How Japanese American Artist Kyohei Inukai Forged a New Path for Abstraction by Looking to the Past

When Chicago-born artist Kyohei Inukai took his estranged father’s ashes to Japan in 1954, he felt finally that he was home for the first time. He didn’t yet realize, however, how this trip to Japan would change the course of his artistic career.

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Born Earle Goodenow, Kyohei Inukai (1913–1985) was the third son of established portrait painter Kyohei Inukai the Elder and sculptor Lucene Goodenow. When his father died, Earle Goodenow became Kyohei Inukai as a way to honor him.

Though he remained largely unknown as an artist during his lifetime, Inukai produced more than 2,000 artworks over the course of his five-decade career. Among the few showings of his art he had during his lifetime were two in 1970, at the year’s World Exposition in Osaka and the Brooklyn Museum, both in print exhibitions. To support his family, Inukai worked full-time as an art director at McCann Erickson during the day, producing art at night into the early morning. They ranged from abstract oil paintings and sumi-e (ink) paintings to silkscreens composed of bold colors and geometric shapes to even sculptures and children’s books.

Kyohei Inukai, Untitled, undated.
Photo Nicholas Knight/©Kyohei Inukai/Courtesy Inukai Estate

But interest in Inukai’s work is slowly changing, nearly 40 years after his death, with his first institutional solo exhibition currently on view at the Japan Society in New York, through June 25. Curated by Tiffany Lambert, the Japan Society Gallery’s interim director, the show features over 100 works by the artist, dating from the late 1960s through 1985, the year of his death, showing the range of Inukai’s experimentation in style and technique, all the while incorporating and grappling with his Japanese heritage.

“You see American abstraction, Pop art, Op art as influences in his silkscreen prints,” Lambert said in an interview, “and then you also see the washi [handmade paper], the use of sumi-e (ink painting) as a pathway to abstraction in his work. For me, I see that he’s trying to find his own way to visualize some of those artistic and cultural traditions in his life.”

That journey of understanding his cultural identity filtered through various art historical influences is reflected in the show’s exhibition design. “We divided the galleries into two distinct zones: one light, airy, and approachable, the other dark, quiet, and reflective. Each space is intended to emphasize the particular nature of the work,” exhibition designers Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger, of the New York–based firm Antenna Design, told ARTnews.

Composite image of two abstract artworks by Kyohei Inukai.
From left: Kyohei Inukai’s Untitled (1978) and SPIRO FLOWER 2 (1978).
©Kyohei Inukai/Courtesy of Inukai Estate (2); Left Photo: Nicholas Knight

In the first gallery, Inukai’s playful silkscreen prints are filled with vibrant colors, shapes, and lines. In one untitled painting from 1978, a parabola made of deep red as it changes to orange is set against various contrasting blocks of blue with a red dot at its center. The overall effect is mesmerizing. Surrounding that work, several works on papers, framed in light wood, lean against custom-built shelves, in the same light wood.

A second smaller gallery acts as a transition from those colorful abstractions to the moodier ones he made later, displaying here Inukai’s initial experiment with sumi-e ink calligraphy. In Spiro Flower 2 (1978), Inukai pairs a shape of swirling circles formed into a triangle with what appear to be two characters written in calligraphy. They are not, however, any characters legible in Japanese.

“There’s actually no language written there that’s legible,” Lambert said. “From what we know, Inukai didn’t speak any Japanese.” She added that the swirling shapes could be interpreted as a family crest or even “conjure the knots on packaging and the obi belts of the kimono.”

An abstract painting showing a beige circle with 'a' in the center, a purple triangle with 'b' in the center, and an orange rectangle with 'c' in the center on a light blue backgroun.
Kyohei Inukai, a=b+c, ca. 1980–85.
Photo Nicholas Knight/©Kyohei Inukai/Courtesy Inukai Estate

Inukai had once explained the work’s meaning to his stepdaughter Maggie Hannan but the exact details have now been lost to memory. But even more than their exact meaning, the pieces represent Inukai’s overall approach to his art-making, which over the decades was still indebted to seeing the landscapes of Japan for the first time during that fateful visit in 1954. “Kyohei just loved the juxtaposition of the old and new,” she said. “When my friends used to visit, all of them were floored by his limitless abilities to express himself through art.”

The exhibition then takes a dramatic change in tone upon entering the third and final gallery, where Inukai’s sumi-e ink paintings are shown in a dimmed Zen “rock garden” that mirror the stone-shaped patterns he expressed in ink on handmade paper. Inukai’s longing to connect with his cultural roots through his art is further underscored through the symbolism of stones like this, called suiseki, in Japanese culture, which has been appreciated for their aesthetics since the 7th century.

Installation view of a dimly-lit gallery with several abstract drawings of black stones.
Installation view of “Kyohei Inukai,” 2023, at Japan Society.
©Naho Kubota/Courtesy Japan Society

“The sumi-e works in the final gallery made us think of something grounded and eternal, so we transformed the space into a ‘rock garden’ where visitors can sit on the benches, slow down, and contemplate what they see,” Udagawa and Moeslinger, the exhibition designers, said.

The importance of his Japanese ancestry extended beyond Inukai’s art-making, too. Though his father was professionally ostracized after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Inukai instilled in his children a sense of pride in their Japanese heritage; he would often wear a kimono at home and was an expert cook in Japanese cuisine.

An abstract ink drawing in blacks and grays of several stones.
Kyohei Inukai, Untitled, late 1970s–1980s.
Photo Nicholas Knight/©Kyohei Inukai/Courtesy Inukai Estate

In addition to being a prolific artist, Inukai was also an empathetic author, penning several children’s books, like The Peevish Penguin (1955) or The Owl Who Hated the Dark (1969), all of which tell of how the titular character learned to accept their differences as strengths. Inukai’s daughter Ariane Tallman recalled, “I was made fun of due to my looks when I was in school, and daddy reassured me that I need to be proud of the fact that I was different.”

New York–based Japanese artist Natsuki Takauji said that in Inukai’s art, she sees the tendrils of generational trauma that the Inukai family experienced during World War II as Japanese Americans. 

“I think the Japanese haven’t talked enough about what happened to them after Pearl Harbor and how it changed their lives and perspectives,” said Takauji. “This damage exists subtly in Inukai’s work. I felt his strong intention to commit to his roots as an artist despite an unpromising career. I was moved by his sincerity to seek and recuperate; the result seems so striking after decades.”

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