Maverick Minimalist, Gallerist, Global Citizen

Very good things are worth a very long wait. A prime example: Kazuko Miyamoto’s trim, airy, beautifully installed “To perform a line” at the Japan Society, a survey of work by an artist who has been an admired and integral but underknown member of New York City’s downtown art community for more than 50 years. The founder of Gallery Onetwentyeight on Rivington Street is only now having her first institutional show.

Born in Tokyo in 1942, Miyamoto — who initially used her given name, Kazuko, as a professional moniker — immigrated to the United States in 1964, settling first in Harlem. She had studied painting in Tokyo and continued to do so for four years at the Art Students League, where her primary teacher was Charles Alston (1907-1977), a figurative painter who encouraged her abstract work.

In the late 1960s, she relocated downtown, to the Lower East Side. There her immediate neighbors included the Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt (1928-2007). They met by accident — a fire scare in the Hester Street building they shared brought them both out to the street one night — and became instant friends. LeWitt, who had spent time in Japan, hired her as his studio assistant in charge of fabricating his four-square openwork grid sculptures.

Kazuko Miyamoto in her studio at 117 Hester Street, on the Lower East Side, date unknown.Credit…Kazuko Miyamoto and EXILE, Vienna

Her own work in the early 1970s took an abstract geometric direction, though without becoming rigorously hard-edge. In one large 1972 painting, the geometric elements are columns of black, spray-painted, soft-focus spheres. Another from the following year, titled “Ways of Fern,” is a field of open rectangles, but in all of them the upright lines are half-broken, cracked. The result is a kind of tremulous latticework, a grid with a case of the shakes.

And when she moved into sculpture she replaced Minimalism’s standard construction-site materials — lumber, steel, house paint — with one of her own: industrial-strength cotton string. Several early string pieces have been recreated for the show, organized by Tiffany Lambert, an independent curator. The earliest and most LeWittian of them is not far from being a painting: for it she hammered small nails into a wall of her Hester Street studio and wrapped black string around them to produce rows of relief-like, shadow-casting squares.

Then she began complicating the spatial play by extending hundreds of lengths of string diagonally out from the wall and attaching them to the floor, producing cascading forms that looked both densely streamlined and semitransparent. Carefully plotted in preliminary drawings, these constructions are as complex as weavings and visually kinetic. They shimmer and shift as you walk by.

Miyamoto’s “Ways of Fern,” from 1973.Credit…Kazuko Miyamoto and Zürcher Gallery, New York/Paris

In essence, they refer to Minimalism’s implicitly masculinist formal language — rigidity, solidity, monumentality (most of the artists identified with the movement were men) — but undercut it with ephemerality and optical play. A 1981 photographic image in the show gives a sense of the work’s antic spirit. We see Miyamoto posing nude, head on the floor and legs kicking high in the air against a backdrop of two big LeWitt grid sculptures that she was presumably in the process of fabricating after his instructions. (LeWitt, it should be said, was an avid collector of her art, with some 50 pieces in his collection.)

Feminism of the 1970s deeply shaped her art. She was an early member of A.I.R. Gallery, the all-female collectively run space then in SoHo (and now in Dumbo, Brooklyn). There she had five solo shows from 1975 to 1983, and curated, with Zarina Hashmi and Ana Mendieta, the group show titled “Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States.”

Her identity as an immigrant is also essential to her art. The third and most moving —because it is the most autobiographical — section of the Japan Society show is devoted to a continuing series of works based on the form of the kimono, a cultural artifact with personal meaning for this artist. As a child she learned from her mother how to make the T-shaped garment, which she wore as a young student of traditional Japanese dance.

The exhibition’s third section is devoted to a series of works based on the form of the kimono. At right, “Wedding Kimono” (2004).Credit…Naho Kubota/Japan Society

Displayed in free-standing suspension in the gallery — in an outstanding exhibition design by the New York City-based studio Ransmeier, Inc. —- the kimonos on view range from a vintage robe owned by the artist’s family, to one she constructed in 1990 from a Japanese newspaper. Treating all of them as wearable sculptures and paintings, she makes telling additions.

The fabric of one kimono is imprinted with photographs of her own performance work. Another, “Wedding Kimono,” is hand-inscribed with a love poem by the ninth-century Japanese female poet Ono no Komachi. And a third, “Bowery Mission Kimono” (1990), bears a charcoal drawing of a homeless shelter that has managed to survive in the ruthlessly gentrifying Manhattan neighborhood the artist has lived in for more than half a century, and to which she makes a continuing contribution.

In 1987, in a Rivington Street storefront, she opened Gallery Onetwentyeight, dedicated to giving an eclectic range of artists, young and old, newbie and veteran, native New Yorker and immigrant, first shows. The gallery, which has also doubled as a work space for her, made it through the 1980s East Village art boom and bust, and still generates a sense of the hardscrabble exhilaration of that experimental time and place at its best. So does the work in “To perform a line,” which isn’t actually a retrospective.

At left, “Untitled” (1972); right, “String Around a Cylinder of My Height” (1977).Credit…Naho Kubota/Japan Society

It leaves out, I assume for lack of space — the Japan Society galleries aren’t large — examples of the artist’s extraordinary 1980s sculptures made from rope, twisted paper and tree branches. (They were highlights of a fine, small survey at Zürcher Gallery in Manhattan in 2021.) Nor is there an account of Miyamoto’s performance work apart from a few pictures included in a kind of scrapbook collage of photos spread over a wall outside the show.

What’s here, though, is something that feels more vital and precious than a dutifully completist narrative might. It’s an elastic picture of an adventurous, open-to-everything, 24/7 career, very much in progress, of an artist who is an active embodiment of an ethos, generosity, now in short supply, and who — not a moment too soon but, thankfully, not too late — is getting a showcase she’s earned. The result is an exhibition of really good art, that’s also a record of a really good life.

Kazuko Miyamoto: To Perform a Line

Through July 10 at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, Manhattan; (212) 832-1155,