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Art Review

The Delicate Contours of a Life in the Shadows

Retrospective * A Japanese American National Museum show carves the years of Hideo Date into three uneven periods, which does a disservice to this little-known artist.

November 28, 2001|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the Japanese American National Museum, "Living in Color: The Art of Hideo Date" swiftly sketches the general contours of the 94-year-old artist's long career. As a first-generation Japanese American who was born in Osaka, educated in California and interned in Wyoming during World War II--before getting married and splitting his time between New York and Paris--the little-known artist has led a life filled with its share of ups and downs.

The same is true of his oeuvre, which includes competent watercolors, accomplished drawings, awful figurative paintings, and abstract works on paper and canvas that hold their own among the best of his generation. Unfortunately, the retrospective, which is Date's first solo show since 1954, oversimplifies things, shoehorning his life and his art into a three-part story that does a disservice to both.

Installed chronologically, it divides his development into three phases: before, during and after his incarceration. The first, which nearly fills the larger of two galleries, consists of 20 representational paintings made during the 1930s and early 1940s, when Date lived in Los Angeles and was a member of the Art Students League.

Portraits of women predominate, with a smattering of still-lifes set in stylized landscapes and depictions of symbolic narratives interspersed among them. Where the latter have the presence of dutiful studies or corny fusions of social realism and storybook illustration (especially "Age of Confusion," "Journey--In Search Of" and "Unholy Trinity"), the portraits stand out as the strongest of Date's early works.

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All combine crisp, sinuous lines with flat expanses of saturated color. Subtle modulations in these seamless fields create the illusion of bodily volume and shallow space. Precisely drawn details, such as lacy gloves, ruffled collars, finely patterned silk, exquisite hairdos and daintily grasped kerchiefs endow them with a sense of fashion-conscious refinement.

While the influence of Date's teacher Stanton Macdonald-Wright and contemporary Japanese styles (particularly nihonga) are evident, these works are also indebted to popular magazines, on whose covers they would not be out of place. The self-possessed hauteur of Date's cool women is still in vogue today.

The second section, which occupies a small room in a corner of the first gallery, displays eight drawings he made while incarcerated from 1942 to 1945 by his own government at a camp in Wyoming. One is a portrait of Beethoven, a gift to a fellow inmate, musician Roy Matsumura. The seven others depict meticulously drawn cats isolated against blank backgrounds. Although the realistic representation of fur allows Date to indulge his love of hair-thin lines, these images are minor works. Despite their loveliness, they are interesting mainly because of where they were made.

In the next gallery, the third section of the show covers the most years of his work, from the remainder of the 1940s to the 1980s. It includes the wide variety of styles in which Date worked, moving through Realism, Cubism and Surrealism before settling on his own brand of hard-edge abstraction.

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However, only 20 pieces are here, providing, at best, a thumbnail sketch of how he matured as an artist. This is a shame because the '50s and '60s appear to be the decades when Date made his most innovative works. But this fact is overshadowed by the exhibition's three-part format, which puts undue emphasis on his unjust incarceration, lumping everything he created since then into a single category that is too broad in its reach and riddled with too many gaps in the years it attempts to survey.

It opens with three fine landscape drawings in which Date's bold lines articulate forms that are sexy without being immodest. A grim phase follows in the early 1950s, which includes works so derivative of late 19th century European painting that it's hard to take them seriously.

These awkward figurative works, which show a choir of angels or a pack of wildcats attacking a horse and rider, swiftly give way to abstract compositions. The sleek, space-age forms of the abstractions occupy shadowy atmospheres that are more suited to gothic nightmares and film-noir fantasies than to the new-and-improved future promised by postwar prosperity.

In an untitled watercolor, organic forms festooned with spiky protrusions explode from the back of an abstract insect on a poisonous yellow ground. This image's razor-sharp contours link it to Date's portraits from the 1930s, a connection the show fails to explore sufficiently. Seven oils on canvas flesh out its simultaneous evocation of optimism and dread. They represent the high point of Date's art and merit more focus than the exhibition gives them.

Only one work from the '70s (which holds up) and one from the '80s (which falls flat) are included, leaving viewers to wonder what Date has been up to for the past 30 years. A more sensitively organized survey would go a long way in providing some kind of answer.

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"Living in Color: The Art of Hideo Date," Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., (213) 625-0414, through April 7. Closed Mondays. Adults, $6; seniors, $4; students and children, $3.

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