At 85, Harry Tsuchidana still works in his Salt Lake studio daily. He wakes up in the apartment he shares with his attentive son Grant, and walks next door to his work space. He sits at a counter that is against a peg board wall, an idea he got from visiting Robert Motherwell’s studio. Surrounding him are neat stacks of works on paper and paintings, and in the next room are more paintings. It’s all art, all the time for him, his smiling eyes giving him a boyish, eternally curious and delighted mien.
Born in 1932 in Waipahu, the son of a truck farmer, Harry went on to study at the Honolulu Museum of Art (then the Honolulu Academy of Arts), then served in the U.S. Marine Corps. He had his first one-person exhibition in 1955, when he was 22 and still a marine, at the Library of Hawai‘i in Honolulu. Soon after that, discharged from the Marine Corps, he moved to the East Coast where he spent a year at the Corcoran School of Art and worked as a nightwatchman at the Corcoran Gallery. In 1956, he moved to New York where he was a nightwatchman and mail clerk at MoMA. And while there he socialized with other Japanese American artists from Hawai‘i—Satoru Abe, Isami Doi, Jerry Okimoto, Tetsuo Ochikubo, and Tadashi Sato.
Two days after the Sept. 6 opening reception for Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West, which includes Harry’s powerful painting Break in the Wall, the artist spoke with the HoMA blog in his studio about…all kine stuff. When he greeted us, he was working on a sketch of University of Hawai‘i offensive lineman Fred Ulu-Perry, based on a photograph in the Star Advertiser. “He’s my neighbor!” the artist cheerfully explained. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
About his recent series of color studies
At first I thought what a trite idea to do this, but I found out if you put a color next to each other, it creates a sensation, each one…is different! I like that, so I did a lot—almost a thousand I think. But even though I went to the geometrical shape, I did go back to nature. Hans Arp did freeform, but rather than steal directly from Hans Arp, I’m going the route that he took—and studied the nude.
Harry’s special wash
[On Harry’s desk is a lidded plastic container]. You know when you come to the end of a bottle of tempera? There’s still left over, right? So I put distilled water and shake it and put it in here. Since the year 2000—so for 17 years it’s there. When you put that wash, there is that mellowness, creates that light—there’s a sun up there, a reflection from that.
On his art father and mother (and uncles)
Many Abstract Expressionist artists were influenced by Kandinsky, who felt abstraction was a form of spiritual expression. Did you feel that too?
Me too! But a man before him who did abstract was Arthur Dove. Figuratively speaking I have a father and a mother. My father is obviously Mondrian. And my mother is Arthur Dove. Some of my early works has that Arthur Dove quality. I have a lot of uncles you know. Georgia O’Keeffe is my uncle. I have a stepfather—Pablo. I call all of them by their first name.
On whether he and the other Hawai‘i painters knew the New York School guys
We were on 119th Street, up there. We went to Cedar Tavern just there to see what it was like, Tadashi Sato and I. The Cedar Tavern looks like Wisteria in a way. You can see people. We went there not to mingle. But I saw artists in the museum, David Smith came to the museum, and I rode the elevator with Chagall—just he and I. We had our own bar in our neighborhood. And that guy was really nice to us. You know, looking back, at the time, we never think, eh you Japanese and you there. We just was there.
Did any Hawai‘i artists show with New York School artists?
Isami Doi showed with [Yasuo] Kuniyoshi and Stuart Davis. In fact, Isami Doi and Kuniyoshi looked alike ironically. And Isami told me he couldn’t get him off his back, that for many years he was influenced by Kuniyoshi. But eventually I felt Isami was better than Kuniyoshi. And Kuniyoshi’s wife, Sarah Mazo, was a curator under [MoMA director] Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller.
On the East Coast’s influence
Isami Doi once said to Satoru Abe don’t be influenced by the Abstract Expressionists. Isami Doi didn’t like Franz Kline’s work, he thought it was very weak. But I thought that since I’m there, I’m going to be influenced by everybody. Why not? Working in a museum—I was also a nightwatchman at the Corcoran Gallery—look at all the work there! I liked [William] Baziotes, [Bradley Walker] Tomlin’s work, Morandi had a show there, and Barbara Hepworth had a show. It was a perfect place to be at Corocoran. And for the first time in their history they had a show of student work and I was in the same room as Sam Francis.