Jun Kaneko. Photo: Laurie and Charles

Jun Kaneko: Between the Mark and Space

Recipient of the 2021 Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award

“Whether I’m making a large or small object, I hope it will make sense to have that particular scale and form together, and that it will give off enough visual energy to shake the air around it.” —Jun Kaneko, Ceramics Monthly, 1988

Untitled, 2019. Hand-built and glazed ceramics, 87 x 34.25 x 24 in. Photo: Colin Conces

Primal forms. Penetrating glazes. Unexpected scale. Contrasting patterns. Groundbreaking techniques. Poetic spontaneity. These qualities and many more have made Jun Kaneko one of the most prominent artists to come out of the 1950s and ’60s California Clay Movement. His instantly identifiable ceramic sculptures can be found in more than 70 museums across North America, Asia, and Europe, making him a truly international creative force. Equally important, the Japanese-born, Omaha-based artist has created dozens of temporary and permanent public installations on sites around the world, ranging from the International Financial Center in Shanghai to Park Avenue in New York, to the Kansas City, Missouri, Convention Center. These accomplishments, not to mention 14 years of teaching at four different institutions, including the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, have rightfully earned Kaneko the International Sculpture Center’s 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award.

I first met Kaneko in 1970 when his work was included in “Objects: USA,” a milestone exhibition that highlighted a rising generation of creative voices who were transforming so-called “crafts” into new vehicles for artistic expression. The two-year touring show made a stop at the Oakland Museum, where I had just been named Chief Curator of Art. I got to know Kaneko and his work much better when I served as director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Sheldon Museum of Art from 1983 through 1999. We worked together for many years on the board of what is now the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, an international artist residency program that Kaneko co-founded.

For much of the history of European and American art, ceramic objects were viewed as part of the decorative arts and not considered as serious or important as higher pursuits like painting or sculpture. But all that changed with the emergence of what became known as the California Clay Movement, which broke from traditional notions of beauty and function. By ratcheting up the scale and turning to abstraction and deconstruction, a group of artists led by Peter Voulkos (a kind of Jackson Pollock of ceramics) sought to turn clay into a sculptural material every bit as viable as bronze, steel, or stone.

Untitled, Dangos, 1984. Hand-built and glazed ceramics, approx. 6 x 7 x 5 ft. each. Created at the Omaha Brickworks in Omaha, Nebraska. Photo: Courtesy Jun Kaneko Studio

Among those who fell under Voulkos’s spell was Kaneko, who was born in Nagoya, Japan, in 1942. He first studied painting, and in 1963, he moved to the United States to continue his pursuit of that medium; but after house-sitting during the summer for Fred Marer, a well-known collector and champion of the California Clay artists, Kaneko became interested in ceramics. In 1966, through Marer’s intercession, he gained a post at the University of California, Berkeley as studio assistant to Voulkos and formed a lifelong friendship with his mentor. Kaneko also studied with two other Voulkos disciples, Paul Soldner and Jerry Rothman. In 1971, Kaneko earned his master’s degree at Claremont Graduate University in California under the tutelage of Soldner.

While the California Clay Movement was influenced in certain ways by Asian art, the fusion of East and West became a defining quality of Kaneko’s abstract clay sculptures, which draw on basic, archetypal forms like slabs, columns, and tiles. (In recent decades, he has also created monumental heads with semi-abstract features.) A sense of yin and yang, or in’y ̄o as the Eastern philosophy is known in Japanese, can be seen, for example, in his frequent use of polka dots to adorn his works. He gives extensive consideration to how big the dots should be and how much space should separate them. “Not too many people know how much time I really spend on the balance between the mark and space,” he told the Omaha World-Herald in 1989.

Glen R. Brown, author of a 2021 monograph on Kaneko, argues that what the artist calls the “space between” (or ma in Japanese, a Shinto-inspired concept) is at the heart of his artistry. In addition to the dynamics of negative and positive space within his works, there is the space around the sculptures and the physical interplay among them, which go far in determining how they are perceived and understood. And, finally, there is what Brown calls Kaneko’s subjective space between, the perceptual gap dividing the artist and the reality of the world and the experiential distance between him and his material.

Polka Dot Sidewalk, 1986. Epoxy paint on cement plaza, 75 x 150 ft. Temporary installation at the Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi. Photo: Misha Gordin

Kaneko is best known for his “Dango” series, named for a Japanese word meaning “dumpling.” He began this continuing body of work in 1982 at an Omaha brickyard while visiting the city as part of a nascent artist-in-industry program that would ultimately become the Bemis Center. These standing works, which take on variously elongated, bulbous, and rounded triangular shapes, possess a kind of zen-like simplicity and purity of form. They call to mind ancient menhirs, sharing the same formal power, while, at the same time, they exert a kind of figurative presence. Unlike, say, the towering steel sculptures of Mark di Suvero, which have an architectonic quality, Kaneko’s “Dangos” operate on a more human scale, with the viewer often being able to engage them at eye level. As Brown writes, the “‘Dangos’ are the soup cans of Warhol or the ‘Elegies’ of Robert Motherwell—signature works, so widely known that for many they stand as tours de force, encapsulating and exalting the whole of Kaneko’s aesthetic production.”

Kaneko’s sculptures are constructed, not molded, a painstaking process that requires impressive feats of engineering to ensure their structural integrity, considering that his pieces can rise to a height of 13 feet and weigh several tons. Few ceramic artists have attempted work on such a scale, and Kaneko has succeeded only after years of trial and error, losing scores of works to breakage and collapse while he perfected his processes. Over the course of his career, Kaneko has traveled to experimental ateliers around the world, including the Otsuka Ohmi Ceramic Company in Japan and the Bullseye Glass Company in Portland, Oregon, to explore new technical approaches. A trip to the European Ceramic Workcenter in 1996 led to a 20-year odyssey to develop what one essayist called a “raining” indigo glaze, because of its watercolor-like look after firing.

Summoning his background in painting (a 1963 charcoal drawing of boats in a harbor shows his facility with line) and especially his exposure as a student to post-painterly abstraction, Kaneko finishes his ceramic pieces in myriad ways that add beauty and intimacy, sometimes contrasting smooth and rough textures. Certain works are coated in a single monochromatic glaze, while others are adorned not only with polka dots, but also with stripes, squares, and other patterns, their perpendicularity sometimes in direct contradiction to the rounded form of the piece.

Scene from The Magic Flute, 2012. Production design by Jun Kaneko; performed by the San Francisco Opera. Photo: Takashi Hatakeyama

Because of Kaneko’s varied approaches to color, pattern, and decoration, similarly shaped pieces can exude a surprising range of emotions. Some come off as formal and imposing, while others are elegant and seductive, and still others, such as works decorated in Easter-like pastel colors, have a whimsical feel. But in every case, the gestural, human touch of these painterly applications offsets the strict technical control that is so necessary for the construction of the sculptures—another inherent contradiction. At the same time, Kaneko likes to let serendipity play a role, allowing glazes to run and drip and happily incorporating other “imperfections” that might happen in firing or elsewhere in production.

While ceramics are without a doubt the mainstay of his work, Kaneko has delved into a range of other mediums, including drawing and painting, as well as glass. He has even created sets and costume designs for three operatic productions, including The Magic Flute and Madama Butterfly, which were mounted by such prestigious companies as the San Francisco Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. In this way, Kaneko harks back to some of the 20th-century Modernists like Pablo Picasso, who also worked in ceramics and collaborated with the great ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, and Alexander Calder, who ranged across multiple mediums and developed props and figures for miniature circus performances that he presented to such fellow artists as Piet Mondrian and Marcel Duchamp.

In 1986, four years after developing his large-scale ceramics in an Omaha brickyard, Kaneko decided to relocate permanently to that Midwestern city. Although not exactly an art center, Omaha offered several important advantages, including proximity to cross-country interstate highways and a wealth of comparatively low-cost warehouse space, which he needed to set up his industrial-size studio. Kaneko has since become one of Nebraska’s most important artists and a leading cultural and intellectual force in Omaha. Among other contributions, he has established a multi-building complex in the Old Market, a historic downtown neighborhood near the Missouri River, that includes KANEKO, an independent, cross-genre creative hub. The organization has recently acquired and renovated additional space for a museum and special exhibitions. This space will also house the sculptor’s archives and more than 2,000 pieces from his personal collection—mostly his own work as well as works by artists who have influenced him—a lasting repository of an extraordinary artistic legacy.