Mrinalini Mukherjee, 2006. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew.
WHO COULD HAVE IMAGINED that the long-awaited consecration of Mrinalini Mukherjee’s achievement as a sculptor would coincide with a closure of the most final kind—that the perspective opened up by the major exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi of her work in natural fiber, ceramic, and bronze, elaborated over the last four and a half decades, would henceforth also be a posthumous one? Mukherjee was hospitalized two days before the opening of her retrospective in late January and died a week later. The critical acclaim on her home ground came too late, and, mortifyingly, she was no longer there to savor it. Internationally, however, Mukherjee’s work had a succès d’estime much earlier, as evinced by her one-person exhibition in 1994 at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, curated by David Elliott, and her participation in the Paris Biennale (1980), the Sydney and Havana Biennials (1986), the Asia Pacific Triennial (1996), and most recently, the Gwangju Biennale (2014).
She made a remarkable debut in the mid 1970s with her work in jute, or hemp fiber, estranging the material’s traditional artisanal connotations by the playful ways in which she harnessed it as a medium for three-dimensional form. She had a sophisticated understanding of the art/craft dialectic, nourished as it was by the pedagogy professed by her teacher, the artist K. G. Subramanyan, himself a student of Mukherjee’s father, the painter Benode Behari, a luminary at the Bauhaus-inspired Visva-Bharati University founded by Rabindranath Tagore. Given the vitality of the vernacular art traditions in India, the recourse to craft as the basis of a plastic language came naturally to Mukherjee. She certainly didn’t have to take any cues in this respect from her contemporaries in the West (some of the artists associated with Supports/Surfaces in France and Arte Povera in Italy, Simon Hantaï, Richard Tuttle, Jackie Winsor, Eva Hesse) when they variously turned to rope, gauze, wicker, printed textiles, unstretched canvas, knotted or pleated cords, latex, papier-mâché, or artisanal techniques such as tie-dye in their attempts to explore other formal alternatives to an atrophied modernism.
Mrinalini Mukherjee, Adi Pushp II, 1998–99, hemp fiber, 55 x 45".
Mukherjee’s sculptural imagination was profoundly anthropomorphic and unabashedly organic, nurtured by what she had learned from Indian art’s partiality to a voluptuous, iconographic excess (from high temple sculpture to wayside shrines) and by a certain modernist predilection for a more stringent economy of means. It is astonishing how the manually made knot that is the basic micro unit of the sculptural syntax of her works in rope fiber could yield such baroque and imposing floral and arboreal totems. (The human form is invariably an avatar of the vegetal.) Their suggestive folds and rents, protrusions and openings, are poised at the wondrous moment that precedes a dehiscence.
The celebration of eros remained an enduring leitmotif and organizing metaphor of her work when she made the transition from natural fiber to ceramic and then bronze. All three substances are notable for their tactile qualities, and indeed, touch, the physical contact with the raw material, was always a shaping factor in her conception of sculptural form. In her later body of work in bronze, Mukherjee renewed contact with the carnal knowledge that she had always intuited in the organic. The floral and vegetal forms are tremulous and tumescent, stirring free of bark and membrane in an alteration that is at the same time the becoming-sculpture of formlessness. The generative principle is brought to a head in the works that deploy a lingam-like form, but as a very curious matrix indeed, inasmuch as the conventional symbolic association with the masculine has been feminized by the wanton floral caress. More perversely, the male attribute reveals itself to have been enwombed in a reversal of roles as sly as that undertaken by Louise Bourgeois when she titled her conspicuously phallic Fillette (Little Girl), 1968. The presiding matriarch of contemporary sculpture would surely have recognized Mrinalini Mukherjee as a fellow “bachelor of art.”
Deepak Ananth is an art historian based in Paris.
See the Summer issue of Artforum for Murtaza Vali’s review of Mukherjee’s retrospective.
Mrinalini Mukherjee at Nature Morte gallery, New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint.
HER NAME WAS A TONGUE TWISTER, but everyone knew Mrinalini Mukherjee as Dillu, and that captured her spirit. I first met her at the opening of a show of her ceramic sculptures at the Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi in 1997. I don’t remember how, but shortly afterward I was in the habit of hanging out with her and a group of artists, all of us a generation or two behind her in age. But she always seemed to be the youngest of the lot. She cooked Bengali dinners, and we imbibed Kingfisher beers and the sickly sweet rum known as Old Monk, trading gossip and opinions on art. Well traveled and erudite, she was demanding when it came to her own work and how it was to be shown. That’s what we admired most about her: her discipline, her commitment to her practice, her devotion to the sociability of the art world, her passion for art from all over the world.
The idea for her retrospective at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art had been floating in the air for a couple of years, so when the official dates were announced only nine months before it was to happen, we felt mentally prepared. With the help of an assistant, she dissected her archives to locate as many fiber works as possible, which she produced from the early 1970s to the late ’90s, and with which she made her mark on the Indian art world. I was well aware of her later works in ceramic and bronze, so the fiber sculptures were our foundation from which we would build the show as a whole, interlacing all three bodies of works to show the amazing consistency she achieved in three very different materials.
View of “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee,” 2015. From left: Florescence II 1996; Earthbloom, 1996; Florescence I, 1996. Photo: Ram Rahman
View of “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee,” 2015. Photo: Ram Rahman.
View of “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee,” 2015. From left: Vruksha Nata, 1991-1992; Outcrop IV, 2008. Photo: Ram Rahman.
View of “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee,” 2015. From left: Wing I, 2008; Matrix III, 2006; Cluster II, 2008; Black, 1980. Photo: Ram Rahman.
Formidable and dogged, Dillu continued working on bronze sculptures as the exhibition’s opening date approached and continued to find long-lost works to add to the show. When her final work, a gleaming bronze resembling the wings of a dragon, or perhaps a schooner aflame, came in at the tail end of our installation, we could only stand back aghast as it seemingly levitated itself into position. The work of a lifetime, richly diverse yet of a singular sensibility, came together into one superbly orchestrated symphony. Art always outlives the artist and usually presents a more sober facade to its audience. Visitors to the exhibition marveled at Dillu’s provocations of hemp, clay, and bronze, appreciated a myriad of references in which she gamboled. Those of us who knew and loved Dillu could see her mischievous humor and sparkling wit dancing throughout her works.
Peter Nagy is the founder of the Nature Morte gallery in New Delhi and curated the exhibition “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee,” which was on view at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi from January 27–May 31, 2015.
See the Summer issue of Artforum for Murtaza Vali’s review of Mukherjee’s retrospective.
I MET MIRIAM at a party in San Diego in the early 1970s. At that point, I had already started the first feminist art program at Cal State Fresno (then Fresno State College). It was an exciting time as new possibilities for women had emerged as a result of the burgeoning women’s movement, and change was in the air. My yearlong curriculum for women at Fresno had grown out of my belief that studio art education had to be completely revamped to meet women’s needs, a belief that I still hold.
To that end, I developed a content-based approach to teaching, which afforded my students permission to work from their experiences as women, a complete taboo in the macho LA art scene, where I had been repeatedly told that one couldn’t be a woman and an artist too. The result was an explosion of energy and some very radical art, so much so that it scared me. It wouldn’t be too long before I would turn to Mimi (as she was called) for help and support, inviting her to Fresno to present a lecture about her work and to visit the women’s studio, where she did critiques of the students’ work. By the spring of 1971, we were making plans to bring my program, some of its students, and the feminist art-history project we had started to CalArts, where Mimi’s husband, Paul Brach, was dean of the art school. Over the subsequent months, we became very close.
In addition to feeling an affinity for Mimi’s art, I admired her skills as a teacher because she had a great gift for analyzing student work. Together, we made a great team. In addition to working on plans for the Feminist Art Program at CalArts, we examined the work of many of our female predecessors—finding antecedents for our own respective tendencies to organize space in painting from the center out. We also began seeking out other women artists and visited over fifty studios in Southern California, where we discovered women who were even more isolated and invisible than I was, and from what I gathered Mimi had been, as well. We organized a weekend of sharing, where everyone presented their work and discovered a wealth of unknown talent. We also helped to organize Womanspace, an early alternative women’s gallery.
Miriam Schapiro, Mechano/Flower Fan, 1979, acrylic and fabric collage on paper, 30 x 44". Photo: National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Once the Feminist Art Program got underway, we became deeply engaged in its first project, where we helped our students create Womanhouse, 1972, an immersive environment and performance space in Los Angeles that was the first openly female-centered installation. In addition to attracting thousands of visitors, Womanhouse signaled the beginning of the international feminist art movement—the first to be spearheaded by women. Although it would not be too long after Womanhouse that Mimi and I began to go our separate ways, I look back at our short partnership with pride, and I continued to follow her career over the years. Like many other women artists, she never really received the level of recognition she and her work deserved. Still, she lived a rich and productive life, helped many young women find their aesthetic paths, and contributed to a historic change that has allowed young women to be themselves in their art in ways that were entirely unavailable when she and I began our own careers.
Judy Chicago is an artist, educator, and the author of fourteen books, including, most recently, Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education (2014).
I STARTED TO SHOW WORK at Gallery Paule Anglim in the early 1990s. This was after many years of knowing her casually as a part of the San Francisco art world. I liked being a part of the group of artists that Paule had assembled and that was so very varied in terms of artistic enterprise. It was a group that included older, established people like Jess and Tom Marioni and Mary Heilmann and Enrique Chagoya, as well as young, just-getting-established artists. The stable was representative of Paule’s generous and eclectic view of things. As an art dealer she was in a unique position because she knew so many people in different parts of the cultural world. She kept up with the most contemporary art and writing. When Paule asked, “Read any good books lately?” as she frequently did, she really meant it. She was always searching for new reading material or interesting new films. Her friendships connected her to the School of Paris, to the art of the 1940s and ’50s, as well as of the present.
Robert Bechtle is an artist based in California.
Kenji Ekuan, 2003. Photo: AP Photo/Kyodo News.
KENJI EKUAN’S SURNAME “EKUAN” stands strikingly apart from other Japanese names and hints at his connection to Buddhism. Indeed, Ekuan’s family home was a temple, and his father a Buddhist monk. Ekuan’s home, the Kaizenji, is located in Hiroshima, and it is said the temple was a mere 500 meters from the epicenter when the atom bomb blasted the city. He was sixteen years old when World War II ended. He had been in the navy, and when he was finally able to return home after the war, Hiroshima had been reduced to rubble as far as the eye could see.
Ekuan enrolled in the Tokyo University of the Arts and studied design. After graduation, he became a trailblazer of industrial design. Postwar Japan had taken huge steps toward industrialization through standardized mass production, and within this context Ekuan had a consistent awareness of how design can contribute to human happiness, pride, ethics, and their will to live. Along with the work of GK Industrial Design Laboratory, for which he served as a longtime leader, Ekuan’s presence continued to cast a far-reaching light in Japan. He was a figure whose design philosophy shined the way toward “the peace of the senses.”
The Kikkoman “soy sauce bottle,” known as Ekuan’s most representative work, became a staple of the Japanese dining table, and is an icon of industrial goods that are passed down through the generations. GK Design went on to design motorcycles, musical instruments, and elements of public transportation ranging from train cars to sign systems. GK Design’s impressive management of formal concerns, commitment to the ethics of environmental design, and functional and austere style are born of the strong philosophical influence of Kenji Ekuan.
In his later years, Ekuan focused his energy on education at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, but in many ways he dedicated his whole life to public design and the formation of philosophy of design that was an ethics and even an approach to knowledge for humankind. While I did not have a direct relationship to Ekuan, he was that rare designer whose his achievements become even more clearly defined when seen from a distance.
Seventy years after the war, Hiroshima has undergone a remarkable rebirth, and its people’s eyes are set squarely on their future. How and to what extent we can flourish in the land of our birth—this is a matter of human will and pride. Even today, the design philosophy put forward by Kenji Ekuan continues to propel and embolden the human heart and mind toward the peace of the senses.
Kenya Hara is a graphic designer and curator, and has been the artistic director of MUJI since 2002.
THE WORK OF INDUSTRIAL DESIGNER KENJI EKUAN, perhaps more than that of any other person in his field, represents a tangible icon of the post–World War II Japanese economic miracle. His mark as a designer has been felt in products as diverse as the E3 Series Shinkansen Bullet Train, the Yamaha VMAX motorcycle, a motorized tea house, and his most ubiquitous—and perhaps most enduring—creation: the soy-sauce bottle for the Kikkoman Corporation.
Ekuan’s path to design began in the ruins of his home in Hiroshima. Though he missed the atomic bombing by a day, he lost his younger sister in the attack. His father, a Buddhist priest, died a year later of radiation sickness. Ekuan himself became a Buddhist monk during this period, writing: “Faced with brutal nothingness, I felt a great nostalgia for something to touch, something to look at.” He would henceforth become a “maker of things.” Like other designers and architects of his generation who came of age during and immediately after the war, the landscape of ruin would have a profound effect on his ethos, which was defined by the imperative of refashioning even the most humble things in the spirit of a newly minted humanism. The emptiness following the war would also come to define his aesthetics, characterized by the attempt to democratize beauty, and even to democratize things in themselves! A tall order, which was made even more daunting by the unprecedented rise of consumer culture. Though Ekuan’s philosophy of design gracefully encompassed the natural and man-made forces of destruction that he viewed as an inevitable part of the life and history of the Japanse archipelago, he may not have been fully prepared for the powerful forces of production that emerged from postwar Japan. A gradual swell, soon to be a torrent, of domestically manufactured consumer goods followed in the wake of reconstruction. From the late ’50s onward, Japan’s economy was robust enough to sustain and develop one of the largest and most socially stable middle classes in the world. Disposable income followed this upward trend.
To be sure, modernization was not a new phenomenon in Japan. The Meiji revolution in the nineteenth century began a national program that transformed major cities into modern metropolises almost overnight. The traditional face of the city would be forever changed by steel and concrete buildings, trams, automobiles, trucks, neon, and festoons of overhead wires. After the war, the rise of individualism and the consumer appetites it fostered—not to be confused with modernization itself—presented problems for design. The sheer quantity of products hitting the market, largely indifferent to design sensibility and sometimes outright ugly, became a pressing problem for Ekuan.
Ekuan’s outlook was shared by classmates at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. In 1952, they founded the GK Design Group, which he headed until his death. His was a generation philosophically influenced by the ideology of the war years and as a consequence collectively assumed the responsibility to rebuild the nation. Such an effort required contending with values quite opposed to those of their fascist precursors, assimilating western democracy and individualism while also contending with an ever-expanding domestic market and the public’s increasing desire for foreign technology and ideas. Nothing better illustrates the shift toward consumerism in the ’50s than the recasting of the venerated “three sacred treasures” that defined the Japanese imperial household—the mirror, jewel, and sword—into the whimsical, ironic trio of consumables—“senpuki, sentakuki, suihanki,” or electric fan, washing machine, and electric rice cooker—that defined the domestic realm in postwar Japan. Ekuan believed that some spirit of the former symbols must carry over into the new mass-produced reality, not only for the personal enjoyment of the consumer but as a vital symbol of what Arata Isozaki would later term “Japan-ness.”
Kenji Ekuan, Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, 1961.
Ekuan saw beauty as paramount in design, always trumping mere utility. His account of the hundred failed prototypes of the Kikkoman bottle is a testament to the exacting and hellish process of reconciling the forces of modern marketing, mass production, and performance with traditional Japanese aesthetics. One can be certain that the quantitative issues concerned with the bottle’s design (i.e., size, volume, materials, cost, its famous dripless spout, etc.) were accounted for early on in the series. The infinitely more demanding qualitative issue of arriving at the right form for the bottle—one that would be regarded as canonical—consumed the rest of the prototypes. This process of assimilating the new requires lengthy development and gradual refinement, which in a traditional society would span generations of craftspeople. The perfect form must appear unauthored, inevitable, timeless, uninflected by the passions, salient yet modest—in a word: ideal. As Ekuan wrote in his book The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox, 1980, “Beauty may be endowed with a somewhat violent procreational effect. It is dictatorial in its refusal of ugliness, and possesses considerable power of destruction. Used resourcefully, it becomes a purging force, for beauty is borne of spiritual precision.” Ekuan's panoply of techniques would assimilate the new in two ways. First, it would seek to find models in traditional form-making if a model could be found—the Kikkoman bottle has obvious antecedents in traditional ceramic sake flasks. Second, if the object had no traditional precedent (as in his design in 1979 for the wafer-thin Sharp pocket calculator), then its form would be dictated by a traditional ethos guided by the Shinto principles of “intensification, purification, and dynamism.”
The Japanese traditionally attach particular importance to the beautiful object; traditional craft objects are venerated for their formal excellence and understood to have an autonomous life. For Ekuan, the redemptive value of the tradition of good form—in its expanded sense, encompassing things, ideas, and actions—became, if not a way to hold back the sea, then at least a way to find a space of balance and tranquility in it. If modern life in Japan (as everywhere else) is a tumult of ugliness, he showed us that this chaos could, at least for a moment, be rendered invisible by introducing an extraordinary object into the world.
Jesse Reiser is a professor of architecture at Princeton University and a founding principal of Reiser + Umemoto in New York.