Kikuo Saito’s Tantalizing Abstractions Speak a Language We’ll Never Understand - Living Strong Television Network

This essay originally appeared in Reframed, the Art in America newsletter about art that surprises us and works that get us worked up. Sign up here to receive it every Thursday.

Scribbled numbers, wiped-away letters, word-like scrawls: all of these recur in Kikuo Saito’s paintings of the early 1990s, a selection of which form a wonderfully mystifying solo show on view now at James Fuentes gallery in New York. The cryptic markings are cast against vast fields of color that, in the hands of an Abstract Expressionist like Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, might inspire transcendence. But Saito’s color fields are thinly painted, purposefully left rough-hewn and off-kilter, and the illegible messages on their surfaces evoke something more like the intriguing thrill of communicating with a person channeling an alien tongue. 

These canvases may in some way reflect Saito’s own experience as an immigrant absorbing a new culture. He was born in 1939 in Tokyo and came to artistic maturity in the wake of the Gutai movement of postwar Japan. Lured by the Abstract Expressionist art pouring out of the US, he departed his homeland for New York in 1966, eventually working as an assistant to artists Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, and Larry Poons. His art has affinities with theirs—for works from other eras not included in the James Fuentes show, Saito created Poons-like torrents of brushstrokes and Frankenthaler-like blooms of color. 

But the abstractions in this exhibition are more inscrutable—and tantalizing too. I thought I spotted the word “agony” in Mock Orange (1992) and considered whether the work’s blazing hue was meant as an expression of turmoil. Then I realized that certain characters were blurred beyond recognition—I’d misread that word, and perhaps the painting altogether. Maybe the would-be text bore no relation at all to the fiery field behind it, or maybe it connected in ways I can never fully know. 

Saito labeled these ’90s works “Monochromes,” which is itself a clever linguistic sleight of hand, since the large canvases are covered with more than one color. The title of Mock Orange reads like a reference to the fact that this vermilion canvas actually contains smears of yellow. If some of his painterly peers found respite in pared-down abstraction—recall Ad Reinhardt’s obsession with “purity” as the finest form of aesthetics—Saito was interested in intentionally muddying his expansive planes of color. 

Can these paintings’ mysteries be unraveled at all? Most works are titled in cryptic ways, but one seems to offer a means for understanding. Moon Tree (1993), a blackboard-scaled field of lush magenta, can be read as an allusion to tree seeds that were flown around the moon by Apollo 14 astronauts in 1971, then planted in sites around the US. The painting has no obvious relationship to those seeds, but Saito evokes a foray into outer space, a realm that remains only partially understood. A phrase that looks like “Amoxina inoi sn x20” also appears in the painting. Its meaning is elusive to me, but Saito might have intended it for other kinds of beings who can decipher it.

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