Milt Kobayashi: Intricate Web of Intrigue

“A painting,” declared Degas, “is an artificial work existing outside nature, and it requires as much cunning as the perpetration of a crime.” Milt Kobayashi’s compositions are wicked in their education, wicked in their skillful calculation and wickedly clever in their balance, their tonal contrasts and their use of negative space. In short, we’re looking at an unusually professional and well-sourced artist, cultivated in a manner uncommon in the desert of Disney that is modern America. He’s apart from his age and we need to see more of him! – Godfrey Barker, Art Correspondent of the London Evening Standard, November 1999.

New York painter Milt Kobayashi made his entrance on the international art scene in November at London’s Catto Gallery. As the artist drew the crowd of Londoners into his intricate web of intrigue, art critic Godfrey Barker turned his evaluative eye on the exhibit of Kobayashi women set in softly lit interiors. He found Degas in the poses and sulking expressions, Tiopolo in the women’s faces and Chardin in their averted glances. Noting the newly discovered artist’s “respectful attention” to Manet, Velazquez, and Japanese printmaking, Barker penned a simple profile… “Milt Kobayashi of New York – Japanese descended, California educated, and a student of the whole world of the Old Masters.”

As a young illustrator working in New York City, Milt frequented the Metropolitan Museum of Art to study the masters – Sargent, Chase, Duvanek, and Vuillard. Even today, as a highly successful painter, he returns to the museum often to spend time with the artists of the 18th and 19th century who have influenced his own work. Most recently, revisiting William Merritt Chase helped him resolve problems with larger paintings.

“I have come to appreciate Chase’s experimentation. Exploring how he attacked a painting has allowed me to look at my large canvases in a new way. For example, I have struggled for some time with spatial relationships in larger pieces, those with multiple figures. I generally use a small weave canvas; by switching to a heavier weave I am able to deal with space and the illusion of detail more easily when tackling a larger painting. Resolving this problem has completely rejuvenated me!”

An essential part of the creative process, this rejuvenation energizes Kobayashi and keeps him from stagnating. Since 1985 when Kobayashi first joined Gallery Shoal Creek, collectors have seen him stretch and spread his artist’s wings. Comparing an early catalogue of Milt’s work (1989, Grand Central Gallery, New York City, first one-man show) alongside the Catto’s fall exhibit publication reveals just how sophisticated is the end result of this evolution.

Well-seasoned confidence can be seen in recent work. The artist’s loosening, bravura brush strokes have made compositions more fluid, figures more engaging. Whether sitting or reclining, his female figures’ jaded boredom has given way to softer moods. Whereas characters once had hands busy with sewing needles or cigarettes, they now slip on more comfortable attitudes and sit back to observe. The casual poses, relaxed postures and less structured compositions are, for many, far more inviting than the hardened images of a few years ago.

Kobayashi, himself a creature of the city at night, is drawn to the same foreboding, nocturnal scenes that magnetized Toulouse-Lautrec. Now, it seems our favorite New Yorker is venturing out more during the daylight hours. While he has not totally abandoned the urban cafes and bars that dominated his work in the early ’90s, he has moved to the non-smoking section and is gravitating toward quieter settings – an afternoon tearoom, a milliner’s shop, the tranquility of a private home.

By extension, the artist’s color palette, too, has expanded. Still a tonalist, he admits to a growing freedom in his use of color. The intricacies in his fabrics and accessories fade as patches of stronger color emerge. Blocks of red or green and the artist’s extensive use of black intensify his compositional use of void space and serve to focus attention on atmosphere. While he is less and less a painter of details, it is the hint of detail that most often intrigues us, and Milt Kobayashi has perfected this fine art of subtlety. Perhaps Mr. Barker is right: only something “wickedly sinful” could possibly be such a delight!