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Shinohara Ushio and Noriko: A Couple Wrestles with the Demon Called Art

The Shinoharas, a Japanese couple pursuing art careers in New York since the 1970s, are the subject of Cutie and the Boxer, a documentary nominated for a 2014 Academy Award. We spoke to them about their art and lives during their recent visit to Tokyo.

Shinohara Ushio

Shinohara UshioArtist. Born in Tokyo in 1932. After studying at the Tokyo University of the Arts, formed the Neo-Dadaism Organizers in 1960 with artists including Akasegawa Genpei, Arakawa Shūsaku, and Yoshimura Masunobu. The group became known for its extreme avant-garde performances and junk art creations. In 1969 he went to the United States on a one-year scholarship from the John D. Rockefeller III Fund; he has lived in New York ever since. In 2007 he won the Mainichi Art Prize. In 2012 the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at the State University of New York, New Paltz, hosted the first retrospective show of his work outside Japan.

Shinohara Noriko

Shinohara NorikoArtist. Born in Toyama Prefecture in 1953. Went to New York in 1972 to study art. Six months after arriving she met Ushio; the two had a son and were later married. In 1981 she introduced her work to the public for the first time at the Whitney Counterweight, an artist-initiated group show held in the same years as the Whitney Biennial. In 1986 she followed this with her first solo show. The International Print Center New York featured her work in one of its quarterly New Prints shows in 2003. In the following year, the Davis Museum at Boston’s Wellesley College added some of her works to its permanent collection. She took part in a group exhibition hosted by New York’s Japan Society to celebrate its centennial in 2007. The 2013 release of Cutie and the Boxer has kindled interest in her recent series of works featuring the autobiographical character “Cutie.”

Shinohara Ushio is a legendary artist once praised by no less a creator than Okamoto Tarō for his “over-the-top absurdity.” Together with his wife, Noriko, 21 years his junior, he lives in New York City, creating his art with surprising vigor for a man in his eighties.

Cutie and the Boxer, a 2013 film depicting the days of “love and conflict” lived by this Japanese couple, is now making an impact on the film world. It won a best documentary director award for Zachary Heinzerling at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and has been nominated for a 2014 Academy Award in the documentary feature division.

More than a half-century has passed since Ushio dedicated himself to the world of art, and Noriko has been by his side for four of those decades. Why has their story, an underground one for so long, captivated contemporary filmgoers? What drives the Shinoharas’ passion for creative endeavor? Why did they go overseas, and what is their aim today after so many years of artistic expression? We spoke to the couple when they were in Japan for “Love Is A Roar-r-r-r! In Tokyo,” a month-long art show at the Parco Museum in Shibuya to mark the film’s Japan premier, to get answers to some of these questions.

A Brash Japanese Artist Takes On the World

“Art is a demon!” Ushio states this line as bare fact, without an artist’s affectation. He has lived the truth of this statement since the 1950s, when he wore his hair in a Mohawk style, well ahead of the punk movement. This marked the start of his media appearances as a wild child of the art world, but he drew still more attention in 1960, when he formed the Neo-Dadaism Organizers, an avant-garde group whose performances involved half-naked artists thrashing around on public streets.

Ushio poses with a 1983 work from his cardboard Motorcycle Sculpture series in Dallas, Texas. (Courtesy Zazie Films.)

Ushio’s “boxing painting,” images created by bashing a wall with fists wrapped in ink-soaked cloth, gave him a name as an artist to watch—and perhaps to watch out for. It also got him noticed by the famed photographer and director William Klein, who captured Ushio in action in 1961 and published the photos in Tokyo, his influential 1964 collection. (Still shooting today, Klein photographed Ushio’s boxing painting in New York in 2012; the photos will appear in his forthcoming Brooklyn.)

In 1969 Ushio headed to New York. His efforts to make a name for himself there, however, were much less successful. Reduced to such poverty that he could no longer purchase art materials, he took to collecting discarded cardboard on the streets. He began fashioning this material into one of his representative series, the Motorcycle Sculptures. In this way, he has forged ahead in single-minded pursuit of his avant-garde artistic path, dreaming of the day he will make it big.

“More than anything else, I was attracted to the idea of American art,” says Ushio. “Around 1960, the pop art scene was booming. I’d stay up all night reading art magazine articles on it, and I got so excited. ‘I’m gonna do this too!’ So I took the plunge and headed to New York. For the first year I had a scholarship, but when that ran out, I had no money. No connections. Nothing. But I still had that demon called art. So all I could do was keep on bashing away at it with everything I had. And I’ve basically been bashing away like that ever since.”

Noriko has a similar take: “Bashing away at it, sure, but the fact of the matter is that this was his only option, since he had no money to come back to Japan. He often talks about his time spent ‘in combat with art,’ but in our case the real battle has been just making a living. We’ve been on the edge of survival.”

“That’s right,” says Ushio. “In fact, the standard story is that I married you with my eye on your bank account.”

“Well you did, didn’t you?” snaps Noriko.

Ushio defends himself. “We live under the same roof. We’ve got the same job, creating art. There’s no reason not to share the same bank account.”

It was a bank account that remained close to empty, explains Noriko. All the money her family sent from Japan over the years ended up vanishing in the couple’s rent payments.

“But if you’re an artist,” Ushio goes on, “you’ve absolutely got to have a large space to create in. In America, if your images are small in scale, they’re nothing more than trash. There we were, in the epicenter of the global art scene. The only way to make it there is to stay ambitious—to be willing to kick everyone else to the side and make it to the top of the heap, with guys like Andy Warhol and Jasper Jones. Without that ambition you’re nothing.”

A Home Steeped in Art . . . and Jealousy

The couple’s words perfectly encapsulate their history as it was captured in Heinzerling’s documentary on their art, Cutie and the Boxer. As a new high-school graduate, Noriko moved to New York to pursue art studies in the early 1970s, at the age of 19. The era of the fixed exchange rate of 360 yen to the dollar was at an end, making such a move relatively affordable for the first time. A half-year into her time in New York she met Ushio. Just three years later, in 1974, their son, Alexander Kūkai Shinohara, was born. This marked the beginning of their long years of “love and conflict.”

An undated family photo of Ushio and Noriko in their younger days. (Courtesy Zazie Films.)

It has been a tumultuous time for the family, explains Ushio, especially because all three of them are artists. “Every single day is intense. And we certainly aren’t working together in some collaboration. We’re such totally different individuals from different generations. If Noriko starts receiving praise for her work, then I have to tell you, it ticks me off! But that’s just how it has to be. When Isamu Noguchi was asked where he got his creative energy, he had the same answer: from jealousy!”

Noriko chimes in: “My husband is such a jealous man! Take the documentary we’re in. At first Zach [Heinzerling] focused mainly on him, but over time he got more interested in my work. In the later part of the filming there were days when he’d shoot only me and then go home. When Ushio asked why he’d left already, I’d make up some story about how busy the director was.”

  • [2014.03.02]
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