When An American Artist in Postwar Japan: The Prints of Marian Korn goes on view Thursday, it will be the first time the museum has focused on the work of a female expatriate in Japan.

Robert F. Lange Foundation assistant curator of Japanese art Stephen Salel—who recently was recognized, with Asian art curator Shawn Eichman, by the Association of Art Museum Curators for their work the museum’s shunga exhibition series—is no stranger to pushing the curatorial envelope. We asked him about his approach to An American Artist, and about his favorite work in the rotation.

“This print rotation is my attempt to shatter some of our preconceptions about Japanese art. Marian Korn lived in Japan, but she was an American of European descent, and so her work differs quite noticeably from the early-modern woodblock prints that we typically show. Korn began her career in the 1970s with whimsical figurative prints (which we display in the alcove of the Japan gallery), but by the time she hit her stride in the 1980s, references in her prints to the visible world were limited to images of leaves. One could say that she abandoned the realm of shapes and instead explored the realm of textures. The mood of her works transformed as well. While her figurative prints have a consistent sense of humor and lightheartedness, her abstract works trigger in us much more sober emotional responses. My question to viewers is this: what are those emotions the works provoke, and what aspect of each print causes us to react that way?  Let me focus upon my favorite work, Red Dot (1980-1982), as an example. 

“The print clearly communicates to me a sense of age. The overall colors of the print are muted green and black, and in combination with the cheesecloth texture at the center of the composition, these colors bring to mind a sense of age, decay, and rusticity. We can associate this image with quintessentially Japanese traditions, such as the tea ceremony, which promotes the value of rusticity. However, in my opinion, the print has an intimate connection with international modernism as well, bringing to mind the monumental abstract expressionist paintings of Clyfford Still (1904-1980) and the dark musical compositions of Czeck composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928). This is an aspect of Japanese art that the Honolulu Museum of Art is excited to explore nowadays: artwork that not only reflects well-known Japanese traditions but that also surprises viewers with unconventional and unfamiliar ideas as well, including those imported from other cultures.”

An American Artist in Postwar Japan: The Prints of Marian Korn is on view through July 26.

Marian Korn (1914–1987)
Red Dot
Japan, 1980–1982
Soft ground, aquatint, and relief printing; ink and color on paper
Gift of Estate of Oliver Statler, 2002 (27174)