Were Asian Contemporary Artists Overlooked?

Kazuo Shiraga painting in his studio, 1960
© Amagasaki Cultural Center; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

In early 2010, we saw our first painting by the Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga. We were blown away by the intensity, the beauty, and the technique he used to paint: swinging by a rope and painting with his feet.

Equally stunning was that we had never heard of the artist or seen any of his creations in a museum, private collection, at an art fair, or in a contemporary art auction. We wondered what we were missing — or what the marketplace was missing. Initially, this created more doubt than intrigue. Maybe it was just pretty work but not something enduring that could hold its own with that of some of the great Western Abstract Expressionists. Although we are far from experts, our first impressions of Shiraga’s work evoked great art by Willem de Kooning and Christopher Wool.

We were both interested and confused. Why would Shiraga’s amazing, large-scale work sell for a fraction of the price of works by his contemporaries like Cy Twombly and Yves Klein? When we posed this question to Fergus McCaffrey, who represents Shiraga’s estate and runs a leading New York gallery, he responded emphatically, “That’s about to change!”

Of course we wanted to understand the rationale behind this prediction.

McCaffrey theorized that for decades Shiraga, along with other select Asian artists, had been overlooked or panned by New York’s art community, especially the curators at top museums, leading galleries, and prominent critics. Shiraga’s and the Gutai group’s first New York show in 1958 was derided as being derivative of second or third-generation Abstract Expressionism, rather than applying a fresh perspective to that movement’s first and second-generation artists. This derision and omission of acknowledgment had an exponential effect, as so many private collectors build their collections around the prevailing popular wisdom in the New York scene. The prevailing attitude was that New York had the best artists — whether residing or regularly showing there — and those not present were therefore not worthy. Case in point: Twombly and Klein were buoyed by regular and prominent gallery shows during the 1980s and 1990s, whereas Shiraga had no solo show in the United States until McCaffrey’s in 2010.

McCaffrey postulated that Shiraga would be reevaluated once serious collectors saw the artist’s work and were able to contextualize it among that of his peers.

Kazuo Shiraga
Shinju, 1993
Oil on canvas
78 x 114 1/2 inches (198 x 291 cm)
© The Estate of Kazuo Shiraga; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

Upon seeing the work and understanding Shiraga’s history and originality, we were compelled to acquire several of his works. Moreover, his unique performance created an unrivaled physicality and gestural beauty that we have no doubt would appeal to a broad market. In relatively short order, McCaffrey’s belief proved prophetic: Western collectors and museums have finally come to embrace Shiraga.

In fact, he has recently, and prominently, been featured in major exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum and the Dallas Museum of Art, has had solo shows at three important New York galleries, and is regularly featured in the top contemporary art auctions around the world. Suffice it to say, since our first encounter, Shiraga has garnered substantial recognition, and there has been a corresponding appreciation for his great works.

So the next logical question to McCaffrey was whether Shiraga’s imposed anonymity was an isolated situation, or indicative of other potential opportunities for important Asian artists?

With that in mind, and with some research, we came across Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese artist known for her , sometimes provocative sculptures, and large-scale installations. Kusama spent time in New York during the 1960s with the prominent artists of the day, returning in 1973 to her native Japan, where she has remained ever since.

Consistent with the period, her early works were intensely painted but minimalist in nature — but distinctively hers. Kusama was certainly better known globally than Shiraga; however, her works, in our opinion, were also dramatically underappreciated and therefore, undervalued. But like Shiraga, this would prove only a temporary phenomenon; her stature globally has exploded in recent years, including a major retrospective that has traveled to the Tate Modern, Whitney, Reina Sofia, and Centre Georges Pompidou. Capping Kusama’s well-deserved meteoric rise was her inclusion in magazine’s 2016 list of the 100 Most Influential People.

Yayoi Kusama
Walking on the Sea of Death, 1981
Sewn stuffed fabric, fiberglass rowboat and silver paint
22 7/8 x 100 3/4 x 62 1/4 inches (58 x 256 x 158 cm)
© Yayoi Kusama; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

Following this trend, but still in the relatively early days, are the Korean artists constituting the Dansaekhwa, or “monochrome painting.” The movement emerged in South Korea during the 1970s as a response to the political and cultural upheaval the country was facing at the time. With the exception of Lee Ufan, these Korean artists were largely unknown among Eastern and Western collectors until they burst onto the scene in 2014 with major exhibitions at leading galleries such as Blum & Poe, Kukje, Tina Kim, and Dominique Lévy.

In the short time since their introduction, the demand and esteem for their works and techniques have ballooned. While there has yet to be a major museum show, significant collections have been built at top museums and private collections around the world. We remain convinced that this trajectory will continue, given the works’ quality and relationship with top artists from the period, and it is only a matter of time until a prominent institution holds a proper exhibition.

Our experience with important Asian artists, who were temporarily overlooked by the New York scene from 1980 to 2010, has proven rewarding on multiple levels. While the speed and interconnectivity of today’s art market make a repeat of this proposition more daunting, we continue to focus our efforts on learning from experts such as McCaffrey, and subsequently drawing greater attention to additional artists or entire movements fitting this distinction.

Today, we do not know if this pursuit will manifest itself with other artists from the Gutai and Dansaekhwa movements, to unique individuals like Kusama, or — the most exciting prospect — someone currently off the radar altogether.

About Jeff Greenstein
Jeff Greenstein is an American entrepreneur and private investor based in Seattle, Washington. He is currently the President of YIS Capital, an active philanthropist and passionate dealer and collector in contemporary art. Related to these interests, Jeff is a co-founder of the Greenstein Family Foundation and the Greenstein Lab.

Jeff Greenstein is an American investment manager, entrepreneur, active philanthropist and art collector. Read more: http://jeff-greenstein.com/