JAPANESE ARTISTS don't do "works on paper." They do works with paper, using the color, texture and visual weight of the material to lend dimension and substance to a composition. Instead of looking at such works, the viewer looks into them.
The Sackler Gallery on Sunday opens its first show of modern Japanese prints, paired with a ceramics exhibition that underscores the subtleties made possible by close attention to basic materials.
Entering the gallery is like walking into a jewel box, or a giant Faberge egg. All but one of the works are postwar and some employ Western images and patterns, but the deeply thoughtful use of materials marks them all as Japanese.
A number of the ceramics were produced by Ishiguro Munemaro (1893-1968) and Shimizu Uichi (born 1926), both honored as Living National Treasures for their mastery of traditional iron glazes. Rather than being limited by faithfulness to age-old methods, their works seem ancient and modern at once, testimony both to their vitality and to the influence Japanese/Chinese pottery has had on ceramicists around the world.
Strictly traditional yet fresh as tomorrow is a porcelain bowl by Imaizumi Imaemon XII (1897-1975), who also was a LNT. The underglaze cobalt and overglaze enamels make the piece shimmer as though seen through spring water; it's warming to know that Imaemon XII's son, a 13th-generation master potter, now runs the Nabeshima works in Arita Town, which date back to 1603.
In his huge woodblock prints Kitaoka Fumio (born 1918) stretches tradition to almost painful lengths. Nearly seven feet high, the six companion prints ("After the Ebb," "Rock and Grass," "Wave," "Ice and Snow," "Driftwood," "Stream") were all executed on single slabs of fine-grained katsura wood, instead of the plywood veneers used by most large-format woodblock artists. Beside being devilishly expensive, the works required an exhausting printing process, being too large to ink in one pass. The results justify the effort, and seem effortless and lyrical.
In prewar Japan, few print artists got involved in making the printing plates, which were produced by publishing houses from the artist's painting. That was like making love in a straitjacket, and modern Japanese artists have long since rejected the practice.
It might be amusing, though, to see Hagiwara Hideo (born 1913) try to explain to a printer how he wanted "A Man in Armor" (1962) executed: "First print the back of the paper gray, so it bleeds through where my stylus has left an imprint. We'll need a steel rather than a bamboo stylus here, and you don't want to rub too evenly. Then turn the sheet over and ink up the red plate . . . . "
Perhaps the most arresting of the paperworks is the simplest, a torn-paper collage by Takamatsu Jiro (born 1936). First he tore out the center of a black sheet of paper and tore the removed piece into hundreds of fragments. Then he pasted them all back into a single sheet but out of order, in a sort of anti-jigsaw puzzle assembled over a white background. It sounds trite but it's terrific, almost hypnotic.
The show marks the beginning of what the Sackler says will be a continuing series of exhibitions of contemporary Japanese artworks. There could hardly be a happier note from the underground.
PAPER AND CLAY FROM MODERN JAPAN -- Through March 17 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Open 10 to 5:30 daily.