Arts in Review: Sadamasa Motonaga

January 15, 2016

Sadamasa Motonaga (1922-2011) lived long enough to be one of those artists who, like Picasso or Hans Hofmann, worked in several different modes. Mr. Motonaga began as a member of the postwar Japanese Gutai group that intensified Abstract Expressionism and pushed it toward cathartic performance art. (His specialty was tarashikomi, or the creative pooling of wet paint.) From there, Mr. Motonaga flirted with Pop Art, children’s art, and the Japanese popular-culture phenomena of manga and anime. His influence is seen today in the work of such globally popular Japanese contemporary artists as Yoshitomo Nara (big-eyed brats) and that veritable Fortune 500 figure, the painter Takashi Murakami.
An almost manic cheerfulness is the defining characteristic of Mr. Motonaga’s art. He’s deft at a number of different techniques, from a more polite invocation of his old tarashikomi, to thin-line childlike drawing, and spray painting. (He learned to use an airbrush during a late-’60s sojourn in New York.) Plus, he’s an absolute wizard with color, and one of his shapes—a kind of obese wraparound pasta form—is guaranteed to bring out a smile.
As with many artists who have gone back and forth between commercial and fine art (the Belgian poster designer, Folon, comes to mind), the question is whether the candy-shop prettiness is sincere, or merely catering to an audience. In the case of Sadamasa Motonaga, he’s so good at his craft the answer doesn’t matter.