Published: October 5, 2004
Reflecting a renewed interest and appreciation for the preeminent designer and architect George Nakashima, the largest exhibition of works by the artist to be mounted in more than a decade is currently on view at the Japanese American National Museum. “George Nakashima: Nature, Form & Spirit” features 50 iconic examples of the artist’s furniture and designs created from 1943 until his death in 1990.
Intended as a tribute to his achievements as a woodworker and artist, the exhibition features his highest quality furniture that is illustrative of his innovative and distinctive style. The pieces exemplify his creative vocabulary, characterized by works utilizing slabs of free-edged wood that allow the material’s natural features to ultimately determine the design. Benches, tables, chairs and cabinets from the private collection of the Nakashima family are featured, along with important examples from other private collections nationwide. Photographs, sketches, prints and archival materials bring the exhibition full circle.
From 1941 to 1942, Nakashima was interned with his family at the World War II US internment camp at Minidoka, Idaho. Following his release, Nakashima settled in New Hope, Penn., where he established his studio. His commissions include furniture for the home of former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cathedral of St John the Divine.
“Nakashima’s creativity was rooted in his deep respect for the forces of nature,” writes Mira Nakashima in her book Nature, Form & Sprit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima, which also serves as the catalog for the exhibition. “He viewed with an eye on the eternal, unswayed by the ephemeral winds of ‘style,”‘ she states. “Undaunted by criticism, he fought a long, lonely battle against materialism and sensationalism, secure in his understanding of both the nature of trees and structural engineering. Sometimes he called himself a Japanese Druid. He also considered himself a Hindu, a Catholic and a hippie, but above all he thought of himself as an intermediary between heaven and earth, joining hands with nature rather than destroying and dominating her.”
Some of the earliest works that Nakashima created upon his release from the internment camp demonstrate these emotions, such as “Milk House Table,” 1943, and “Slab Coffee Table,” 1945. They exude his early interest and exploration into modernist design, while at the same time incorporating the influences of simplistic and naturalist Japanese and Shaker forms.
“He utilized and transformed his ancestry,” said Karin Higa, curator of the Japanese American National Museum. “His ancestry impacts things,” she said of the artist’s relationship toward and appreciation of nature. “Because he saw beauty in the gnarl of a burl, the oddly shaped organic forms of a root – that a crack in the wood, with the use of a butterfly joint, could actually be used to make something beautiful.”
“My father often said that his work gave trees a second life,” states Mira Nakashima. “While it is true that he incorporated the natural forms of the wood into his designs, his work involved far more than simply cutting down trees and making use of those forms. In fact,” she writes, “his acts of creation relied on a deep understanding and respect for the nature of the wood itself. They also required an unerring focus away from the egocentric concerns of Western culture, a mentality that is at best an anachronism, and at worst an ongoing battle against modern society. By its very nature, Nakashima’s work was a social statement that harked back to the god-centered cathedral-building of Europe’s Middle Ages. What he did embodied a message to all modern societies that we must constantly remember the eternal in all that we do.”
This thinking is reflected in masterpieces from his “Conoid” period, highlighted by works such as “Conoid Cross-Legged End Table,” dated 1960 and made of black walnut; and the beautifully crafted, “Conoid Bench” made of walnut and dated 1989. The “Minguren” series is equally impressive; included is a large English oak burl table, created in 1965. Other key pieces in the exhibition include an upholstered “Settee” from 1956, the “Kent Hall Lamp,” 1972, and a “Sled-Base Coffee Table,” designed in 1973, each of which demonstrate the wide range of the artist’s ability and production.
In 1981, George Nakashima wrote a book, The Soul of a Tree, inspiring many others to do as he did. As a result, a new generation of woodworkers sprung up in the United States and Japan. In it, he conveyed that as a youth, he often “roamed the mountains of the Pacific Northwest alone in search of a reason for being,” and embarked on “a strange, unending search for an inner peace,” which he strongly suspected did not exist.
“In the book he outlines his philosophy,” states Higa. “Nature is the artist – wind or fire, the specific quality of the earth impacts this living organism, the root. It’s very metaphysical in a way. He manages to convey these things with utmost seriousness, with a deep feeling that comes off as being real and solid as opposed to ephemeral. He did not subscribe to the western belief that you should always make something new or innovative – he was interested in looking at the material, to craft exquisite objects – so they would each be unique.”
She continued, “Each table is different because the wood is different. He believed that rare woods could speak to the craftsman – each object is unique because it derives from the idiosyncrasies of each slab of wood.”
The gorgeously crafted “Redwood Root Coffee Table” with walnut Arlyn base reflects this philosophy, depicting a wild, free-form grain and contour complemented by the stark simplicity of the base. The most recent example of Nakashima’s work presented in the exhibition is the lovely “Tsuitate Standing Piece” created in 1989 during his last year of active design. It was conceived as a major piece for a retrospective of his work at the American Craft Museum in New York. According to Higa, the piece, made of walnut root, “has the feel of an abstract painting.”
In addition to furniture, photographs of the artist, his career and influences are also on view by acclaimed modern architect photographer Ezra Stoller, including a wide-angle view of the interior of his Conoid studio in New Hope. Rarely seen 1940s War Relocation Authority photographs of the artist in the internment camp reveal how early experiences as a Japanese American played an important role in his development as a designer and craftsman.
Further highlights of the exhibition include four prints by American social realist artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) in specially constructed wood frames by Nakashima, and from 1942, a mounted Bitterbrush branch that was cherished by the artist.
In her book, Mira Nakashima also refers to the aura of tranquility her father’s work possessed. “His furniture has become for many an oasis of peace, a centering force where lives are scattered and decentralized. The basis of Nakashima’s work was derived from his practice of Integral Yoga,” which he studied in India in the 1930s. “The primary goal of his work was to encourage human beings to live in harmony with nature rather than to destroy it for their own use.”
“In many ways, my father was a throwback to earlier periods of history,” states Mira Nakashima. “Even though his forms are now imitated by many, the sincerity, honesty and integrity of his work ensures that the work that follows it is at best a physical copy, unable to approach its essence. The unspoken thought processes and spiritual backdrop behind his creativity give his work an indescribable, elusive quality that is distinctively his.”
Mira Nakashima’s Nature Form and Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima is available for $75 and can be ordered through the museum store, 213-830-5865. It is a fully illustrated 270-page book chronicling the artist’s life.
The museum is at 369 East First Street in the historic Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles. Museum hours are Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, and Thursday 10 am to 8 pm. For information, 213-625-0414 or .
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