An Analysis of the Bokujin Kai and the Significance of Eastern Art on Global Abstraction

By: Nicole St. Jacques

Megan Sluzhevsky is a junior attending Fordham College at Rose Hill online from Westchester. Fascinated by Japanese language and culture, Sluzhevsky seized the opportunity to create an individualized double major for herself in both Japanese and international studies. This summer, through one of Fordham’s undergraduate summer research programs, she investigated the global and cultural impacts of modern Japanese calligraphy groups. Her research primarily focused on determining the profound effects that the avant-garde group Bokujin Kai had on the Eurocentric art world in the mid-1900s.

Sluzhevsky began her research by analyzing the early post-World War II period of Japanese history. Preceding WWII, the art world in Japan was undivided due to cultural isolation. After the Japanese defeat, their art world became much more divided. Rather than retaining nationalist ideology, many of the Japanese were humiliated by the loss and cultural wreckage. From the center of this division rose an avant-garde calligraphy and abstraction organization by the name of Bokujin Kai. The group sought to reconceptualize, reevaluate, and contemporize the ancient art form and create a new form of art that was more modern and abstract. Sluzhevsky’s initial hypothesis sought to define whether or not the Bokujin Kai was successful in its goal of achieving international relevance, bridging relationships despite cultural and linguistic barriers, and overcoming cultural boundaries set by American exceptionalism.

To find sources that directly pertained to her subject material, Sluzhevsky utilized some of her background knowledge of Japanese culture and art, as well as the help of her research advisor and art history professor, Asato Ikeda. She also worked alongside a Japanese language tutor with which she had been working before her summer research to translate certain primary sources. Although she faced some difficulty in finding her sources due to these barriers, she successfully used Fordham’s online database and visited museums before the pandemic to enhance her study.

Through these nontraditional sources, Sluzhevsky found that the Bokujin Kai fostered communication by sending letters and artwork to well-known European and American artists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline. Abstraction quickly became a way to transcend language barriers and communicate with other artists. The Bokujin Kai’s new global connections changed the West’s perception of calligraphy and Asian art. They also created an art journal named Bokubi, where they published works in Japanese and articles in English, which continued to foster a cross-cultural relationship.

Sluzhevzsky was able to draw many parallels between the work of the avant-garde calligraphers and Western artists. The calligraphers experimented with gestural abstraction and used unconventional materials, such as large brushes or even their hands and feet, to write. This performative art yielded expressive pieces with liminal space (i.e., ambiguous spaces), a monochrome palette, and impressive linework. The same can be said for Jackson Pollock’s work; his black paintings utilized many of the same materials that the Bokujin Kai used, such as black ink, Japanese paper, and raw canvas. Another artist integral to the spread of the Bokujin Kai’s vision was Franz Kline, who not only utilized monochrome strokes and liminal space but also promoted the journal Bokubi to his fellow Western artists.

Despite the Bokujin Kai’s success, Sluzhevsky disclosed that the group faced several drawbacks in the 1960s as their work gained traction in America and Europe. The art world became much more conservative and nationalist, and artists on both sides of the pond faced nationalist barriers in achieving global prominence. In particular, Clement Greenburg, one of the most influential Western art critics, perpetuated American exceptionalism and nationalism. He believed that American art caused many Western artists (such as Kline) who were previously influenced by the avant-garde calligraphers to detach themselves from their intercultural connections.

Sluzhevsky concluded that despite the xenophobia propagated by American nationalists such as Greenburg, the Japanese calligraphy collective Bokujin Kai was still successful in achieving world relevance. Prior to the Bokujin Kai and other avant-garde calligraphers, Asian art was often coined as exotic or unique, with Western art being much more valuable and meaningful. However, after cross-cultural integration, the group was able to shift the Western perspective and show that Japanese culture has global relevance and is worth preserving.

Overall, Sluzhevsky’s research is crucial for offering a pluralistic, cross-cultural analysis that is accessible for those interested in Japanese culture or experimental art history. Her findings force the reader to consider the extent to which xenophobia and racism affect the spread of art. In the future, Sluzhevsky seeks to continue her research in Japanese culture. She plans to apply for a Fulbright scholarship and continue researching how upholding Japanese traditions (such as calligraphy) influences child development. After that, she hopes to either go to law school or pursue a doctorate in Japanese culture and education.

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