Thomas Sokolowski, director of New York University's Grey Art Gallery and co-curator of "Against Nature," was one of 10 Americans to take a funded trip to Japan in 1986. His trip, however, was sponsored by the Japan Foundation, the cultural promotion arm of the Japanese government.
Sokolowski's invitational letter emphasized the modern arts of Japan, "in the hope that this will arouse greater recognition, appreciation and cultural exchange in this field."
Three of the professionals Sokolowski traveled with, including co-curator Kathy Halbreich, work or then worked at museums that will host "Against Nature," a 10-person exhibit organized by New York University's Grey Art Gallery and the List Visual Arts Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A fourth, Kay Larsen, is editor of Artcoast, a magazine premiering this month that focuses on contemporary visual arts in the Pacific Rim.
The Japan Foundation has also invited groups from West Germany and Great Britain. The latter's Museum of Modern Art at Oxford staged an exhibit of post-war Japanese art a year after a 1985 British caravan, Sokolowski said.
Not everyone now eyeing Japan's emerging art was initially wooed with free trips, however. Experts cite an explosion of artistic activity and Japan's new worldwide high profile as chief among other reasons for the new focus.
"We know about Japanese economy, about Japanese technology and about Japanese ascendence diplomatically," Fox said, "naturally we're interested in their contemporary culture."
"There is much more activity there in terms of galleries and museums," said Jacob, MOCA chief curator.
Locally, the large Japanese American population in Los Angeles and Japanese visiting or working here adds to the impetus.
MOCA, for instance, with its Temporary Contemporary in Little Tokyo and its Bunker Hill building designed by leading Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, has a longstanding relationship with the Japanese and the Japanese American community, Jacob said. In 1986, it hosted "Tokyo: Form and Spirit" an exhibit organized by Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, and plans to showcase Isozaki's work in early 1991.
"We were in the midst of the Japanese community and wanted to investigate whether this was an area of exhibition and educational programming," Jacob said, explaining MOCA's initial interest.
A shift away from "Euro-centric" thinking and increasing awareness of all Pacific Rim cultures--indeed, a new curiosity about the avant-garde anywhere in the world--is also at work.
It's really part of a trend that began in the late 1970s when America, which dominated contemporary art from the late 1950s through the 1960s, "rediscovered" Europe where a refluence was under way, Fox said.
"We are becoming interested in what's going on artistically almost anywhere," he said. "I'm wondering what's going on in Taiwan, in India, in the Third World countries."
In addition, Japan's prominence in architecture and design as well as interest in its film and literature have sparked curiosity about its contemporary art, said Munroe, now curating a retrospective of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, one of Japan's foremost modernists, to open this November in Japan.
"The Japanese have also been so active in the art market," voraciously snatching Impressionist and contemporary works at auction, she added. (In 1987, a Japanese insurance company bought Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" for $39 million.)
Economic gain may be playing a part too, others suggest. Japanese companies are supporting increasing numbers of American art projects, such as the $12.7 million construction of the County Museum of Art's Pavilion for Japanese art, to which Japanese corporations contributed about $3.5 million.
Said Rand Castile, director of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum: "Americans are looking (to Japan) in part because of the Japanese economic dominance internationally. . . . Museums are always looking for shows and shows that can be funded."
Not surprisingly, American museum officials unanimously agree that the driving motive for their interest is not economic, but artistic.
In many ways, Europe has led America in the new focus, said Judith Connor Greer, assistant to the director of the Hara Museum. Many of the artists in the County Museum of Art's exhibit may have had some limited U.S. exposure. But most have taken part in museum-size exhibitions in France, Germany and Italy, or in such venerable international art events as the Venice Biennale.
Also, the American art world has looked at Japanese post-war art before. Among major exhibits were "New Japanese Painting and Sculpture" at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1966, and the Guggenheim Museum's 1971 show, the last major exhibit of contemporary Japanese art in the U.S.
But previously, the interest was in specific movements and artists, from Abstract Expressionism to Conceptualism, Munroe said.