Some years ago we visited a renowned museum with two artists much younger than we. Before we were halfway through, they were waiting outside. Discreet questioning revealed that youthful swift eyes had in truth seen the most important works -- but how well? Time had not bee allowed for the paintings or sculptures to speak to them, to weave their magic, to elevate spirit and heart. In the haste to "get on with it," many of life's greatest treasures are missed.
The paintings of Kenzo Okada reward contemplation. Unhurried, we can enjoy the rapport between the floating forms, the resonance of the wetly muted colors, the softly brushed-in backgrounds. It adds to our pleasure to learn that all these evocative figures, abstract or not, come from the artist's nostalgic memories of the beautiful strange landscapes of Japan.
Okada was born in Yokohama, and except for three years in Paris, lived, painted, and taught in Japan until he came to new York in 1950. Ten years later , he took United States citizenship.
Artists generally drift to the mental climate most agreeable to them. In America, a country not having a long-established art tradition, he found abstract expressionism a most flexible instrument for exploring his inner self, his inheritance, and his genius.
In this probing, he recovered Japan. He remarked in wonder, "When I lived in Japan, I thought only of the West; now that I am here I dream only of Japan."
Okada spends a great deal of time before the easel, meditating. He invites and awaits the coming of the creative impulse, then paints long and hard, rapidly and freely, "doing without knowing." Afterward, he gazes at the work hours, weeks, maybe months. Occasionally, after a long study, he makes a minor adjustment; however, drips and rubbed-out areas are permitted to remain if changing these might spoil the freshness of the original idea.
Shapes, not exactly geometric nor organic, do not represent any specific object or place. They made their appearance quite mysteriously at the tip of the brush, to be painted for us lightly in a universe without density, in a space without measure. The point of viewing frequently seems to be simultaneously from above and from ground level. Characteristically, Okada paintings glow with light, subdued like a newborn sun on a misty morning or a glimmering moon, young, half-grown, full, or fading.
"You can understand without understanding," says Okada. "There is a definite relation between my work and nature. Sometimes it is a conscious relationship, sometimes otherwise.Realistic forms can be born from unconscious influences, just as abstract forms may emerge, on occasion, from the conscious activity of the mind. I do not know where my painting comes from and to me its origin is irrelevant. But I feel myself in nature and I find nature in myself."
In a way Okada is kin to the Botticelli of "La Primavera" or "The Birth of Venus." There is the same exquisite sense of the natural, of grace, of instinct for ethereal images that inhabit a world between fantasy and reality.
Okada's Oriental inheritance is evident in his flair for lyrical and subtle pictures. Their pervading delicacy and economy of treatment can be attributed to years of training in calligraphy. The culture that initiated him to beauty and soft harmonies is fundamental; however, all through his art we can see an amalgamation of the two main streams, the traditional and the modern.
Each painting is a poem, without words, needing only time for us to think and feel.