Obituary: Kumi Sugai

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The Independent Online
Kumi Sugai belonged to the first group of pioneering contemporary Japanese artists to adopt western styles of painting, and to practise them abroad, chiefly in Paris or New York. Though he was born and bred in Kobe, his parents were of Malay origin, belonging to a family of excellent musicians.

He studied art at the Osaka School of Fine Arts, were he became acquainted with western painting techniques through the teaching of Yoshihara Haruyoshi. At the same time he practised calligraphy and was fascinated by typography, both of which were to play an important part of his later work. But like so many Japanese writers and artists, he dropped out of school and his first job was with the Hankyu Railway Company (1937) where he was their commercial designer and a creator of advertising posters.

Sugai left for Paris in 1952, where he found Abstract Impressionism was the prevailing mode, the first of many movements he was to encounter and learn from, ranging from Pop and Op to Antiart, Kinetic Art to Minimalism. He began by adapting traditional ukiyoe woodblock techniques to his per- sonal vision of a foreign culture. The forms were contemporary, but the colours had the simplicity and radiant purity of classic masters of the art that enraptured Van Gogh and the Post Impressionists. He also experimented with silk-screen printing and lithography. His first Paris production used graffiti with an unfailing sense of subtle colouring, evoking city scenes, men and animals at the limits of abstraction, with a cer-tain minimalism of snaps suggested by his friend Giacometti.

His work was immediately noticed by prominent art critics and gallery owners, including the writer Charles Estienne, who arranged for him to exhibit at the Salon d'Octobre in 1953. Sugai's career then took off, with one-man shows in Paris and at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1954, and a first exhibition of his gouaches at the St George's Gallery in London in 1955, during which he received an invitation to exhibit at the Pittsburgh International. By 1958, he had enough work for an impressive retrospective that established his reputation.

He went on to participate in all the important group exhibitions, notably at Sao Paulo Biennale, where he won the Best Foreign Artist Prize, at the Kassel Dokumenta and the Venice Biennale. He had many one-man shows in New York, Ljubljiana (where he won Print First Prize in 1961) and at the Tokyo Biennale in the same year. In 1962, under the influence of Giacometti, he transformed some of his subjects into minimal sculptures, and illustrated two books of poetry by the art critic Jean-Clarence Lambert, who wrote extensively about him, as did other essayists like Michel Ragom, Hubert Juin and Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues. He received extensive coverage in Thomas Messer's Modern Art (Guggenheim Foundation, 1962).

Like many of his contemporaries, Sugai also wrote essays, and published a book in French, La Quete sans fin (1970), presumably with the help of Lambert. The famous copperplate etcher, Ikeda Masuo (born 1934) had even won the Akutagawa Prize in 1977 for his novel Egi Kai ni sasagu ("Homage to the Aegean"). Print-makers were fascinated by the uses of banal everyday signs and symbols, and often included odd words in various languages in their compositions. One of Sugai's favourite literary devices was to feature large capitals in his works, and even to make a letter the sole subject of the picture. One of his many successful and amusing essays in this style was the famous "S" series, in which the letter took on a definite personality in various ravishing colours and typographs.

In the 1960s, Sugai produced almost heraldic images of traffic signs and directional panels, in which repetition of purely abstracted simple forms evokes a hallucinating atmosphere, in dream-like colourings. His work became more and more abstract, geometrical but still suggesting a certain reality, like his well-known Festival de Tokyo, which I often admired in the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, or his "Autoroute" series in which he replaced his emblematic signs and calligraphic icons with a refined and sensitive graphism embracing all kinds of textures and rainbow transparencies.

Though he remained active to the end of his life, Kumi Sugai fell out of favour during the 1970s and 1980s, along with the rest of the Ecole de Paris, when the centres of innovation became New York and the West Coast. But we can still enjoy his best work in all the great art museums of the world, and his death will certainly be followed by a reverential retrospective in his native city. He was a great universal abstractionist, of that rare kind whose "endless quest" for more rarefied forms of expression never lacked a warm human feeling.

Kumi Sugai, painter and print-maker: born Kobe, Japan 13 March 1919, died Kobe 14 May 1996.

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