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The Art Gallery of Ontario Honours Japanese Canadian Artist, Kaz Nakamura—Part 1

Kazuo Nakamura. Landscape, 1963. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchase with funds from Bill and June McLean, Toronto, 2001. © Art Gallery of Ontario. 2000/1154.

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto is featuring an exhibition of the works of Japanese Canadian artist Kazuo Nakamura (1926-2002), one of the giants of the Canadian art scene. The exhibition is scheduled to be up for the next two years. You can view it on Level 2 in Gallery 225 (Bovey Gallery).

“Kaz,” as he was affectionately called, is celebrated for his abstract paintings that engage with the geometric forms and universal laws of nature. Distinguished by their introspective and precise qualities, Nakamura’s paintings consist of scattered light and fragmented shapes that evoke a range of natural phenomena—from the structure of subatomic particles to the vastness of a forest.

“There’s a sort of fundamental pattern in all art and nature. In a sense, scientists and artists are doing the same thing. The world of pattern is a world we are discovering together,” the artist once said.

The new exhibition entitled, Blue Dimension, is a focused exhibition of 15 paintings from the AGO Collection ranging from the 1950s to 1980s. It marks twenty years since Kazuo Nakamura: The Human Measure, a major retrospective hosted by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2004.

Kazuo Nakamura (1926 - 2002)

Born in Vancouver to Japanese parents, Nakamura and his family were imprisoned in Canada’s Tashme internment camp in 1942 under Canada’s War Measures Act during the Second World War. They suffered the loss of property, land, and business along with 22,000 other Japanese Canadians living in British Columbia. After the war, the Nakamura family settled in Hamilton, Ontario in 1945. Two years later Kaz moved to Toronto, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Throughout his four-decades-long career, he explored many different styles and techniques, transitioning between figuration and abstraction. Nakamura was a member of the Painters Eleven, a group of Canadian artists associated with the abstract expressionist movement. He achieved critical success unprecedented for any Japanese Canadian artist at the time, and has since inspired generations of artists.

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Renée van der Avoird, Associated Curator of Canadian Art, curated Blue Dimension

I'd like to know how this exhibition came together now?

We are marking 20 years since the AGO’s major Nakamura retrospective in 2004, A Human Measure. I am a big fan of Nakamura’s work and felt that they would resonate strongly with our publics - they are strong paintings and we are excited to have them on view together, and to focus on Nakamura as a leading twentieth-century Canadian artist.

What is the Blue Dimension?

Blue Dimension, 1967. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Kazuo Nakamura, Toronto, 2001. © Estate of Kazuo Nakamura. 2001/68.

Blue Dimension is the title of a painting in the exhibition.

As you walk through the exhibition, you’ll see he favours blue in almost every work. Many of them are monochromatic, with shades of blue that oscillate between cobalt and navy. Some of the works feature solid blocks of blue, while others glow with layers of delicately applied blues that suggest depth and dimension.

This is why I chose to title the exhibition Blue Dimension.

How many works are on display? Any particular featured works?

There are 14 paintings on view, all from the AGO’s Collection. They range from the 1950s to the 1980s, and showcase the evolution of his career. Featured paintings in this exhibition include Inner Structure (1956). It depicts a luminous loose grid that represents the most basic makeup of reality, according to Nakamura. 

Inner Structure, 1956. Oil on hardboard. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Mr. Charles McFaddin, Toronto, 1985. © Art Gallery of Ontario 85/115.

The Museum of Modern Art has a work from this early period as well, Inner Core 2. It isn’t blue, but it does include the grid structure that reflects the artist’s interest in the scientific makeup of the world around him. These are key works that position Nakamura as an abstract artist, committed to principles of minimalism but always imbuing his work with his research into principles of science and mathematics.

I am surprised that Kaz's work will be on display for 2 years. Why was that decision made?

The AGO puts together installations drawn from our permanent collection all year-round, on view for varying periods of times for people to enjoy. Putting this exhibition together allowed me to pull Nakamura’s works from our vaults. Making 20 years since his last retrospective here at the AGO, I wanted to spotlight again his significance and impact in Canadian art history – particularly as a Japanese-Canadian artist.

It would be great to get your thoughts about Kazuo's place in the greater Canadian art scene? How important is he?

Nakamura is a founding member of Painters Eleven, a Toronto-based group of avant-garde artists known for their bold abstraction. Active in the group from 1953 to 1960, his impact was important and well known in Canadian art history. However, for the general public I don’t believe he is a household name. I hope this exhibition will help raise awareness and appreciation for his work 

Among the Painters Eleven artists, Nakamura’s oeuvre stands apart for its meditative quality and restricted palette. He was also the only racial minority in the group. Other artists in the group made work that was energetic, brash, and expressive, but Nakamura’s paintings are introspective and characterized by geometric traits—this uniqueness makes him especially important.

His works evoke a range of natural phenomena, from the structure of subatomic particles to vast forests. As such, they fit into narratives of Canadian landscape painting, but also into histories of abstraction and minimalism. He’s more versatile than many other modern painters in Canada. I think he was really influential in the arts community in Toronto, as well as the Japanese-Canadian community.

Did you ever meet him?

Unfortunately, I never got to meet him.

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Laura Shintani, Artist, Toronto

My late uncle, Makio Heike was a friend of Kazuo “Kaz” Nakamura. Makio had been gifted two 8"x10" paintings that Kazuo created during his time in Toronto after the war. Makio talked highly of Kazuo—he was a bright person with a good sense of humour... from the Painter's 11—he would say.

The paintings most likely plein-aire, they were rendered in a pallet of deep browns, blues, blacks and green—heavy in expression, muted, matte, bleeding washes of what looked like ink on paper. The subject matter was an iron train overpass in Toronto and the other a park scene. Later on, those paintings kept my Uncle company during his stay at Castleview–Wychwood Towers long-term care. Unfortunately, Makio's executor sold them to a collector.

I remained fascinated by those paintings and subsequently found myself following Kazuo's name to the National Gallery in Ottawa where he had an exhibition that included his labourious number paintings. Interestingly, these were in stark contast to his heavy ink landscapes. I was struck by his choice of a vibrant indigo blue, its formal yet serene structure and measured brushstrokes. At that time, I didn't know to use the word meditative but that was the sensation I received from viewing his collection of works.

Kazuo Nakamura. Number Structure II, 1984. Oil and graphite on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Kazuo Nakamura, Toronto, 2001. © Art Gallery of Ontario. 2001/73.

The message I received was that I felt Kazuo wished to define an atypical beauty. It was as if he was an alchemist distilling a truth from within—appealing to numbers, because numbers don't lie. To me, Nakamura's work revealed a noble aim, to derive and reveal truth and reconciliation.

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Barb Miiko Gravlin (Nishimura), Artist, Toronto

Kazuo Nakamura became a member of the Painters Eleven when I attended an opening at the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto. I was in awe that a Japanese Canadian painter would be recognized by the pinnacles of art society.

It wasn’t until the early sixties, I got to know Kazuo through volunteering at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC) on Wynford Drive in Toronto. The Centre was a vibrant mixing pot of Japanese Canadian (JC) supporters and artists of all kinds. Kaz with artist and potter, Harvey Okuwara, were inseparable buddies and tireless volunteers at the JCCC. They were a contrasting duo; Harvey, an extrovert with a big personality, brought out shy, introverted Kaz into conversations with humour.

In 1963, I was encouraged by painter, Richard Gorman, to look into a Canada Council grant to support my painting practice. Kaz, Richard, and C. Goldhammer of Central Technical Art school wrote letters of reference on my behalf for the grant. In May 1965, I became the surprise recipient of a 6-month travel grant in painting to Japan. Kaz graciously supported me in the quest for another grant in 1996 to the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) endowment fund for a JC-themed project.

It was at this time, I was invited to meet with him at his home in the west end of Toronto. I recall this was one of the rare occasions Kaz spoke at length, obsessed with his numbers theory calculations and series of new paintings to be embarked. I listened with great interest until after some time passed, it was clear I was a ‘deer in headlights.’ Kaz’s vision for his art was totally consuming until he mastered it—technically and visually with his impeccable sensitivity.

I am indebted and profoundly grateful for Kazuo Nakamura’s steadfast support as a young painter. My creative journey has not been steadfast nor smooth as hoped to be. I remember my mentor’s words: “No matter what, never give up!”

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Louise Noguchi, Artist, Toronto

I must acknowledge Kaz’s influence on my life. No doubt my parents’ acceptance of my desire to become an artist and attend the Ontario College of Art, was eased by Kaz’s success. So, when I attended art school in the late 1970s, it was a post-Painters Eleven world. I was never shown work by Kazuo Nakamura, but then again, few painting instructors would show us examples of other artists’ work.

Instead, you were to show them your work and they would make comments, and sometimes, they would give you names of artists to look up. The faculty were also into saying things reminiscent of the 1960s hippy era, such as consult the I-Ching or paint with anything but a brush. American colour field painting was held up as the ultimate example of painting, which made Jack Bush’s work very popular amongst students, while a few showed interest in Harold Town’s work.

Kazuo Nakamura. Evergreens, Reflection, 1961. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Eleanor and Russell Hutchison, 2008. © Estate of Kazuo Nakamura. 2008/241

William Ronald, a founding member of Painters Eleven was also talked about, but only in the context of his controversial Citytv show Free For All. Never did I hear Kazuo Nakamura’s name come up in a conversation. In retrospect, the flamboyant nature of some members of Painter’s Eleven, might have caught more attention from the public with their freer lifestyles and their “art for art’s sake” approach to painting that favored experimentation and non-objective approaches to artmaking. Freedom from boundaries and restrictions in making art, were the dictum of art schools of the late 1970s.

However, I sense that while Nakamura’s work was often abstract and non-representational, he was very aware of the boundaries and structures in life. As a Japanese Canadian growing up in British Columbia, he would have faced restrictions such as not being allowed to return to the west coast until 1949, four years after the war, not allowed the vote until 1948, prohibition of becoming a doctor a pharmacist or going into law; there were also curfew restrictions, travel restrictions, confiscation of property, enforced lower wages etc. Perhaps, it was too unrealistic for Nakamura to have such notions as “art for art’s sake.” 

Read Part 2 >>


© 2024 Norm Masaji Ibuki

abstract paintings Art Gallery of Ontario artists arts Blue Dimension (exhibition) graphic arts Japanese Canadian art Japanese Canadians Kazuo Nakamura modern paintings Painters Eleven (group) painting
About this series

Canadian Nikkei Artist series will focus on those in the Japanese Canadian community who are actively involved in the ongoing evolution: the artists, musicians, writers/poets and, broadly speaking, anybody else in the arts who grapples with their sense of identity. As such, the series will introduce Discover Nikkei readers to a wide range of ‘voices’, both established and emerging, that have something to say about their identity. This series aims to stir this cultural pot of Nikkeiness and, ultimately, build meaningful connections with Nikkei everywhere.

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About the Author

Writer Norm Masaji Ibuki lives in Oakville, Ontario. He has written extensively about the Canadian Nikkei community since the early 1990s. He wrote a monthly series of articles (1995-2004) for the Nikkei Voice newspaper (Toronto) which chronicled his experiences while in Sendai, Japan. Norm now teaches elementary school and continues to write for various publications. 

Updated August 2014

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