Japanese Artist Tetsuya Ishida Dreamed of Having a Solo Show in New York Before His Untimely Death. Two Decades Later, Gagosian Is Honoring His Wish
Gagosian, which now represents Ishida globally, will present the late artist's New York solo debut, curated by Cecilia Alemani.
More than two decades ago, when Tetsuya Ishida was still a young emerging artist in Japan, he was already dreaming big. He had his eyes set on New York, wishing that he would one day have his solo exhibition in the center of the contemporary art world. He was preparing himself, saving money from a part-time job and learning English when he was not painting.
Ishida’s dream, however, did not materialize prior to his untimely death in 2005 at the age of 31 due to a train accident. But that was not the end of his story: This fall, the late Japanese artist’s wish will come true next month when Gagosian opens “Tetsuya Ishida: My Anxious Self” at its 555 West 24th Street space in New York on September 12.
Featuring more than 80 works, the exhibition, curated by Cecilia Alemani, is set to be the artist’s largest show outside of his native Japan. The gallery is also now representing Ishida globally in association with the artist’s estate, Artnet News can exclusively reveal.
“In getting to know the family over the past several years, we learned that an exhibition in New York was Tetsuya’s greatest artistic ambition, and we are incredibly honored to present his paintings in New York on the 50th anniversary of his birth,” Nick Simunovic, senior director of Gagosian in Asia, told Artnet News.
Born in Yaizu, Japan, in 1973, Ishida grew up as part of the country’s “lost generation,” a term referring to those who graduated during the 1990s and 2000s in a period of recession. During his short-lived artist career, Ishida created about 200 works. The sentiment of loss and despair experienced among this generation during a decade marred by high unemployment and high suicide rates can be felt in Ishida’s poignant paintings and graphic works.
Often meticulously detailed, Ishida’s paintings depict expressionless or sad faces of young men, their human bodies merged with objects surrounding them, including plastic bags, airplanes, buildings, broken satellites, machine parts, and animals like crabs and seahorses. At times, his human figures appear nearly lifeless in his paintings, lying on a conveyor belt or arriving as packaged goods.
Critics in Japan relate Ishida’s work with the country’s dominating manga and anime culture, but at the same time, this “convergence” with objects can also be understood as a visualization of the psychological survival mechanism needed during a repressive time.
“At first, it was a self-portrait. I tried to make myself—my weak self, my pitiful self, my anxious self—into a joke or something funny that could be laughed at… It was sometimes seen as a parody or satire referring to contemporary people. As I continued to think about this, I expanded it to include consumers, city-dwellers, workers, and the Japanese people,” the artist was quoted in a statement.
Ishida’s works were exhibited and collected in some parts of Asia but they did not get to travel beyond the region until November 2013, when Gagosian held a solo exhibition of the artist at its Hong Kong space, the artist’s first outside of Japan.
Recalling the organization of the exhibition, Simunovic, who was leading the gallery’s Hong Kong operation at the time, was first introduced to the artist’s enigmatic paintings through a Hong Kong collector more than 12 years ago. “I was immediately taken with the work and showed it to Larry [Gagosian], who was equally captivated,” Simunovic said. “We both agreed that it would be interesting to present an exhibition and, as we didn’t know the family at the time, we began making plans to mount a show of work from the secondary market. We secured great loans from collectors across Asia.”
The 2013 Hong Kong exhibition became a turning point for Ishida’s art. Jessica Morgan, a curator at the Tate at the time, saw the show and subsequently included the artist in the 2014 edition of Gwangju Biennale, when she served as its artistic director. “Okwui Enwezor, who was on the Gwangju jury at the time, was fascinated by Ishida and the power of his work, and, in turn, featured the artist in his exhibition for the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015,” Simunovic noted. And then, Reina Sofia’s curatorial team saw the Venice show and subsequently offered Ishida’s family a solo show at the museum in Madrid in 2019.
In between, the artist’s relatives became aware of the growing reputation of his work and reached out to Simunovic. “We slowly began building a relationship and we were given works for sale, which we placed in esteemed collections around the world,” he said.
The gallery and the artist’s family were initially working on a show in New York, which was stalled due to the Covid-19 lockdowns. “We believe in his work and feel it’s extremely important that it be seen and understood in the West,” Simunovic said. The 80 works to be featured in the New York show represent nearly half of Ishida’s entire body of work. Some of them are on loan from the collection of the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, which is located in the artist’s home town in Japan, as well as other private collections. Others are from the estate and will be available for sale, but Simunovic declined to reveal exactly how many works and the price range.
Simunovic is confident the show will resonate with an audience in the West. Ishida’s art, which addresses the themes of disconnection, alienation, and despair, are universal and highly relevant to the current times, he added.
“We live in a pluralistic art world where there are countless western collectors who enjoy collecting Asian contemporary art, just as there are countless Asian collectors who are avidly collecting western contemporary art,” he said.
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