What Makes an Artist Famous?

Part I “Kenjiro Nomura American Modernist, An Issei Artist’s Journey”

(Cascadia Art Museum, Edmonds, until February 20)

Kenji Nomura, "Untitled (Fourth and Yesler)" ca early 1930s, oil on canvas 24 x 30”, private collection.
Kenji Nomura, "Untitled (Fourth and Yesler)" ca early 1930s, oil on canvas 24 x 30”, private collection.

Kenjiro Nomura (1896-1956) came from Japan to Tacoma at the age of ten. When he was barely seventeen his parents returned to Japan leaving him to fend for himself. He managed to not only survive but to find art training and then to be recognized as an artist. He moved to Seattle from Tacoma when he was 19 and began to study art with Fokko Tadama who had recently relocated from New York City bringing East Coast styles with him.


Nomura supported himself with his own sign painting business in the Nihonmachi, the heart of the Japanese immigrant community. As discussed in Barbara Johns excellent book of the same title as the exhibition, Nihonmachi provided a rich cultural environment.


Nomura made a major contribution to American scene painting with his 1930s urban street scenes. He carefully observed complex intersections in such familiar locations as 4th and Yesler. By the end of the decade Nomura was acknowledged as a major artist.


But suddenly it came to an end when on February 19, 1942, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the infamous executive order 9066 authorizing the relocation of all persons considered a threat to national defense from the west coast of the United States inland.


The order fell like an ax on the lives of people of Japanese descent regardless of whether or not they were citizens.


This February is the 80th anniversary of that order.

Kenji Nomura, "Gymnasium (Minidoka)" 1945, oil on canvas 24 x 30”, Tacoma Art Museum, museum purchase 2013.6
Kenji Nomura, "Gymnasium (Minidoka)" 1945, oil on canvas 24 x 30”, Tacoma Art Museum, museum purchase 2013.6

Nomura and his family were forcibly incarcerated along with 120,000 other people of Japanese ancestry. They first went to the State Fair Grounds in Puyallup, then to Minidoka, in desolate Hunt, Idaho. But Nomura never stopped painting! He made over 100 watercolors of the buildings, the people, and the natural environment in the camps. They remained rolled up in a closet until the 1990s. Curator David Martin carefully chose twenty of them for this exhibition and orchestrated their donation to the Tacoma Art Museum.


After four years of internment, Nomura returned to Seattle. In spite of severe personal challenges, he began painting dynamic abstractions up until his early death in 1956.


Part II “Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective”

(Seattle Art Museum, until February 5)

Imogen Cunningham, "Martha Graham, Dancer," 1931, gelatin silver print, 7 5/16 × 9 15/16 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, 2016.
Imogen Cunningham, "Martha Graham, Dancer," 1931, gelatin silver print, 7 5/16 × 9 15/16 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, 2016.

These two hundred photographs by Imogen Cunningham (1883 – 1976) span the history of twentieth century photography!


Cunningham first supported herself in Seattle with soft focus portraiture of society women. She gained notoriety in the early teens with photographs of her husband Roi Partridge nude on Mt Rainier (only one distant view of this group is included.) When she moved to California in the late teens, she turned to the close ups of flowers that made her famous. Transitioning to hard edge modernist imagery, she affiliated with the f64 group (named for the small aperture that gives depth of field). Other members of F64 such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams are also included in the exhibition.


The exhibition next highlights Cunningham’s portraiture, which I found a bit impersonal, and her experimental work in the 1960s. I was most excited, though, by her last project when the artist sought out people, like herself, who were still actively productive into their nineties. The project was published posthumously as After Ninety.


The subtle and unique wire sculptures by Ruth Asawa (1926 – 2013) fill one corner of a main gallery. Asawa was interned during World War II, as Nomura was, although for a shorter time. Her recognition as an artist was hampered by her gender, ethnicity and the medium in which she worked. But Cunningham played a major role in promoting her work by revealing the intricacies of the sculpture in close-up photographs. What a special opportunity to see them. Carrie Dedon, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, created this show within a show.


Dedon also procured a video of Martha Graham performing the iconic “Lamentation,” created in 1930 and first performed in 1940. Cunningham took over 90 photographs of the dancer in 1931, but they are rarely seen (only two appear in this exhibition).


Imogen Cunningham is a household word. Martha Graham is, of course, famous. Both artists were good at self-promotion. Asawa is only now getting the recognition she deserves as an innovative modernist. Nomura is little known, but hopefully that is about to change thanks to the expertise of Barbara Johns and David Martin.


~Susan Platt, PhD www.artandpoliticsnow.com