REPORT  − report −

NANKOKU HIDAIreportreport   Vol. 7 Artists of the Line

Vol. 7 Artists of the Line

In 1964

In 1964, Nankoku quietly celebrated the New Year at his home in Yokohama after a long absence. From the end of 1959 to 1963, his wife, Shoha had held twice “the Avant-Garde Calligraphy Exhibition in Memory of Tenrai Hidai" on Nankoku’s visits to the U.S. two times. Nankoku was worried about Shoha producing her works in her busy schedule, so he advised Shoha to make a place where she could concentrate on her creative activities. Shoha formed the "Shokei-kai" with the women she was teaching as members, and held an exhibition of her works once a year.

Nankoku contributed the results of his second visit to the U.S. to the evening edition of the Mainichi Shimbun on January 29, 1964, titled “Americans and Calligraphy”. And on August 18, Nankoku performed with Shiryu Morita and Sofu Okabe with a big brush at Yushima Temple. The big brush was more than 1 meter long, and the diameter of the point of the brush was 15 cm and the length was 50 cm. The paper was made of torinoko-paper and 10 sheets of paper were pasted together to be 5meters long and 4 meters wide. The ink was pine smoke ink mixed with bond, and Nankoku was further mixed with the sliding paper door paste. The performance at Yushima was filmed on 8mm film and screened during his third visit to the US, where he interchanged with Western artists and gave lectures in various countries, and was caused a great response and interest. (The top page of the English version of Nankoku HP. features a photo of Yushima's performance.)

In September, he was selected for “The Second Exhibition of Thirty Contemporary Japanese Calligraphers”, sponsored by Tokyo Times, at Shinjuku Isetan Department Store (September 8-15). From September 21st to 26th, he held a one-man show "Nankoku Hidai Exhibition of Recent Works" (Shinjuku, Tsubaki Modern Gallery), together with “ Shokei-kai Calligraphy Exhibition” by Shoha. (exhibitors: Shoha Hidai, Rokin Mizushima, Hatsue Oikawa, and Ikuko Nakajima).

On October 1, the exhibition of “Contemporary Japanese Painting” at Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. opened and it was rarely a great success at the museum. Nankoku received the letter that a leading critic of the American world of art had reviewed this exhibition in the New York Times. In particular, avant-garde works by three Japanese calligraphers (Sofu Okabe, Nankoku Hidai, and Shiryu Morita) had attracted attention and been especially mentioned as a new movement in Japanese art (October 5, The New York Times, Washington Post on November 30. Nankoku Report Vol.6  In the exhibition of “Contemporary Japanese Painting” at Corcoran Gallery of Art, an article by John Canady in The New York Times is introduced).


Ⅰ. The art of the line that shocked the world

(1) The 3rd visit to the U.S.

In 1964, in early November, Nankoku visited the United States for the third time. His immediate purpose was to give a lecture at Schaefer School of Design and to hold a one-man show at Mi Chou Gallery in January 1965.  On November 7, he arrived in San Francisco and stayed at the O'Hanlon’s and Philippe Mutrux’s residences (his first home in the U.S.). After giving a lecture at the Schaefer School of Design, he headed for Los Angeles on the 14th and moved to Sam Francis' residence in Santa Monica. Sam Francis was just visiting Japan for his one-man show at the Minami Gallery in Tokyo, and he was willing to be used his home freely by Nankoku.

He stayed at Francis' residence until the 19th, and on the 20th, he was flying to Richmond, Indiana. He came there for lectures, classes and performances at Earlham College in Richmond (*1). Dinner and informal sessions on Saturday, August 21, and on Sunday, August 22, a performance of calligraphic writing styles for the Richmond Arts Club and a lecture on the history of calligraphy from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., and on Monday, August 23, “ Discussion on Brushes, Lines, and Ink” from 4:00 p.m. was held, and from 7:30 p.m., a formal "Lecture and Performance " was held in front of the audience of about 100 people.

After his lecture in Richmond, he headed for Washington D. C. to see the exhibition of "Contemporary Japanese Painting" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (this exhibition closed on November 29 with a good reputation). Nankoku went back to New York from Washington and immersed himself in preparing for his third one-man show at Mi Chou Gallery earlier the following year.

In New York, he stayed at Chelsea Hotel, where he had stayed the previous year. In preparation for his one-man show, he held class of teaching calligraphy for New York artists every Wednesday. Among the participants were Ad Reinhardt, Raymond Parker, Kurt Sonderborg, and Ulfert Wilke, who had been an close friend.

(2) The 3rd one-man show at Mi Chou Gallery

From January 19 to February 6, 1965, Nankoku held his third one-man show at Mi Chou Gallery. From 1961, he again discovered the most suitability for torinoko-paper using ancient ink with strange working, and began to create absorbedly a large number of works one after another. In this one-man show, bold and powerful lines and strong construction power were outstanding, and they gave an unforgettable and intense impression to the person who saw them. The art of the Line of Nankoku shocked the world. Moreover, it could be said that the works had become more and more calligraphic with fewer factor of picture than before. His principal works of "64-2, 64-3, 64-6, 64-9, 64-13, 64-21, 64-22, 64-24, 64-25, 64-26, etc." were included. Of these, "64-24" was in the Collection of the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, "64-25" was in the Niigata Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, and "64-26" was in the Johnson Museum of Art in Cornell University (Nankoku HP.  See Museum).



The one-man show received a great response, with articles introducing the one-man show titled "Nankoku Hidai - Mi Chou" in the column "Art of New York" of TIME magazine on January 22 and in the New York editions of TIME dated January 29. In addition, on January 31, an article with the long introduction and criticism was published on the page of the NEW YORK TIMES. The contributor, Elise Grilli was a critic for art of the Japan Times, and one of authors of the English version of "The History of Chinese Calligraphy" with Nankoku (This article was introduced in Nankoku Report  Vol.2  NEW YORK TIMES).

These articles in Time magazine and the New York Times made Nankoku a big celebrity overnight, and rumors were circulating at the front desk of the hotel. Many artists from all over the world were staying at the Chelsea Hotel, who had come to New York, as the melting pot of forefront arts. Among them, "Nankoku Hidai" attracted attention. Universities and art institutions in various places have asked him to give lectures and invited exhibitions of his works.

On February 11, after his one-man show, Nankoku started the calligraphy class 10 times at the Art Center in Summit, New Jersey, in the west of New York, through the introduction of Ulfert Wilke. On February 15, he gave a lecture and showed films at the Art Gallery of Fairleigh Dickinson University Florham-Madison Campus (*2) neighboring New Jersey. He also gave a lecture at Princeton University in New Jersey (*3), one of the most prestigious universities of the U.S. He also visited Antioch College in Yellow Springs of the State of Ohio (*4) neighboring New Jersey.

In mid-March, he visited the State of Massachusetts for delivering lectures at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, at Smith College (*5) in Northampton, and at University of Massachusetts State University (*6).

During this time, Nankoku prepared a trip for lecture in Europe and contacted A.M. Hammacher, director of the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, and sent letters to the Japanese Cultural Institute in Italy through Victor Pasmore in the UK. and Nobuya Abe. He had also been in touch with Mrs. Irmtraud Schaarschmidt-Richter in West Germany. For the time being, he requested his permission from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to visit the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Italy from April to June for lectures.

(3) Working with the artists of the line

Nankoku was staying at the Chelsea Hotel owing to the waiting time to fix on the schedule for lectures. Some spirited European painters were also staying at the hotel. Among them, he produced to work together with Kurt Sonderborg, Pierre Alechinsky with whom Nankoku had become acquainted in 1955 when he had come to Japan with a great interest in "Avant-Garde Calligraphy", and Wallasse Ting of Chinese descent. This performance was filmed on 8mm film, and after production, they discussed their results while projecting it.

Furthermore, on May 1, he felt regret that he would visit Europe without showing off the big brush he had carried with him during his visit to the United States (the brush had been used for the performance at Yushima Temple), and so he tried to perform with Alechinsky, Ting, Raymond Parker, Wilke, and others, using the big brush in two places. This performance was also filmed on 8mm film, and it could be seen that each artist demonstrated remarkably his talented personality.

In his letter, Nankoku said, "However, a major incident occurred. As soon as Mr. Ting, in question, beat the brush against the paper intensely at the end, the really big brush as it was broken into pieces. It seemed to him that the brush was firm and strong. So he was completely ashamed and did not know what to do. …Owing to this incident, my plan was entirely upset. It took me a day to repair the brush. Somehow I can bring it during the visit to Europe, but he was really a terrible painter. (A letter for Shoha. Airmail dated May 3, 1965)



Ⅱ. avant-garde art

(1) Abstract Expressionism (Action Painting) And Art informel

The loss of humanity caused by two World Wars in the 20th century collapsed Europe's traditional values and ideas of art. Kandinsky or Mondrian, on the other hand, had eliminated anything similar to the ruined material world and had created non-figurative (non-concrete) paintings (abstract paintings) that had given meaning only to form and color. After World War II, paintings depicting subjective self-expression and intense emotional expression became the mainstream in the United States and Europe. They insisted that the unconscious part of human psychology expressed the self. It was a global Abstract movement of art called “abstract expressionism” in the United States and "art informel" in Europe. The leading painters of abstract expressionism include Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell. The leading painters of the European informel were Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Jean Fautrier and Georges Mathieu.

(2) Action painting

Art as Act

The term of “action painting” was first used in 1952 by Harold Rosenberg (*7), American art critic. The leading painters of Abstract expressionism such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning viewed canvas not as a window for reappearing the world, but as a place for creative action, and thought “canvas is an arena.” The artist's existential fights were recorded as materiality and physicality on the surface of the painting which was solidified with oil paint. Rosenberg, on the other hand, changed the object of emphasis from "matter" to “painter's fight” itself. It was said that the finished picture for the painter was only a residue and a material appearance of the real activity which existed in the act and the process of the creation of the painting. Over the next 20 years or so, Rosenberg's redefinition of art, that is to say, "art as act, not as matter " and "art as a process against results" had a major impact and became the basis for artistic movements such as Happening and Fluxus (* 8). The artist's "action" was a spontaneous (unconscious) act, in which he left the pigment in his hand dripping on the canvas. He just moved to dance around the canvas, or stood on the canvas, dropping pigments as the unconscious ordered him, and left the unconscious part of his psychology expressing himself.

All over

In addition, his picture did not have a center figure on which was focused, and the picture was made a "allover" plane without distinction between ‘ground’ and ‘figure’. The traditional perspective from the classical period of the Renaissance focused on an object (figure) to be seen from a single point of view (my eyes), and gave it an illusion that the picture showed three-dimensional depth and infinite space, so to speak, made the picture a "window" that looked into the world. Action painters denied anthropocentrism (the ideology of humans as the center of the universe) of modern spirit of Europe. In "All over", a small number of color planes are arranged in a large and well-balanced way throughout the canvas. Moreover, there is no center and no focus on the color planes, there is no distinction between "figure" and "ground", and it is not thick, but flat, it is homogeneous no matter where it is, and the color planes seem to continue everywhere beyond the picture. “All over” pictures rejected the hierarchical value of figure and ground, and the entire picture was made a principal role.

In addition, Jackson Pollock's unique techniques of "dripping" (spreading canvases on the floor and dripping oil paint from the air with brush or trowel) and his techniques of "polling" to draw lines are said to show the influence of American Indian’s sand paintings drawn on the earth which he had ever seen.

By 1965, however, this type of abstract expressionism was already on the wane in New York, and Pop Art and Minimal Art were rising to power.

(3) Artists of the line

It was in late April, 1965 that Nankoku worked with Kurt Sonderborg, Pierre Alechinsky, and Wallasse Ting at Ting’s atelier in New York. In 1965, Nankoku was 53 years old, Sonderborg was 42, Alechinsky was 38, and Ting was 37 years old. Two decades ago, each of them left their hometown after the disastrous war and attempted to create new art, and then gathered in New York in 1965.

Looking at the 8 mm film, while the four artists happily chatted and smoked, each took a brush in turn and drew a line on a large piece of paper on the floor. The lines drawn represent the individuality of four artists and are not uniform.



Kurt Sonderborg (1923–2008), a one-armed artist, was born in Denmark. Real name is Kurt Rudolf Hoffmann. He gave his name SONDERBORG in 1951, the name of the town where he was born. In 1953, he became a member of the group Zen 49”, and in the same year he went to Paris to encounter Tachism. He continued his travels and worked in London, Cornwall, New York, Ascona (in Switzerland), Rome and Paris. In New York, he came into contact with action painting and abstract expressionism. “Zen 49” in which Sonderborg participated as a member had been founded in Munich, Germany in 1949. “Zen 49” was an art movement involved practice that denied the objective material world in the collapse after World War II, searched for new art of non-figurative (abstract), and arrived at Japanese Zen thought and its meditations. Through there, Sonderborg shifted to Tachism which was characterized by unconsciously moving the brush and hurriedly writing the outpouring inner life. Sonderborg's works in prints, called calligraphic prints, were awarded an international prize at the São Paulo Biennale in 1963, two times after Nankoku exhibited there. These works have a simple line and white blank (space) with resonance, and have a taste like an ink painting that recalls the scene of Denmark in Northern Europe. Even in Nankoku's film, he had a brush with his left hand, and he was drawing a smooth and simple line like putting a dot a little.


Pierre Alechinsky (1927~. Born in Belgium). In 1948 he became an organizing member of an international group of artists called CoBrA, named after the initials Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The group representing tendencies of abstract expressionism shocked many various fields with intense touches and vivid colors. He traveled to Paris, Japan, London, Amsterdam, New York, and other places. During his stay in Japan in 1955, he produced a 16 mm film called "Japanese Calligraphy", which he shot a film of Japanese scenes filled with calligraphy and a film of scenes writing calligraphy of Sogen Eguchi, Shiryu Morita, and Toko Shinoda. In 1965, during his second stay in New York, he resided at the Wallasse Ting’s atelier, whom he had met in Paris and had made friends with, and he learned how to use acrylic paints from Ting. Acrylic paints were suitable for practicing the flowing brushstrokes that Alechinsky learned from calligraphy. In this film by Nankoku, Alechinsky was also drawing a line in a quick movement as flowing. However, his brushstroke seemed to be painted with a brush like a picture.

Wallasse Ting

Wallasse Ting (Wallace Ting, Ding Xiongquan 1928-2010. Born in Shanghai) He left China in 1946 to live in Hong Kong and Paris, where he interacted with renowned artists such as Karel Apel, Asger Jorn and Pierre Alechinsky. He moved to the United States in 1957, worked in New York, and he was influenced by abstract expressionism. In 1965, the big brush performance on the roof of a building, in which he rolled orange and wielded a large brush, is called “happening”. It is a non-reproducible and one-off form of art which disregards traditional forms of art and time order, esteems accidental effect, and is taken action by artists. But the picture that Ting wrote freely at will in his atelier, showed a woman and a galloping splendid horse of the Western Regions style of Tang Dynasty in China. The lines of brush and patterns in this picture seem to be reminiscent of Chinese literati paintings.


And Nankoku. The lines written by the really big brush  for the great character in the performance are exactly calligraphic lines, and the form of various lines such as slow-fast, straight-curved, moist-thirsty, and strong-weak represents the humanity of the person who writes. These lines are full of the “Hitsu-I” (the exquisiteness of brush line). They are the disciplined lines based on the history of calligraphy over a span of 3000 years.


Memory (Time/History)

In 1965, Alechinsky produced "Central Park" in Ting's atelier. It was a work that represented his new art. The picture like looking down Central Park from right above, depicted a non-figurative shape in intense green and orange at the center. This center was surrounded by some small squares with small cartoon-like paintings. The picture was that Alechinsky completed his own style. During his CoBrA days, he produced works similar to Paul Klee's infant-like paintings. Klee, who had been familiar with music and poetry, made use of the organic characteristics of painting and letter (sign). Signs are forms that are representations of ideas. At the moment to see a picture, the sign which automatically utters the meaning (idea), operates as a trigger, and the sign acts on the consciousness of the appreciator. Alechinsky came across acrylic paint as a means to draw quickly what came to mind. He painted a picture in the center of canvas quickly with his left hand, and at the same time he wrote the sign (letters and figures) of the picture around the center with his right hand. By doing so, the whole picture gives a polyphonic tone to the appreciator. These signs symbolizes the story or the myth, etc. of the world that Alechinsky experienced, and so this sign is Alechinsky's memory (time / history) itself.

Wallasse Ting also left China to undergo art nformel and action painting (abstract expressionism). The use of the lines and white blank (space) of the brush reminds of his birthplace of Shanghai differing from the free action of abstract expressionism. Ting's unique world of the picture is his memory (time/history) in which he explores and recalls his inner self. Later, Ting worked on many paintings, not as a non-concrete art but as a figurative art, such as women of Tang Dynasty style in China, cats, birds, and other animals, blending the norms of Chinese painting with the spontaneousness of action painting, and he created a unique world in which ink and color harmonized.

As artists of the line, including Nankoku, the four men denied the traditional arts in Europe, China and Japan that became an anachronism, became fettered, and turned to the inert fruitage in a new era. And each of them explored for new original art. Original art is, however, not to contrive just an eccentric device or novel ingenuity. It is necessary to go deeply into the inner self, go back to the origin (the root and the source) of the self, search for the origin, and continue a new creation as the present memory (time / history) of the self.

*1:  Earlham College
 Established in 1847. Liberal Arts College in Richmond, Indiana. It’s motto is pacifism, equalitarianism, and humanitarianism trained in the Quakers.

* 2:  Fairleigh Dickinson University
 Established in 1942. There are many international students from various countries at University that provides global education.

*3:  Princeton University                                                                                                                                                       Established in 1746. The eighth oldest university in the United States. It is highly evaluated as a university that has succeeded in balancing student education with leading edge research. Alumni such as James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, and J.F. Kennedy, the 35th President. It has also won many Nobel prize winners in physics and mathematics. Haruki Murakami has been awarded an honorary doctor’s degree for his work as a visiting researcher and visiting lecturer at the university.

* 4:  Antioch College
  Founded in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1852 as a non-denominational coeducational college centered on general education. It is a private coeducational college of liberal arts.

* 5:  Mount Holyoke College
 Established in 1893. And Smith College was founded in 1875. They are members of the Seven Sisters, a general term for seven prestige women's colleges. Each college is college of liberal arts. Smith College is one of the most difficult private college in the U.S. and the largest women's college in the United States.

* 6:  University of Massachusetts State University
 Established in 1947. Headquarters in Boston. One of five university state university systems, including Amherst.

* 7:  Harold Rosenberg 1906-1978.
  American literary and art critic. In 1952, he published a epoch-making paper, "American Action Painters," and first insisted the importance of American art after the war. He is considered a theoretical pillar of action painting, and part 2 "American Action Painters" of the representative book "The Tradition of The New" (1959) is referred plentifully.

*8:  Fluxus (Latin for "flowing, changing, underlying")                                                                                                             A movement of avant-garde art advocated by Lithuanian designer and architect, George Maciunas. It extends a wide range of artistic genres, including art, music, poetry, and Buto. Fluxus distinguished its "event" from "happening". "Events" were based on ‘scores’ and clearly performed certain acts, with the anti-artistic intention of bringing daily life objects to the stage of art, breaking down their boundaries, and bringing artistic objects into everyday life. Nam June Pike from South Korea, and Yoko Ono, Toru Takemitsu and Toshi Ichiyanagi in Japan participated.