Artist and Teacher – April 10, 1910-September 7, 2004
“Art is symbolically an affirmation of the human spirit from the heart of life, it renders visible the inexpressible.”
These words express the essence of Sueo Serisawa’s approach to the integration of life with art, and have been the cornerstone of a diverse and distinguished career that has spanned more than seven decades. Throughout his artistic journey which has seen extensive experimentation and transformation, his work evolved from realism to abstract expressionism to his use of watercolors and sumi ink to express the spiritual and universal essence of life.
Sueo Serisawa became known as one of the leading figures in the Los Angeles-based Modernist movements in art. Associated with the likes of Dan Lutz, Richard Haines, Millard Sheets, and Francis De Erdely, Sueo Serisawa helped position the West Coast as a fertile and revolutionary art center. An ambitious and talented painter, Serisawa exhibited in national shows and eventually won international recognition.
Serisawa was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1910 (shown to the right on the floor). His first artistic influence was his father, Yoichi Serisawa, a calligrapher and successful commercial artist who studied at the Imperial Art Academy in Tokyo under Hashimoto Gaho. Desirous of a new beginning and attracted by the opportunities emerging in early twentieth-century America, his father moved his family to Seattle, Washington in 1918 and a few years later to Long Beach, California, where they remained until his father’s death in 1927.
Soon after, his mother returned to Japan and the parental and artistic guidance left vacant by his father, was taken up by George Barker (right), Serisawa’s high school art teacher who specialized in plein-air landscape painting. Barker’s teacher, Laurie Wallace (left), had studied with Thomas Eakins, one of the leaders of 19th Century American Realism. For a couple of years following his high school graduation, Serisawa continued to study with Barker, absorbing the influences of Eakins, William Wendt, Hanton Putoff and others. At the same time, he was exposed to the influences of Renoir, Monet and Degas, as well as earlier European masters, including EI Greco, Rembrandt and Velasquez, and these various artistic influences resulted in what became for him a blending of the California Landscape School with Impressionism. From 1932 to 1933, Serisawa studied at Otis Art Institute under the New York realist Alexander Brook, a visiting professor at the school and a specialist in figure studies.
Back Street 1934 NIne O’Clock News 1939
Chavez Ravine 1935 Pacific Palisades 1935
Serisawa’s first major museum show was held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on December 7th, 1941, a date that would greatly alter the direction of his life and work. The show featured plein-air paintings of rural and urban environments. He was being honored as “artist of the month”. On the same day he was featured in Arthur Miller’s Los Angeles Times column “The Art Thrill of the Week”. With the onset of WWII he was forced to leave the West Coast under threat of internment, and with his wife and brother’s family stayed for a short time in Colorado and then one year in Chicago (where he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago), before finally arriving in New York in 1943.
Yasuo Kunioshi in New York Munakata and Sueo
It was in New York that Serisawa began to truly mature as an artist through his contact with and exposure to the work and artistic philosophies of such artists as Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Isamu Noguchi. During this time, he continued to work primarily as a figurative painter, and a much greater exposure and recognition of his work followed at various exhibitions on the East Coast. In 1944, he attended an exhibition by Max Beckman which awakened him to Expressionism, and with the addition of the powerful influence of Hans Hoffman’s Abstract Expressionism, Serisawa’s approach to art began to change from a more quiet and conservative style to one which was considerably more bold and expressive.
Spring in Woodstock 1950
Man with Curlers 1953
Eyed Susan 1950 Mary 1948
Mary and Mar with String 1951 Portrait of Woman 1948
Untitled Suzy 1952
Woman Arranging Flowers Music Instruments
The Hobby Horse 1947 Windy Moore 1959
Suchness 1950 Cosmic Hand 1960
In 1947, Serisawa and his family returned to the West Coast where he continued to refine his own artistic philosophy and technique – a blending of both Western and Eastern styles – while teaching at the Kann Institute of Art (1948-50) and later at Scripps College (1950-51). During this time and the years that immediately followed, he had a number of major exhibitions and won many substantial awards, and as his reputation grew, he began to offer private classes to a number of notable Hollywood personalities including Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor and Frances Marion. He also became increasingly interested in the writings of the Indian philosopher, J. Krishnamurti, and studied the art and teachings of Zen Buddhism, influences that would greatly affect the direction of his work throughout the rest of his life.
Sueo in 1959 J. Krishnamurti
In 1955, Serisawa was accompanied by fellow artist Millard Sheets to Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan, where he was reunited with and gained intimate exposure to the old, traditional art forms of his native land. This experience helped him to solidify his understanding that “the deeper meaning of art is the expression of universal themes and truths”. From this point forward, he began to replace more representational, European influenced forms present in his earlier works with Japanese abstract forms, seeking to establish a deeper connection with the universal through an artistic style that much more deeply reflected his psychic and artistic core.
Untitled 1961 Sound of Rain 1961
Icarus 1957 Bombs are not Good for Children
Strawberry King 1965 Still Life on the Beach 1963
These aesthetic elements of traditional Japanese culture had been profoundly demonstrated to him by both Kuniyoshi and Noguchi while he was living in New York, and the work of these particular artists continued to greatly influence and inspire him throughout the Fifties and beyond. This trend took on greater and greater significance throughout the Sixties as he increasingly engaged in traditional styles of Japanese art, especially his creation of calligraphic forms and gold or silver-leaf sumi ink paintings.
Silver Leaf and Sumi 1959 Silver Leaf and Sumi 1959
The Old Pine Whispers Satori 1990
By the early Seventies, he was also producing wood-block prints as well as creating acrylic and oil paintings that reflected the blending of traditional Oriental screen painting with European Expressionism. In the mid Seventies, Serisawa remarried and moved to Idyllwild, California, a serene mountain hamlet which provided much of the inspiration for his work over the last twenty-five years of his life. Nature and natural forms became the predominant subjects in much of his work during this period, as nature is seen as symbolizing the universal mystery which is much bigger than one’s self, and thus it represents the mystery and depth of one’s deepest inner being. This “Humanistic Expressionism” as he called it, is most directly applied in his blending of sumi ink and watercolors. These depictions reflect the transformational subject into a deeper realm of universal human experience, and as such represents our shared emotional and spiritual connection to nature and the cosmos.
Bird Idyllwild Pine 1972
Obake 1965 Abstract Reds
Lilly Rock, Idyllwild, California Idyllwild Series 1978
Idyllwild Series Listen to Your Real Self 1960
Idyllwild Series Mountain Monoprint
Additionally, he believed that his own full artistic maturity arrived through the use of spontaneous art, such as abstract sumi painting, which releases one’s self from ego-consciousness and allows for the expression of the deepest core of one’s soul. And so, his recent work continued to exemplify the intimate understanding of art and aesthetics which he encountered in Kyoto, Japan almost fifty years prior – that “the deeper meaning of art is the expression of universal themes and truths” .