Ronin Gallery: An “Ukiyo-e” Center in New YorkArt Culture
Japanese Art in New York
Ronin Gallery, a New York art gallery dedicated to Japan’s ukiyo-e woodblock prints, is located on 40th Street in the heart of the city, a short distance from Times Square.
Herb Libertson co-founded the gallery with his wife Roni Neuer Libertson in 1975, and ran it until 2012, when their son David Taro Libertson took over as president. Behind the gallery is a custom-built Japanese-style office space with shōji sliding screens, and further back is the extensive collection storage space.
As of June 2023, the gallery has 10,337 ukiyo-e and other artworks in its collection, with many more items waiting to be catalogued in the gallery’s computer system.
David says proudly, “I believe that we collect the most Japanese woodblock prints of any American gallery.” While he admits that he has not made an independent count or directly compared figures with other galleries, he feels confident in his assertion. “I’ve never seen another collection on this scale in the United States.”
A Family Interest
David’s father Herb Libertson established Ronin Gallery together with his wife Roni Neuer Libertson. However, David says his grandfather is another essential character in the history of the venue. “I’m the fourth generation of our New York family,” he explains. “My grandfather was a merchant seaman in the South China Sea in the 1920s.” In his travels he visited many countries, including Japan, China, and what is now Indonesia, where he bought local artworks, including Japanese ukiyo-e.
“My grandfather was a radio officer,” David says. “The ships weren’t that big then and space for storing personal items was limited to footlockers shared between the crew. Ukiyo-e were the perfect size to fit in his locker.” This began the Libertson family’s association with classic Japanese art.
This modest collection of Japanese art sparked Herb’s interest. However, it was while studying at the University of Kentucky that he learned karate from Nishida Yoshihiro, which deepened his fascination with Japan. The two became lifelong friends and this friendship stirred his interest in and admiration for Japanese art. Beginning in the 1960s, rather than focus on collecting individual works, he began to purchase entire collections of woodblock prints.
Roni was an art educator when she met Herb, and she subsequently grew interested in Japanese culture. It is no wonder that David had a strong connection with Japan from birth. “People always ask, ‘Why do you have a Japanese middle name?’” he says. “However once you know our family story, it’s fairly easy to see why. And it makes sense that as the first son I’m called Taro.”
Ronin Gallery also collects European impressionist art. David says this is because of the connections between ukiyo-e and European impressionism. After the 1853 arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and US Navy ships brought to an end more than two centuries of relative isolation in Japan, there was a Japonism boom in the West that influenced artists and others.
“There was a particularly big influence on French impressionism,” David says. “And Van Gogh was so inspired by ukiyo-e that he painted copies.”
Van Gogh created a mirror image of a print by Keisai Eisen called Unryū uchikake no oiran (Courtesan Wearing Uchikake with Dragon Design), naming his version Courtesan (After Eisen). Meanwhile, his Flowering Plum Orchard (After Hiroshige) was a reproduction based on Hiroshige’s Kameido Umeyashiki (Plum Garden at Kameido) in the artist’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. And his 1887 Portrait of Père Tanguy includes ukiyo-e works in the background.
David also notes the Japanese influence on American painter James McNeill Whistler. But while he collects works related to Japan, he says he is not simply carried away by enthusiasm. “We’re not just gathering up art at random.” For instance, the gallery owns 35 of Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and David is making an effort to acquire the final piece to complete the collection.
“We emphasize an intellectually rigorous approach to building compelling collections, and sharing them with clients who are pursuing their passion for art. This scrupulous accumulation of individual works creates harmony in the collection, generating much greater value: in this case, one plus one equals three.”
“Western art has also had a positive effect in Japan.” David says, “Ukiyo-e artists like Kawase Hasui and Yoshida Hiroshi were influenced by impressionism, and wonderful culture came into being on both sides. The interaction between East and West is unique and has fostered genuine creativity and inspiration in the art world.”
Ukiyo-e has further played a huge role in shaping manga, anime, and contemporary art. David says, “You can see from Murakami Takashi’s colors how he has taken some influence from traditional Japanese art.”
David’s earliest memories of the gallery are of playing there when he was four or five. Japanese art was all around him, but it was so familiar, that he saw it just as art, rather than particularly thinking of it as Japanese.
He also gained early experience on the business side, when he was about 10 or 11. At an opening event for an exhibition, he applied all his knowledge in answering a question from a client and sold a painting. The thrill of the moment remains clear in his memory today.
During school vacations, he traveled to Japan with his parents and attended auctions and exhibitions. He takes his passion for Japanese art as a legacy and tradition passed down from his parents. He can also see how the exposure trained his aesthetic appreciation, comparing it with jūdō. “It took me years to get my brown belt. I had to practice each waza 10,000 times to master it. It’s the same with appreciating artworks. You can’t learn that from a book. I looked at the real thing with my own eyes. More than 10,000 times. . .”
When I asked whether people liked ukiyo-e in the States, David replied, “I may be somewhat biased, but it’s extremely popular.” And that popularity is not confined to the United States. “There are people from France, China, Australia, Brazil—and they have different reasons for buying. Maybe they like Japanese food, they’ve visited Japan, they like collecting, or they want to display a snowy landscape in their room. Frank Lloyd Wright was among those fascinated by woodblock prints.”
Japan’s strengths in art, cuisine, and fashion have a great cultural power worldwide, such that it seems everybody has some kind of connection to the country. David says, “For example, even if someone hasn’t been to Japan, they might own clothing by Issey Miyake or have drunk matcha. This can spark an interest in Japanese art. The other common thread in our clients is their burning curiosity.”
David meets a question about how well known Japanese art is by himself asking, “What comes to mind if you have to name the five best known works of art in the world?” I think a moment before David continues. “It could include works like Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Munch’s The Scream. Even if they can’t remember the artists’ names, everyone’s seen these pictures. The list would also include Hokusai’s The Great Wave.”
He continues, “Most collectors can’t buy Van Gogh works, but they can afford the prints that inspired him. It might cost a hundred dollars or as much as a million, but the beauty of Japanese woodblock prints is that anyone can own one.”
He is also involved in fostering new talent. Together with venture capitalist Stephen Globus, who is well versed in Japanese culture, since 2015 he has supported young artists through a residency program aimed at boosting artistic and cultural exchange between Japan and the United States. It invites Japanese artists who have never had a solo exhibition in New York to the city, giving them a chance to live and exhibit there.
Ronin Gallery will surely continue to act as a cultural bridge and artistic trendsetter from New York.
(Originally published in Japanese on June 14, 2023. Banner photo: David Taro Libertson smiles in front of Hiroshige’s Awa, Naruto no fūha (Naruto Whirlpool in Awa Province) from the series Rokujūyoshū meisho zue (Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces). © Kasumi Abe.)