 he purchased a home in Rensselaerville, New York, not far from Albany. He died in Tokyo while on a visit coinciding with his first retrospective organized by a Japanese museum.

Subjects: Art.

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