Arthur Okamura


December 9, 2023 - January 28, 2024


Opening reception:

December 9, 2023
5:00 - 9:00 pm

Composed around a 1972 exhibition held at the Charles Feingarten Gallery in Los Angeles, the display is a condensed survey of Arthur's work from 1959 to 1972 and the artist's first showing in eleven years.

In his own words, as published in a chapbook to accompany the 1972 Feingarten exhibition:

"This exhibit of books, prints, and paintings forms, in sequence, some of the last five years; showing, perhaps, some relationship to my zazen practice, which has gone on for three years with my wife, some friends, some students and a teacher - Shunryu Suzuki Roshi who died in December 1971.

A few years ago, I felt a need to stop painting, but my habit (Instinct? Intuition? Pleasure?) is to make art, so I began to work at some new forms for me such as sewn banners, etchings, small cast bronze sculptures, polaroid lights and a series of drawings for a book. In each case close collaboration with other people was essential.

The drawings were of clusters of tiny people - something to be held in a space, a breath. The original drawings were exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art in April - May 1968. Publishers were interested but it ended there until Shambala Publications, Berkeley, made a commitment to publish them. About then my old friend Robert Creeley was in town. The occasion was warm and close. I asked Bob to look at the drawings & consider writing something to be with them. He sent a poem that delighted me in the way it paralleled and extended the scope of the drawings and set the book.

The oil paintings are recent.
They come from the energy and vibration of this western spirit place where I live."

Press release by Ted Barrow:

Arthur Okamura used to tell a story about the internment camp in Colorado where he was forcibly moved with his family during World War II. Having grown up in Long Beach and Compton, Colorado, seemed like the Wild West to a Californian kid raised on cartoons and comics; the soldiers seemed like cowboys. One morning, the 12-year-old Arthur asked the cowboy guard when the Indians were coming. The cowboy turned to the kid  and said, “You’re the Indians.”

Don’t risk reading too much into this exchange. It might simply be a story perfected in social settings over time to illustrate this point: identity, for Okamura, was illusory. Artist, party-trickster, teacher, Zen student, painter, etcher, sculptor, Japanese-American, and self-described “abstract-realist.” The more you list his titles, the more complicated each mask gets. So much of what he did — including pool, table tennis, and fencing — became a physical extension of his art practice, energized negative space.

“Returnings” [Okamura’s first gallery show in eleven years] tracks a critical pivot in Arthur’s life and practice. In 1956, Arthur and his young wife and first child moved from Chicago to San Francisco. A few years later, they moved to Bolinas, the same year from which the 1959 diamond-shaped Smothered Tree in a Warm Fog comes.  A tawny, warm layer of khaki and olive greens spreads over an orange and red first layer. Diamond shapes demand equipoise, and one soon senses a balanced formal order of complex organic forms and simple geometric shapes. Malevich and Mondrian might make strange bedfellows anywhere else but in Bolinas, but this place teeters on the other side of the San Andreas Fault, more part of Asia than California, only tethered to the continent by the fog, eucalyptus, and moss of West Marin.

The graphic and textual etchings, some of which ended up in a book he collaborated on with the poet Robert Creeley, are visionary in the vein of William Blake and Edward Lear. Look closely. Concurrent with Arthur’s work in this decade are his studies with Shunryu Suzuki, who came to San Francisco in 1959, attracting a small, fervent group of Zen students, including Arthur and his friend and neighbor Joanne Kyger. Beginner’s mind, seeing all phenomena as if for the first time with no prior hang-ups, inflected Arthur’s art practice thereafter.

Okamura built up a lexicon of recurrent motifs during his 50 years of life in Bolinas. Monarch butterflies, fish, rocks, dogs, and Bolinas fog: just a few of his potent terms. Beach Rocks, 1972, faces Smothered Tree across the gallery, bookending the show. Paintings of rocks, whether they be 19th century Yosemite or 17th century Qing dynasty, connect the constellation of Arthur’s eclectic lineage, fusing east and west.  Yellow lines pulsate between sand and rocks, denoting, as Okamura described, “the energy and vibration of this western spirit place where I live.” Could they be ghostly traces of water catching the sun? A mind-made pattern? Television static? Somewhere between Agate Beach, where he walked his dog daily, and Ryoanji, this impromptu rock garden is at once quotidian and monumental without dualistic thought: “realist abstraction.” Painted the year after Suzuki Roshi’s death, Beach Rocks carries forth his teacher’s unadorned Zen lessons.

Arthur Okamura’s multivalent and ludic art practice encompassed even his koan-like pronouncements as a teacher. “Every mark says something,” he told Carlos Villa at SFAI in 2007. “Too many words says nothing,” he added, laughing.  Attend to Okamura's eloquent marks. You will learn of lifelong departures and returnings.




Arthur Okamura interviewed by Carlos Villa, Jeff Gunderson
Anne Bremer Memorial Library, San Francisco Art Institute, 2009

Zen In America - Shunryū Suzuki Roshi 祥岳俊隆 (1968)

The one-hour-long documentary of spliced footage chronicles the life of Shunryū Suzuki Roshi, a Sōtō Zen monk and teacher who, upon his arrival in 1959, helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the United States. He is renowned for founding both the San Francisco Zen Center and the first Zen Buddhist monastery outside Asia (Tassajara Zen Mountain Center) southeast of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

Word of his teaching spread quickly, and he soon became a rallying point for many visual and literary artists living in the Bay Area during the late fifties and until his death in 1971. Arthur Okamura and many fellow members of artists and poets living in Bolinas during this time became fervent followers of Roshi, often expressing his lessons in their work.

Joanne Kyger interviewed in her Bolinas home:

"There was a real focus on the Zen of enlightenment, koan, all that stuff that was going in the late fifties. Some kind of open door to whatever it was supposed to be - realization. We were reading all those silly books of DT Suzuki and here was a guy who really showed us how to sit."

Examples of works in public collection:

Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University

Denver Art Museum

Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Smithsonian Institute, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Whitney Museum of American Art

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photography courtesy of Graham Holoch