Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Boy Stealing Fruit,” 1923, oil on canvas, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Gift of Ferdinand Howald. (Copyright Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA)
Art and architecture critic

Americans claim Yasuo Kuniyoshi as one of our great artists of the past century, but we really have no right to. Kuniyoshi, a Japanese-born painter who was one of the most idiosyncratic and expressive artists of his time, moved to the United States as a teenager in 1906 and lived here until his death in 1953. But he was denied citizenship, declared an enemy alien during the Second World War, and when he married an American woman in 1919, she was stripped of her citizenship and disowned by her family for years. His most productive years here coincided with an ugly age of racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Yet he remained faithful to his adopted country, contributed art to the war effort and considered himself fully American. His art, on display in a powerful new retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, feels deeply American, or at least as American as it is anything else. And if it’s any recompense for the shameful way he was treated, this exhibition does justice to his legacy and demonstrates how he added immeasurably to the breadth and richness of the American visual canon.

The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi,” billed as the first major American survey of Kuniyoshi’s work in more than 65 years, is a thoroughly satisfying show. Not one work disappoints, not one fails to reward long study; even seemingly modest works, small drawings and still lifes in pencil and ink, are expansively powerful, sometimes even more thrilling than the largest and most dramatic of his paintings. Kuniyoshi deserves to be as famous and familiar as Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, John Marin and Stuart Davis. Perhaps this show will advance that cause.

A relatively small Kuniyoshi drawing uses an almost haphazard collection of elements to create a striking ocean scene, with a boat deck, a lighthouse and a patch of shoreline. A delicate pattern in the water suggests the wake of a vessel, so one assumes the viewer is leaving land behind. The boat is minimally rendered — a collection of nautical elements, a hint of wooden deck, some upward soaring metal stays or ropes. The entire image floats in a sea of white paper, an emanation of a fleeting moment of time and perhaps a sly comment on the power of the eye to create meaning from the most fragmented and diverse elements.

Another exquisite drawing depicts a nubbly squash lying on a plate. The shading, and the use of a small amount of watercolor, gives the vegetable all the tactile and erotic allure of one of Edward Weston’s famous photographs of peppers, made a few years later. It, too, floats in a sea of white paper, and the plate it rests on isn’t quite round or regular, but organically misshapen in a way that gives a powerful sense of an opening or even a rupture in the ordinary fabric of the world.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Self-Portrait as a Photographer,” 1924, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of Scofield Thayer. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Copyright Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA)

One of many Kuniyoshi quirks is his use of strangely surreal bowls, plates and tabletops to frame the otherwise meticulously rendered objects of still life. In a 1925 drawing, “Orange,” the delicately shaded fruit is rendered off center on a tabletop that on one side is reduced to a single bare line, while on the other is shaded and three-dimensional. Kuniyoshi is a virtuoso at creating dynamic tension between flat and perspectival space, and the effect visually is often rather like the haunting slippage between diatonic and chromatic tonality in the music of the same period.

All three drawings evoke feelings of loss or isolation, a loneliness of things in the world that seems analogous to human isolation and loneliness. The exhibition curators frequently underscore connections between Kuniyoshi’s often bleak emotional life, full of anxiety and uncertainty, especially during the war years, with the content of his images. The artist, who deplored Japanese militarism, was beyond suspicion of disloyalty but nonetheless deeply empathetic with the suffering of people in his native land. Paintings made late in the war suggest the devastation of conflict in a private language of haunted landscapes, and agonized individuals lost in tormented reveries.

After the war, the artist’s language took a decisive and strange turn into a palette of acid colors and grotesquerie, which the curators again connect to his emotional life and events in the world, including the horror of the atomic bomb and the militancy of anti-communist paranoia. In one of the most striking of Kuniyoshi’s postwar paintings, a table leg is seen lying on a table, with what appear to be wedges of watermelon and a young boy looking at the strange assemblage. In the background, a patch of gray suggests a chalkboard, with an animal figure scratched into it.

If one could resolve this image, much of what is enigmatic about Kuniyoshi would be made infinitely more transparent. The boy looking longingly, the table leg detached from its function, the play of two- and three-dimensional space and the contrast between color and monochrome regions — all of these are recurring motifs or practices throughout the artist’s career. In a striking earlier work, “The Twist Loaf,” made in 1930, a tabletop seems entirely disconnected from its supporting leg, floating in space with a loaf of bread on top. This combination of the idea of support, or magical lack of support, with a longing for sustenance, may have something to do with thoughts of home, where we are raised up and nourished. Near the end of his life, Kuniyoshi makes the table leg an explicit object, placing it on the table itself, as if to acknowledge that in some way his life, or his work, has been floating disconnected from essential grounding, that everything, perhaps, has been a game or illusion. His lifelong interest in the circus, and his statement that “life is a circus,” seem somehow connected to this late-in-life acknowledgment of deep, existential illusionism.

Although early in his career, Kuniyoshi worked quickly, for most of his mature years, he was a slow craftsman. All told, he only produced around 350 paintings. The current exhibition includes 65 works, including paintings and works on paper. The galleries at the American Art Museum can be tricky to organize, with deep bays tending to fragment the experience. But the curators have finessed this as well as they can, and the show has a logical and mostly chronological sequence. The first and last works the visitor sees make ideal bookends to this absorbing overview: A 1953 ink drawing of a tree is dense, dark and almost macabre in its intimation of death, and yet utterly legible and orderly; and a 1924 self-portrait greets visitors with a quick blast of the artist’s humor and playful provocation.

This first painting is somewhat out of sequence, but it makes perfect sense as an invitation to explore. It shows the artist working as a photographer, his head draped in a dark cloth. But one arm is also raised like a fencer’s, and the other seems to be holding a sword or epee, if one uses a little imagination to connect the lower edge of a window or picture frame to the painter’s hand. It shows us the artist en garde, taking a playfully defensive stance, engaging the viewer in a back-and-forth of incisive imagery that never quite yields to a lasting or certain interpretation.

The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Self-Portrait,” 1918, oil on canvas, Fukutake Collection, Okayama, Japan; on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Fukutake Collection/Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)

is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through Aug. 30. americanart.si.edu.