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Art & Architecture

A Painter Ready to Claim His Place

For years, Hideo Date kept a low profile. But with his first solo show in decades, he's embracing his role in L.A. art history.

October 28, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

In the 1930s, he began to exhibit regularly with various groups--the College Art Assn., the Foundation of Western Art, the Los Angeles Oriental Artists Group and the Los Angeles Art Assn. Date maintained close ties with the Japanese American community, but the art scene put him in touch with a wider world as well. When he took off for another visit to Japan in 1936, a farewell card was signed by Art League members Jimmy Redmond, Don Totten and Albert King, as well as Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier.

Because he tended to hang on to his artwork, Date had to make his living from odd jobs, and he also depended on the generosity of friends. He did have the occasional commission, however. Once he worked on a mural at Pickfair, Mary Pickford's mansion, and later he began a Federal Art Project mural on Terminal Island, a project halted when World War II began.

With the war came the internment, and in 1942, he was sent, like more than 110,000 other Japanese Americans, to an internment camp--Date went to Heart Mountain, Wyo. He helped set up an art school to teach others, and he kept making art. But unlike some other artists in the camps, such as Sugimoto, Date's work from the period ignores his surroundings--he mostly drew cats.

After the war, Date ended up in New York to try to restart his art career, but it didn't prove easy. His artworks, which had been held by a friend's family during the war, were shipped to him. He married a Japanese American woman, Yuriko Tamaki, and continued to work odd jobs and to paint into the 1980s, but his last exhibition was in 1954.

Recent research on L.A. art history kicked off his rediscovery, with two exhibitions in 2000 including his work: "On Gold Mountain" at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage and LACMA's "Made in California" show.

Higa has arranged "Living in Color" chronologically, with the internment camp drawings of cats between two periods of luxuriant play with color. For Higa, the contrast is resonant.

"All his work is about color except the camp material," Higa says, "which is just pencil drawing on paper, monochromatic."

Date's earlier works, from the 1930s, blended nihonga techniques with Art Deco touches. They are mostly watercolors and oil paintings. The subject matter includes still lifes--one circa 1930 shows a bowl containing a pomegranate and a pepper and a vase decorated with a dragon, set on a small table before an exotic landscape. Women with elegant coifs and hats--as in "Cathleen," "Mary Campbell," "Aida" and "Nostalgia"--were a favorite subject, as were allegories featuring nude figures such as "Age of Confusion" and "Journey--In Search of" from the same period. While his draftsmanship was meticulous, Higa points out, he was bold about color choices--"Cathleen," for example, shows a woman with lime-green flesh and orange hair.

One work of the period--"Unholy Trinity"--reflects a political awareness not previously evident in Date's work, according to Higa. The large watercolor and gouache painting on paper depicts Hitler with his arm around Mussolini, with Stalin as a smaller figure at their feet. All have halos around their heads and are wearing vaguely Asian dress--Mussolini's is decorated with swastikas.

"It may be a kind of double critique," Higa notes, "against religion and the fact that charismatic leaders can be corrupt--ergo, unholy."

The postwar works veer into abstraction. "While he was informed by contemporary art movements, such as Abstract Expressionism," Higa notes, "his paintings continued to display tremendous technical finesse and sensitivity to color and composition." The late works in particular bear evidence of Wright-Macdonald's concept of using major and minor keys of color, although Date was then working from color scales of his own devising.

For Higa, the rediscovery of Hideo Date is the rediscovery not just of an artist she considers to be exceptional, but also of a forgotten piece of cultural history.

"I would never have guessed we would have gotten this collection and that it would be so good," Higa says. "And I never would have guessed what his history and his biography have to tell us about prewar Los Angeles."

To her, Date's prewar life reveals how freely the Los Angeles art scene was connected--across racial and socioeconomic lines--in ways we did not imagine.

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"LIVING IN COLOR: THE ART OF HIDEO DATE," Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., L.A. Dates: Tuesdays-Wednesdays, Fridays-Sundays,10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Ends April 7. Prices: $6, adults; $4, seniors; $3, students and children. Phone: (213) 625-0414.

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