Biography

Yasuo Kuniyoshi painted phantasmagoric images of female figures, circus performers, and still lifes. As an artist who frequently worked from memory and his imagination, his works are often enigmatic and carry a deep psychic charge. Confronted with the racial and nationalist tensions brewing amidst World War II, Kuniyoshi is also notable for his struggles to negotiate his identity as an assimilating Japanese immigrant to the United States. 

 

Kuniyoshi was born in Okayama, Japan, in 1889. He traveled alone to the United States in 1906, and attended the Los Angeles School of Art in Design from 1907 to 1910 before arriving in New York City. He then studied at the National Academy of Design with Robert Henri, at the Independent School of Art, and with Kenneth Hayes Miller through the Art Students League. He became close with Reginald Marsh, Alexander Brook, Peggy Bacon, and future wife Katherine Schmidt. He exhibited annually at the Daniel Gallery in New York beginning in 1922, and was featured in Paintings by 19 Living Americans, the Museum of Modern Art’s first major show to highlight contemporary artists. 

Kuniyoshi drew the eye of prominent art critic and collector Hamilton Easter Field, whose affinity for folk art resonated with Kuniyoshi’s primitivist style. Under Field’s influence, he became inspired by collecting American folk art and antiques. The wistful, sensual, and dreamlike qualities of his imagery shifted to a greater sense of melancholia as the events of World War II unfolded. Kuniyoshi spoke out against fascism, and supported a variety of pro-American activities. 

 

Kuniyoshi was awarded the Temple Gold Medal during the 129th annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1934, followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935, First Prize of the American Section at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, and prize-winning entries at the 1939 and 1944 annual exhibitions at the Carnegie Institute. A highly active artist of his generation, Kuniyoshi participated in artist circles in Ogunquit, Maine, and Woodstock, New York, and taught at the Art Students League from 1933 to 1953. He was a founding member of the American Contemporary Artists Gallery and the Hamilton Easter Field Foundation, and served as the first president of the Artists Equity Association. Prior to his death in 1953 the Whitney Museum of American Art honored him with a retrospective exhibition in 1948.

 

Written by Zenobia Grant Wingate