Kokuta Suda: Okukō 憶劫

April 15 - May 27, 2023

Nonaka-Hill is pleased to present Kokuta SudaOkukō, the first American solo gallery exhibition for the artist. Suda (須田 剋太, 1906-1990) was a pioneer for merging abstraction and calligraphy, for his raw spontaneity with various media; and for maximizing their tactile potentials with embossing, impasto, and even affixed stones. His paintings and works on paper do not pull us into pictorial space as much as affirm their objecthood: they are records of physical phenomena born at the junction between chance, intervention, and material.


A difficult artist to categorize by virtue of his shifting practices, Suda worked in figuration for twenty years before transitioning to abstraction in the 1950s. In 1952, he founded Genbi (Modern Art Discussion Group), which included Jiro Yoshihara (1905-1972), the future leader of Gutai. Yoshihara later invited Suda to join Gutai, but he declined, choosing to forge his own path instead; this included several shifts in style over the decades, including a lasting engagement with calligraphy and re-engagement with figuration.


By contrast, Suda’s abstractions on view from the early 1960s have a worn and handled quality devoid of line-work. Which is to say, the paper supports were perforated, scarred, scratched, or even shaped atop stones and other objects, a form of embossing. The paint was slathered, washed on, or wiped into the crevices of the paper; and it was mixed with earthen materials like lithic flake (rock shavings), minerals, and metallics. His works thus have organic appearances, weathered and self-inducing. They were eruptions from Suda’s being as it catalyzed the interaction of pigment, stones, and minerals.


These effects were partly owed to Suda’s deep commitment to Zen Buddhism, which influenced his life and work philosophy (to such a degree, apparently, that he was referred to as Kyoojin Kokuta, or “Madman Kokuta” by a colleague). His paintings were thus emphatically invested in the unfoldment of natural phenomena and minutae as it filtered through his hands. He allowed materials to commingle and alchemize into a third form of representation, independent of external appearances and his “inner world.”


A work from 1958 titled Active Nothing-Like Thing, encapsulates his ethos (and the contradictions of Zen Buddhism): he sought to activate nothing into a thing. This dovetailed with the idea of the kokoro, which means “heart” or “soul” or “thought,” the essence of a thing. As the kokoro is the “psychometaphysical aspect of the inward way,” to quote Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), it is not something readily identifiable: It is the abyss from which all things emerge and return. One might think of Suda’s paintings in this manner, as outward manifestations of spontaneous becoming from nothing. As such, they do not yield to any precise meaning, structure, or art historical narrative. Fittingly, the character koku 剋, which translates to “overturn” or “upheaval” is the same character he used to sign his paintings, nodding to the underlying philosophy that made his work alluring yet slippery to our cognition.