Painting of the Day

30 May

To Martha’s Memory. by Jiro Yoshihara (1905-1972). Oil on canvas, 1970. Currently on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

Notes from the book 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

After earning his fortune as an industrialist, Jiro Yoshihara taught himself to paint and became one of Japan’s first abstract painters. His work hangs in many international collections all over the world. In 1954 he founded and funded the Gutai Group, a circle of avant-garde performance artists and painters based in Osaka. Some of the “happenings” the Gutai Group staged would involve dancers carrying paper screens into public areas and shredding and jumping through them impromptu. In the 1950s Yoshihara began to exhibit with midtown Manhattan’s Martha Jackson Gallery. Jackson had been born into the prominent Kellogg family, but was hardly a pampered socialite. Instead she attended the intellectually rigorous all-women’s Smith College and worked at what is now known as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (that owns most of her private collection). After she married her second husband, she began avidly collecting art, met and befriended artists such as John Marin, Reginald Marsh, Hans Hoffman, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, and established her iconoclastic art gallery in New York in 1953. Part of Martha Jackson’s mission was to exhibit works by emerging Abstract Expressionist and Pop artists, especially those still unknown in the United States. Yoshihara was one of her proudest discoveries. After her death in 1969, several artists in her  gallery’s roster created memorial art, but Yoshihara’s jagged white circle on a black background was perhaps the purest representation of her minimalist aesthetic. 

Additional notes from the art blog Silver and Exact (

In the final years of Yoshihara’s life, the artist devoted himself entirely to paint circles. Circles, circles and more circles.

As we may guess, Yoshihara’s circles are not justa n attempt to copy a geometric form, but they have another meaning, deeper.

The mania of the artist for drawing circles was nothing new in his country. The zen buddhist monks do it constantly, as they believe that you can know everything of a person just looking at their drawing of the shape. The symbol of the circle is, for them, one of the most important in their philosophy, as it illustrates the unity of the world. Of an interconnected whole. Of a nothingness that generates being and being that turns into nothing (which is the real signification of the yin yang symbol). The shape of the circle is, then, perfecto. And that’s why the monks and Yoshihara are constantly looking to create the perfect circle: as a way of introspection, to see how deeply they are connected with their inner being and how deeply they are connected to the world around them.

My comments:

I’m not sure how reliable the information from the art blog is, so I debated including it in this post. But it was such an interesting theory that I decided it was worth posting if only as a hypothetical exercise. If we accept that Yoshihara was thinking about the Zen Buddhist philosophy when he painted To Martha’s Memory, it’s interesting to think about how that philosophy/religion’s ideas about the circle would apply as a homage to Martha Jackson. Perhaps the artist was pointing out how Jackson had a talent for understanding everything about an artist based on a single artwork by analogizing this to the Zen Buddhist belief that the way one draws a circle reveals everything about a person’s identity. Perhaps the unity that the Zen Buddhists perceive in the circle is a metaphor for Jackson’s ability to unify artists who were emerging in the Abstract Expressionist and Pop art movements with the upper echelons of the visual art world. Maybe Yoshihara sees art in general as being “of a nothingness that generates being and being that turns into nothing,” a sentiment that Jackson also shared. No matter what, I would suspect that Jackson really appreciated this artwork as a tribute to her legacy and memory, even if it’s not outrightly memorial in appearance.

Anyway, I found this painting by randomly opening my copy of 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, and I actually like it very much. I think there’s more to it than Minimalism because the circle isn’t perfectly, flawlessly painted. Therefore the artist’s, or even just the human’s, hand is present in the work. It’s also interesting how the circle is not perfectly centered in the painting, and I wonder if the artist deliberately did that or he just started and then realized what had happened after he already started and decided to just go with it? As someone who now has recent experience making paintings, I could see that process playing out either way very easily. One of the most illuminating things I learned in the Studio Art class I took this semester is that even when an artist isn’t intentionally trying to invoke chance in his or her work (such as Marcel Duchamp and Jean Arp did, to name just a few artists), making an art piece, especially as it gets larger and more complex, always involves mistakes and unexpected discoveries. And I suspect almost all of the paintings that have been made in the history of art, even those we hold most dear and hold up as pinnacles of artistic genius, have mistakes in them by which the artist may very well have been pleasantly surprised and decided to keep.

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara May 30, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    “intellectually rigorous” is an interesting description of a college vs the “can do it with my eyes closed” type of college. Was Jiro zen buddist, or just employing that philosphy? i wonder what my circles say about me……

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