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Minol Araki, painter without a home

Years after his death, Japanese artist draws admiration in the West

Japanese painter Minol Araki's Chinese inspired lotuses (Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art)

NEW YORK -- It gave Minol Araki great pleasure to point out that the literal translation of his name is "fruit on a tree growing in the wild," a fitting description for this late citizen of the world.

His work reflects an Asian sensibility filtered through a life spent in both East and West. His paintings reach back to ancient Chinese traditions of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), reflect Japanese styles both old and new, and refer to the abstraction of contemporary Western art.

Araki's monumental "Boundless Peaks" from 1983 (Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art)

In recognition of growing Western interest in Araki, the Minneapolis Institute of Art on Oct. 7 will open an eight-month long show of 43 works that cement Araki's reputation as an artist who bridged East and West but was also able to mirror the time and places in which he worked.

Araki was born to Japanese parents in 1928 in the Chinese port city of Dairen (now Dalian), when it was occupied by Japan. As a child, he wanted to study art, but his parents insisted on the more practical discipline of architecture. At the end of World War II, his studies were interrupted when the family was repatriated to Japan.

Minol Araki in the late 1960s (Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Araki arrived in a land where he barely spoke the language, carrying only two small bags of possessions. Many years later he recalled: "In my late father's bag, I put materials for sketching and my favorite big sausages. As a boy of 17, I had no dark memories and looked forward, as in a dream, to the unknown country of Japan." Shortly after his arrival he resumed his studies, this time in design, and began what would be a prosperous career as an industrial designer.

Araki's design for a mass-produced, telescopic desk lamp sold 20 million pieces, bringing him early success. By the 1970s, he owned a design company with studios in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei and eventually New York. He produced graphics and posters in Japan, and also designed houseware and electronics, which received enthusiastic orders from upmarket stores such as Bloomingdale's in the U.S. and Denmark's Georg Jensen.

Later, work for companies such as Tandy Corp. and Radio Shack required that he traveled constantly. He trekked through museums in capital cities of the world, absorbing every bit of information available, and zealously collected art books.

The success of his design work allowed Araki to pursue his true love, painting. Aaron Rio, assistant curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art calls Araki "a painter without a home." He worked as he traveled, and maintained studios in Asia and the U.S. He had apartments and studios in Tokyo and Taipei, and over the years had rooms in New York City, Tucson, Santa Fe and Fire Island, New York, plus various hotels in which he liked to stay.

Araki's lamp design sold 20 million units. (Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Friends recall that he painted on washi, a traditional Japanese paper that is particularly pliant, because it was easy to carry around and could be stashed into a briefcase. He would unfold a washi, wet it to remove creases, and continue working in ink. Other friends remembered that he often painted at night in his underwear.

Araki's posthumous success is testament to the passion of his admirers and friends. In the early 1970s, Araki met the highly respected calligrapher Yao Menggu, who introduced him to the pre-eminent Chinese painter, Zhang Daqian. Araki became the master's informal student, and it was Zhang who influenced the lotus paintings that make up a large part of Araki's work. Both Zhang and Yao championed Araki's work in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Signed and sealed

As he traveled, Araki's painting expanded. Influenced by Ben Shahn, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Egon Schiele in the West, Araki produced figurative paintings. He loved Pablo Picasso's work, and frequently worked in the spirit of contemporary abstract painters. Araki exuberantly created Chinese-style monumental landscape paintings and lotus scrolls and screens, and copied other painters' styles in Japanese-influenced still life pictures.

He used Asian brushes and ink on wet paper with colors, signing his works in both the Western way with his name and by using a seal, in the Asian manner. No matter what or where he painted, he always did it uniquely as himself.

Araki relished working from the perspective of an outsider, and his style was neither traditional nor conventional. Most remarkably, he did not care for commercial success. Instead he shunned the art market and used the practical aspects of his design business to support painting for its own sake. He separated art from commerce, and followed the philosophy of the imperial Chinese "literati" who painted as a form of personal expression.

That is not to say that Araki did not crave recognition. He wanted to be acknowledged as an important painter. While eschewing the financial rewards of painting, he considered exhibiting in a museum to be the mark of success. To that end he hoped his work would eventually reside in his own museum in Japan, the place where he most wanted to be accepted. Like many Japanese artists of the 1970s, Araki believed that if he were successful in the West he would eventually be recognized in Japan.

Araki's still life (Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art)

In 1964, Araki met Kazukuni Sugiyama, who would become his design partner and the manager of his New York studio. Sugiyama and Japanese art collector David Frank encouraged Araki to show his work in museums. They noticed that as Araki aged his focus was shifting away from design work and squarely onto his painting. Frank and Sugiyama had purchased numerous works from Araki and displayed them in their homes, which gave them an opportunity to show the work informally to gallery owners.

Claudia Brown of the Phoenix Art Museum offered Araki a show in 1998, and the show traveled to The National Museum of History in Taipei, where Araki had previously shown. Frank and Sugiyama then arranged Araki's first gallery show in 2005 at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe. Clearly the two men could see beyond what Araki could imagine.

Araki's health began to fail just as he was gaining broader recognition. Upon his death in 2010 he left his extensive artwork in the hands of Frank and Sugiyama, who had promised to keep the work alive. The task for the two men was how to add contemporary value to works created by an artist who refused to attach any monetary importance to his work. Through their efforts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired one of Araki's largest and most important paintings, "Distant Road," in 2011. The Chicago Art Institute also made major acquisitions.

A bird, as seen by Araki. (Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Araki's works have remained alive and relevant in part because of art collectors around the world. "We won't be here forever, so David and I needed to think about the future of the work," Sugiyama said. Frank added: "Our plan is to donate much of his work to the permanent collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and use the proceeds from the sale of other artworks to create an endowment at the museum in Araki's name to promote cross-cultural exhibitions." Frank said the endowment would be "another way to keep Araki's spirit alive."

Both noted that Araki was eager to be accepted in Japan, and, despite his mixed upbringing, to be seen as a Japanese national. "I do think he's happy in heaven," Sugiyama said. "And his works will live in a museum."

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