Cutting Water 

By Jim Walsh

In 1966, twenty-seven year old Kikuo Saito made a dramatic personal decision to leave Japan. The eldest son of four, he would leave behind his parents and siblings, possibly never to return, but to follow a vision of a future for which there was no clear roadmap.

Saito left Japan on a flight that concluded in San Francisco having made one stop in Hawaii. From San Francisco he boarded a Greyhound Bus and spent his first days in America viewing dramatic changes of landscape through at least a dozen states while en route to his final destination of New York City. A traveler to America could purchase their bus ticket in Japan and plan out any stops they wanted to make. One critical layover was planned for a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. While viewing the collection in the Art Institute, a chance meeting with another museum patron would become miraculous happenstance or serendipity. Ellen Stewart, the founder of the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in New York City had struck up a conversation with Saito. Years later he described her as his American mother. Saito had worked for a time in Tokyo doing lighting and set design for contemporary theater groups. His meeting with Ellen Stewart and his interest in theater would provide professional and personal satisfaction in the years to come.

Prior to leaving Tokyo for New York, Saito had spent three years as a proctor and studio technician at a studio attached to the much larger workshop of Sensei Itoh, an older, established painter, who worked in a traditional mode. Students came in waves from morning until evening, and jammed into the tiny studio to practice drawing from plaster casts, drawing from life, and oil painting, to hone their skills for the few, highly competitive spots that would be awarded every spring at the prestigious Tokyo University of the Arts. Saito's duties at the studio were compensated by meals, a place to stay and the use of the space in the off hours to work in oil paints on his own.

Saito had an understanding of the traditional arts of Japan and also of more recent contemporary developments such as the Gutai Group. He was also aware of the burgeoning art world in New York City. In Japan, small volumes of contemporary art printed on newsprint, featuring paintings and sculptures illustrated in black and white were available. From such modest volumes, which contained images of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Color Field, and Pop Art, he was able to learn about the art being made in New York City. Within a few years of his landing in America he would become a studio assistant for some of the artists whose works he saw depicted in those magazines: Larry Poons, Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland.

Aside from having met Ellen Stewart in Chicago, he knew no one else in New York City, and most of the other Japanese artists of his age group had decamped for Paris. He knew no New York City community of artist expatriates into which to blend. No one was there to meet him as he climbed down from a three thousand mile bus ride.

In one of the few pieces of luggage he carried with him were the tubes of artist oil paints that he had already opened and used in Japan. Many of these tubes, half used up, with their labels obscured by paint, still remain in Saito's studio. Saito had destroyed most of the paintings that he had already made before he left Japan but brought with him several small works that showed an early interest in Pop Art. Takeshi Nakanami, a friend of sixty years, and who came to live in New York City a year after Saito, recollects that these Pop Art paintings were shown to teachers when Saito became a student at the Art Students League. Between 2005 and 2015 Saito was a faculty member at the League.

Shortly after arriving in New York, Saito found work at one of the few Japanese restaurants that existed in NYC at the time. He worked there until his interest and experience with theater set design provided a connection to the downtown experimental theater scene. He contacted Ellen Stewart at the La MaMa Experimental Theater Company and became instrumental in the stagecraft of the group, and in the moving of the theater group to larger quarters in 1969. Ellen Stewart was a magnet for experimental theater and off-off-off Broadway productions. Saito was instrumental in bringing Japanese avant-garde Shuji Terayama to La MaMa for an imagistic production in 1980. As early as 1968, Saito was one of the performers in Robert Wilson's production entitled ByrdwoMAN presented both at Wilson's Spring Street loft and Jones Alley some blocks north. During those early years Saito balanced his painting and theater work, deriving income from carpentry jobs, and doing loft build outs in Soho.

Saito began showing in group exhibitions around New York as early as 1970 with his first one person show in 1976 at Deitcher O'Reilly Gallery on 67th Street. He had nearly 60 one person exhibitions and had exhibited in twice that number of group exhibitions.

'Color and Drawing' features paintings from the late 70's and early 80's, as well as three works, created some twenty-five years later, that revisited the earlier format. Saito had returned to oil paint in earnest by the 1990's, and according to his wife, Mikiko Ino, he began painting with acrylic again in 2012 and found the speed of application and the quick drying of acrylic was '...refreshing...' and the use of the acrylic '…fun…'. Reconsidering the format from years before, Saito wanted to, '...bring back the simplicity of the color...'. Until his death in February 2016, Saito moved back and forth between painting in oils on supports stapled to the wall, and in acrylics on canvas affixed to the floor.

Acrylic paints afforded Saito the ability to explore an immediacy and directness of application. Acrylics are free from many of the technical constraints of oil painting: 'fat over lean' and the like. With the admixture of water, liquid acrylic mediums and acrylic gels, opacity and transparency of the acrylic paint surface are readily achievable.

Saito's acrylic paintings don't reveal re-working or over painting. His works disclose a fully engaged compositional improvisation at the time of execution. By the late 1970's, Saito had arrived at a vocabulary for his drawing by taking advantage of a formulation of liquid acrylic paint soaked into the canvas resulting in animated color bands and blocks within modulating fields of paint laden acrylic gels. The paintings stand to gain or lose by the equilibrium, or pressure against equilibrium, offered by the dynamics between these relations. For Saito, color and drawing are not interchangeable but coexistent, each propelling the other.

In 'Etna Furnace' of 1979, the largest of the paintings in 'Color and Drawing', a central triangular shape contains several color areas, drawn with liquid paint, floating against the buffering blue field. The color bands in 'Etna Furnace' wring their expressive purpose out in concert with their morphing background. The influences of dark to light, movement and stasis, subtle, clear, wrought for the eye.

Most painters rarely make works that are executed all at once - rather a series of additions, subtractions, mistakes, life trails.... Whereas 'drawing' often refers to ideation – we draw on the back of a napkin, we draw a map as a scrawl of two left turns and then a right turn – we understand the intent of those brief, barely realized marks. For an abstract painter, the 'drawing' is not only associated with a drawn line, but the entirety of the placements of forms and shapes and vectors within the limits of the painting.

Abstraction provided Saito with an arena to explore his visual curiosity. Painting in New York during the 1960's, after Abstract Expressionism, had taken widely different paths: seriality, the grid, surface, infantilism, color, colorlessness, heat, cold, irony, and so on. Saito recognized that to find his own voice, would take long hours in the studio. He had arrived in the thick of things. New York City became the generator. Soho studios: one atop the other, side by side, and down the hall, became the vortex for all modes and all inclinations of painting, sculpture and everything in between. Saito worked on his paintings well into the night, sacrificing the sunrise, to arrive at his own painterly language.

In the selection of works in 'Color and Drawing,' Saito can be felt breathing into the paintings his sense of the luminous and the endless. He provides the boundaries, trued and faired, against expectation. The rich and variegated color areas are vibratory conversations, they establish their own language, yet unhermetic, approachable, and they invite the viewer to partake of their buoyant, often jubilant declamations. These color areas are 'poised' within the ostensible background fields, themselves mottled and revealing of an active coherence. Scribed lines within these fields echo or displace the authority and forcefulness of the bright shapes declaring another level of conversation within the picture. Saito's paintings make up their own physics and chemistry, their own forces and gravity.


"Cutting Water"
Larry Poons recalled that in the late 60's, while he and Kikuo were in Larry's Church Street, NYC studio, and were pulling up one of Poons' nearly dried, large 'elephant skin' paintings that was still stapled onto the floor, they came to a section of paint from which water gushed out "...Larry, like cutting water!...", Kikuo exclaimed. A sense recognition: "like cutting water!" - liquid becomes an imagistic solid, in the hand and in the eye, changing its nature, a poetry of physics.

Although in 1966 Kikuo brought with him several small Pop Art works he had completed in Japan, the Pop genre did not hold his attention for very long. Kikuo visited with Annie and me in the late 1980's to watch the Wizard of Oz on TV. An aficionado of foreign films, he had never seen, and was curious about, this icon of Hollywood. We drank Heinekens throughout the movie, and more when the Flying Monkeys appeared, but he was unimpressed. His taste in film, as his taste in theater, was more sensitively attuned. As for the beer, it was about as good as we could get back then.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, rescinded the draconian Immigration Act of 1924, that for forty years afterwards, among its many denials, prevented immigration from any Asian nation to the United States. Prior to President Lyndon Johnson's signing Hart-Celler, greater scrutiny would have been applied to a visitor from Japan whose purpose may well have been to travel to America to become nikkeijin, a term to describe a Japanese national seeking permanent residence abroad. Despite the fact that Hart-Celler was not officially enacted until 1968, changes in mobility were surely in the offing, allowing Saito to decamp for New York City, whereas it would have been extremely difficult as little as a year before.

Even with this relaxation of immigration policy one was only permitted to leave Japan with the equivalent of $500 American dollars. 2016 value would be roughly about $3700. Of course, a dollar went further in those times, no cell phone bills or computer repairs and replacements every few years, a near state of grace. Saito brought with him the maximum allowable of his hard-earned savings, providing enough money to get a start in NYC.

Of anecdotal interest to our present age, Congress passed Hart-Celler with support from only 74% of Democrats to pass, while an astounding vote from 85% of Republicans outdistanced them in the assent. Different times.

ukiyo (The Floating World / The Sorrowful World)
Kikuo Saito leaves behind a prodigious body of work. Within it: changes, revisitations, a call and response of the curiosity and determination he invested into his painterly investigations.

Those fortunate to have known him personally were witness to his gentle nature and his commitment to the arts. Lucky those within his orbit....