March 23, 2014

Mingei: Tradition and Craft; Simplicity and the Everyday

The Industrial Revolution was a mammoth force in the 19th century world, upending people's lives and aesthetics; the assumption that everything in use was handmade was no longer true. In the late 19th century the Arts and Crafts movement was a stand against the industrially produced. In a similar way the Mingei movement in 1920s Japan was an attempt to preserve folk traditions and anonymous crafts which were beautiful in their useful simplicity. There is a thrilling show currently at Pace Gallery, curated by Nicolas Trembley, titled "Mingei are you here?", which attempts to spread a wide net of influence for the movement; Trembley gathers in work that is a stretch to conceive of in this particular context, but the work is all so wonderful to see and the relationships shown in the installation are so interesting, that I will not complain much about it.

Banner by Mai-Thu Perret, 2007; chair by Charlotte Perriand, 1953; unknown maker, kettle hook hanger, 19th century; in the corner an Isamu Noguchi lantern, 1966; textile by Brent Wadden, 2014; 
sculpture by Hiroshi Sugimoto, 2006; baskets by unknown makers.  

The eclectic installation of so many disparate objects encourages us to see relationships between their forms. The points in the black form of the banner relate to the irregular triangles in the textile; the curves of the plywood chair are not too different from those of the traditional kettle hook hanger.

In the foreground, a Noguchi sculpture, 1975-80; then baskets by unknown makers

I love seeing the juxtaposition of the Noguchi lantern, light-filled and of light materials––mulberry bark paper, bamboo, wire––and the shining Sugimoto sculpture of aluminum and iron. They both have an ethereal quality and call to mind Constantin Brancusi's Endless Column.

On the table, a Noguchi sculpture, 1981; chair by Charlotte Perriand, 1950; ceramics by various 20th century makers, and one 17th century bottle (see below). 

The concept of Mingei––an abbreviation of min-shuteki kogei, meaning "folkcrafts"––was developed by the philosopher Soetsu Yanagi in 1925, I learned from the exhibition catalog essay by Yuko Kikuchi. Trembley, the curator, lists several of Yanagi's essential aspects of Mingei:
one must value what is "useful, honest with regard to its intended use, authentic, safe, modest, durable", as opposed to that which is "luxurious, expensive, subjected to the whims of fashion, vulgar, frivolous, or amoral". 

We can see that the objects in the show have a marvelous directness, and the contemporary works sit comfortably alongside those more ancient.

Unknown maker, Sake Bottle, 17th century (also seen in group photo above)

This bottle is so beautiful in shape and surface, so it is easy to understand how work like this could be an inspiration for later artists.

Unknown maker, leather fireman's coat, early 19th c.; unknown maker, sake bowl, 19th c; Brent Wadden weaving, 2014. 

The patterns of the fireman's coat are so strong and elegant, with circular forms centered above the rectangular. Its warm color converses with the small bowl sitting at its left.

Unknown maker, Ainu Attush robe, late 19th c. 

Here is another beautiful garment, this by the Ainu people of northern Japan, made of elm bark. 

Josef Albers, Astatic, woodcut, 1944

There were Josef Albers woodcuts in the show, which I'd never seen before. (I apologize for the reflection.) Dramatic for such a modest size, they use the wood grain as part of the composition, which flows and turns in its simple geometries. Trembley notes that Albers was interested in traditional wood engravings and Native American textiles when he was teaching at Black Mountain College. Of course there is a tradition of stunning woodcuts in Japan, but there is the same in Europe, for instance those of Albrecht Dürer. This is one instance of curatorial overreach, as Albers had no relationship with Mingei.

A drawing by James Lee Byars, c. 1959; in front: unknown makers, sake bags, early 20th c.; unknown maker, farmer's rain cape, early 20th c. 

What I am most grateful for in seeing this exhibition were the moments of inspiration that I felt when seeing the work by James Lee Byars: two works in ink on Japanese paper, one of which you see above. In this long, narrow piece, with two forms nestling at its center, there is an animation of emptiness, such as in the Japanese Rinpa aesthetic, which I wrote about here. The drawing gave me ideas for my potato prints....

On the wall, 2 oils on canvas by Lee Ufan: Dialogue, 2007 and With Winds, 1989; Butterfly Stool by Sori Yanagi, 1954; Sgrafo Modern porcelain, designed by Peter Müller, c. 1960-80. did seeing the work of Lee Ufan, which I hadn't known before this. His work is so minimal, yet so deep in feeling; the direct fluid touch or simply made forms echo within the heart. There is a beautiful conversation between his work and the graceful Butterfly Stool, by the son of the originator of Mingei. Although the installation might have been noisy with so much work on view, these moments of quiet relationships, and the invitation to think about emptiness and simplicity and perfect functionality made the show one of endless pleasures.


  1. thank you for this wonderful post and photos.

  2. by the way, there was a marvelous installation of Lee Ufan's work at the Guggenheim a few years ago. Thank you for reminding me of the sublime experience I had there.

  3. You are very welcome, Ravenna. When I looked up Lee Ufan I discovered the show at the Guggenheim; I'm sorry that I missed it.

  4. I wish I could have seen this exhibit in person. There is a connection for me growing up in both northern and southern California-- the work of Noguchi, Ruth Asawa and the influence of Japanese architecture on Schindler to name just a few examples. I was exposed to this aesthetic at a formative age and Mingei is part of that (and my grandfather collected netsukes!). Thank you for your thoughtful post and photos!

    1. Your relationship with these works is so interesting, sarajo; here in the northeast we were not as attuned to that aesthetic, though of course Noguchi was important. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.