HUMAN COLORS

Painter MATSUMI KANEMITSU, nickname MIKE

by Rosanna Albertini

Early 1950s in New York. It seems that Jackson Pollock started to call him Mike. Kanemitsu was one of the artists going to the Greenwich Village Cedar Bar as Pollock did, and Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, de Kooning, Phillip Guston, Joan Mitchell, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouak, Frank O’Hara, Lee Krasner. Women, I read, were treated like cows. “In 1956 his work was included in a Whitney Annual, and in 1962 Kanemitsu was one of the 14 Americans at the Museum of Modern Art. And yet, his name remains largely absent from most histories of the New York art world in the fifties.” (John Yau)

Please read the beautiful story written by John Yau for The Brooklyn Rail, May 16th, 2008: “Kanemitsu in California during the 1960s and 1970s.”

Why his name disappeared from the New York scene remains a page of unanswered questions. Maybe Mike was tired of New York. Or he was more Japanese than American: although born in Utah in 1922, he grew up near Hiroshima from the age of three. After coming back to the U.S. in 1940 he was drafted in the army (442nd infantry) and had his first one man show on the army. Had he stayed in Japan he would have been drafted in the Japanese army. The place, in time of war, becomes a demanding home. For a double citizen, the war is a splitting knife. Los Angeles had a bigger sky, just in front of Japan. Maybe a less vertical city than New York, a better place for scattered lives keeping two souls, or more, in one body. Mike stepped out of human time in 1992, we can’t ask him.

MATSUMI KANEMITSU, The Hunter, 1960, Oil on canvas Courtesy of Nancy Uyemura

MATSUMI KANEMITSU, The Hunter, 1960  Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Nancy Uyemura

But his work is here, I’ll ask his paintings. They resurfaced from his studio only at the end of last year, 2014, for a double exhibition at The Mistake Room, Los Angeles: Ed Clark—Matsumi Kanemitsu. Exposed to the public for the very first time. Once more, I resist calling them ab-s-tractions as if they were portraits of real fragments, cut out from the space around us, or pulled off the ground like a tree. That’s a pre-neurosciences standpoint. Colors are not qualities of things separate from us.

Artists participate in the sacred dance of nature like everybody else. But their work goes further, disclosing the personal forms of pain, joy, surprise and their difficult conversation. Which could be what happens in The Hunter, Kanemitsu made it in New York in 1960. There were sky and sun and depth somewhere, until a black looking like bitumen floated over a sort of screen bringing flatness, hiding them. Not completely though; figures of light, Proserpina’s hands, push from underneath the edges of blackness. The dark blocks could be bodies (not necessarily human) making love, or uncertain petals of an unknown flower. Time to leave.

MATSUMI KANEMITSU, Hawaii #3, 1973  acrylic on canvas Courtesy of Nancy Uyemura

MATSUMI KANEMITSU, Hawaii #3, 1973  Acrylic on canvas
Courtesy of Nancy Uyemura

Colors are like pain, no one feels pain −and sees colors− in the same way. So it’s a real mystery the way artists go beyond intellectual barriers, the countless ways they manifest the world absorbed and reshaped in playful, unpredictable forms. Hawaii #3,1973, is a fluid dream of bodies with no edges, liquid and impermanent, made with air and water and long necks veined with red, to remind us of blood and all those channels, even in fantasy creatures. In Winterstorm, 1978, we can feel the tension of a mental storm. Yet, I could be completely wrong. It’s hard to be a viewer. Like Ed Clark’s paintings, Mike’s canvasses expel the stiffness of meanings and categories. They are gentle, and free. They are beautiful.

They make me dream of an age (imagined, of course) in which “words and things were not yet separate — different beings adapted to one another, trees connecting to the animals, the earth with the ocean, and humans with everything around them.” (Michel Foucault) In the natural magic, all the figures in the world would relate to each other by similarity: the sky has eyes and the earth has mouths. No need of words.

MATSUMI KANEMITSU, Winterstorm, 1978  acrylic on canvas Courtesy of Nancy Uyemura

MATSUMI KANEMITSU, Winterstorm, 1978  Acrylic on canvas
Courtesy of Nancy Uyemura