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Wednesday, April 24, 2002

U.S. collection takes a trip home

Staff writer

What is a Japanese art collection doing in the middle of a farm in California?

Looking perfectly at home.

News photo
Willard Clark (above) stands in front of the Daiitoku Myoo; Ueda Kochu's "Boy on a Bull"
News photo

More than 700 Japanese artworks -- hanging scrolls, sculptures and paintings, from the eighth to the 20th century -- are comfortably ensconced at the Ruth & Sherman Lee Institute for Japanese Art at the Clark Center, Hanford, Calif. About 10 percent of the collection is on regular display.

Institute founder Willard Clark's passionate appreciation of Japanese art began more than 30 years ago. His collection entered the public domain when he and his wife, Elizabeth, opened the center in 1996. Today, the institute's aim is to collect, conserve, study and exhibit Japanese artwork.

Now, some 95 items have been brought back to Japan. They are on display at Tokyo's Suntory Museum of Art till May 19, after which they will tour the country until next February.

"I feel happy and honored to send them back [to Japan]," says Clark. "I feel like a proud father."

The collection, divided into 10 sections for the exhibition, comprises serious, scholarly and orthodox art on the one hand, and humorous, playful and bizarre works on the other. Clark hopes that the exhibition will showcase the rich diversity of Japanese art and expose its audience to paintings little known in Japan, yet of substantial artistic value.

It includes paintings by minor but accomplished artists, such as Mihata Joryo's "Reclining Bull" (late Edo Period) and examples of what Clark calls "funny" or humorous art. In Joryo's "Young Woman and Boy" (ca. 1830-44), for example, a boy shamelessly ogles a kimono-clad young lady, trying to catch a glimpse of her ankles as she walks by.

"I think Japanese art is so original," Clark says. "They have more humor in their funny art than in any other country."

Some of the comical paintings in the Lee Institute collection seem to hold a personal appeal for him: he declares that the frog in Dairyusai's "Frog and Mouse" and the kyogen mask in a painting by Goshun (both late Edo Period) bear a passing resemblance to himself. He says that he initially kept his collection of Japanese humorous art to himself -- for fear of being ridiculed for not being a serious collector. But later, to his surprise, he found that many others shared his enjoyment of such pieces.

There is little humor, however, in the magnificent piece that Clark considers the most important in the collection. This is a glittering-eyed, wooden Kamakura Period sculpture of Daiitoku Myoo, radiant and dignified, and riding a bull.

Daiitoku's mount is not the only bull in the collection -- and no wonder, for the Californian's business is cattle breeding.

Clark's choice of artwork is based solely upon whether he enjoys it or not. "If I see a painting, it turns a key in my ignition," he says. "It makes my heart start."

Clark was first inspired to collect Japanese art by Joe Price's Shin'enkan Collection, which he came across in 1976 at the National Museum of Asian Art's Freer Gallery of Art (part of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.). He started acquiring Japanese artwork from dealers in Japan and at auctions.

Many of the finest works in the collection were bought on the advice of Sherman Lee, director emeritus of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Although Lee is a connoisseur of work by prominent artists, Clark says, he also understands the other side of art, the "quirky, offbeat and bizarre." To honor Lee, Clark named the institute after him.

Over the years, Clark has also endeavored to promote Japanese art studies, realizing there are many gifted students of Japanese art history around the globe, yet there is a dearth of jobs for them -- and even fewer opportunities for hands-on training. Soon after the institute opened, Clark established a curatorial internship program which allows students of Japanese art history to spend 10 months conducting original research at the institute. The program culminates with the opportunity for interns to curate an exhibition there. Previous interns are now all engaged in doctoral research, and several are employed at U.S. museums.

What gives Clark the most satisfaction, however, is the time he spends appreciating his own collection.

At night, he often goes to the museum alone with a martini and some hors d'oeuvres on a tray. With a Bach CD playing in the background, he moves around the museum, looking carefully at each piece.

"It's just wonderful. I'm the luckiest man on earth," he says.

"Delightful Pursuits: Highlights From the Lee Institute for Japanese Art at the Clark Center" runs till May 19 at Suntory Museum of Art 11F, 1-2-3 Moto Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo, (03) 3470-1073. The exhibition then tours to Osaka, Oita, Ehime and Chiba.

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