Ray Yoshida 1930–2009

Ray Yoshida was instrumental in establishing the distinctly-Chicago take on Pop Art in the 1960s and 1970s, both as an artist and educator. As a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for over forty years, Yoshida urged young artists to develop their unique personal visions and stressed the importance of becoming well-versed in visual artifacts, high and low, from all around the world, instead of limiting oneself to the Western canon of painting. Yoshida was an avid collector of all sorts of folk art, objects, curiosities and what he called “trash treasures.” This collecting impulse is reflected in the playful, exploratory and wide-ranging visual language of his paintings and collages.

Yoshida was born in 1930 in Kapaa, Hawaii and began his formal training at the University of Hawaii. He received a BFA from SAIC in 1953 and an MFA in 1958 from Syracuse University, where he studied under Ad Reinhardt. He returned to Chicago the following year to begin his teaching career at SAIC and had his first solo show in 1960 at the Middle Hall Gallery in Rockford, Illinois. His early work is characterized by expressionistic brushwork that builds into organic abstractions, meticulous in their form and color. Never overly-serious, Yoshida’s paintings from the 1960s exude an erotic wit and a concern for ancient and global visual motifs.

The late 1960s brought about a new and important era for Yoshida. The advent of Pop Art and the formation of the Chicago Imagists, artists who were mainly studying with and working alongside Yoshida, prompted him to start creating his Comic Book Specimen collages. He had been interested in comics from a young age and applied his interest in gestures, discrete forms, “low” art, typology and the idea of the part containing the whole to these works, which are humorous, surreal and a bit unsettling. Unlike the Pop Art movements occurring on the coasts, Chicago’s take did not attempt to aestheticize and elevate the banal through formal modernist principles; nor did it cultivate an air of detached cool. Instead, Chicago Pop artists manipulated common objects and occurrences, using their inherent strangeness, alienation and sexuality to produce a riling visual experience. Yoshida was a leader in this movement, encouraging his students to build an iconography based on their direct, daily encounters. The titles of some of his paintings from this era speak to the prevailing mood: Exploding Objects, Superficial Concerns, Impractical Accessories.

Yoshida’s work continued to evolve, with the 1970s ushering in a prolific period of paintings of robed figures, psychologically tense in their interactions with each other and their domestic surroundings, as well as series of typological works that were self-referential in exploring and expanding upon the personal visual language Yoshida had built. His works in the 1980s and 1990s became more patterned and dense as he returned to figuration and some of his earlier motifs, re-rendering them with his matured and masterly approach to painting. Throughout the decades, he also remained committed to championing and learning from outsider artists such as Martín Ramírez, Lee Godie and Dwight Yoakum and collecting folk and naïve art and artifacts.

Yoshida exhibited regularly at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago and New York and had retrospectives at N.A.M.E. Gallery in Chicago in 1984 and one in 1998 at the Contemporary Museum, Honolulu that also traveled to the Chicago Cultural Center. He retired from SAIC in 2005 after falling ill and spent the remainder of his life in Hawaii until his death in 2009. A posthumous retrospective was held at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries in 2010 and his work is held in such collections as The Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

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