Ontological Esthetics: Ted Kurahara’s Paintings by Donald Kuspit

The ontological goal pursued by the work of art is always to give the receptor “a little too much” information, a little too much originality; this “too much” is what is called the perceptual richness of the work of art…
- Abraham Moles, Information Theory and Esthetic Perception

How does Ted Kurahara generate the “too much” that gives his paintings their perceptual richness and esthetic originality, for they are among the most subtly original works in the grand tradition of abstract color field painting? It stretches back at least to Malevich’s Suprematism, which Kurahara acknowledges as an influence - witness his grid, with its iconic modular squares, as well as the square format of many of his paintings - and to Kandinsky, whom Kurahara does not acknowledge, even though his ideas about the “spiritual” meaning of different colors (for example, “red is always life as bright yellow indicates presence”) tend to coincide with those of Kandinsky in the “effects of color” chapter in On The Spiritual in Art (1912).

Kurahara is not only a purist - an esthetic fundamentalist - but gives the painterly and structural components of abstraction a new fundamentality, paring them down to epitomizing essentials while exquisitely blending them to new esthetic effect. Paradoxically, struggling to downplay the difference between them - to reconcile the “touchy” color and simple geometry of the structure, so that each seems unable to exist without the other - Kurahara gives each a more individualized, distinctive presence than it would have if it existed alone (as gesturally rich color does in Kandinsky’s early paintings, and geometrical elements do in Suprematist painting, however sometimes colored but never gesturally vivid). Dialectical co-existing in the same painting, Kurahara’s painterly color and “supreme” geometry acquire the presentational immediacy - to use Whitehead’s term - of the whole painting. It hints of the integration of the perceptual and conceptual opposites - proposes their “mystical” oneness, as it were (hence the “mystifying,” numinous quality of Kurahara’s paintings) - even as it conveys the “perplexing” esthetic friction between them, giving the paintings their exciting immediacy. It is as though formless color and geometrically formed structure were parallel lines of esthetic development that meet in the infinity of the abstract sublime. It is this aura of infinity - the almost palpable sublime, implicit in the infinitely extendible grid and the atmospheric infinity of the color - that is the “too much” that makes Kurahara’s paintings not only perceptually original but emotionally evocative.

For what Kandinsky called internal necessity, conveyed through color, subverts the geometrical objectivity of the grid, adding a “maximalist” tone to its “minimalist” appearance. Kurahara’s rich color, with its variable tones, resonates in feeling, and immersed in color - almost absorbed, even dissolved by color - so does the grid, suggesting the truth of Moles’s observation that “esthetic information… determines internal states” (in contrast to “semantic information,” which deals “with the state of the external world”). It seems no accident that Kurahara thinks of his paintings as portraits: the grid can be understood as the final step in the esthetic purification of the face begun by Jawlensky’s grid-like construction of it. Can we think of the grid as the incommunicado core of the self, to use Winnicott’s idea, and the color that veils it as the emotional atmosphere in and through which its numinous presence can be felt? It is the old problem of figure (grid) and ground (surrounding space) given a new “psycho-esthetic” twist, to use Moles’s term.

The immediacy of Kurahara’s color and geometry - of each pure painting - indicates that immediacy is not “derived,” as Derrida says it always is. “Supplementary mediation” hinders one’s sense of immediacy - the sense immediacy in and through which the paintings exist. “Everything begins with the intermediary,” Derrida asserts, but in experiential fact nothing does. Everything begins in sense immediacy, which is intensified in esthetic immediacy, confirming what Mondrian called “man’s drive toward intensification.” The attempt to mediate the experience of immediacy by supplementing it with language - including my attempt to write about the numinous effect of Kurahara’s immediacy (the infinite made immediate, as it were) - tends to intellectualize it in defense against the inner necessity that informs it, more particularly, the internal states or feelings, not to say sense of self, it determines.
I am saying that if one experiences the blues in Kurahara’s Lascaux Blue and Cobalt Blue or the yellow in his Double Indian Yellow or the red in his Red Hues 1 as exclusively physical phenomena, then one is spiritually and esthetically blind, that is, insensitive to one’s own internal states and perceptually indifferent. Kurahara’s paintings are originary perceptions of internal states of the self at its most “necessary” - affective communications of an incommunicado core self. For Kurahara, the ontological fundamentals of esthetic experience and subjective experience are one and the same and even interchangeable, as the fact that immediate esthetic states and profound internal states are correlate, interconnected, simultaneous, and dialectically determine each other’s subtlety in his paintings.

Donald Kuspit is a poet and art critic. He is currently University Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. One of America's most distinguished writers, he was formerly the A. D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University (1991-1997). He received the Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism in 1983 given by the College Art Association. In 1997 he received a Lifetime Distinction award for contributions to the visual arts from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. His essay "Reconsidering the Spiritual in Art" appears in Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts.

Pictured Above:

(Red Horizontal)
Variations: Red Hues I
36 x 72 inches, Acrylic on Canvas, 2008

(Yellow Diptych)
Double Indian Yellow
2 panels of 72 inches x 36 inches, Acrylic on Canvas, 2008

(Blue Vertical)
Lascaux Blue and Cobalt Blue
72 x 36 inches, Acrylic on Canvas, 2009



Walter Randel Gallery takes great pleasure in announcing the second one-person exhibition of the paintings of Ted Kurahara. These abstractions, called "Portraits" are in fact his most recent works exploring color as subjects. They are intense investigations of their interactions and relationships in his most bold and vibrant work to date. An abstract painter born in Seattle, Kurahara has been working in New York since 1959. Janet Koplos in Art in America's review of his first one-person show at Walter Randel Gallery most astutely observed the subtle differences in his manifestly rational panels of color, “the result of these variations is that the whole installation resonates with ricocheting relationships, within single panels, between dual panels, between adjacent works and even across the room."

In this new body of work, the same reverberation and intensity is revealed within the confines of one painting, as well as the installation as a whole. Kurahara has excised all imperfection and hesitation, as critic Jerome Sans wrote of his technique and has developed a way of seeing which demands of the viewer a contemplative examination of both the very basic and fundamental as well as that which is not readily accessible. Subtlety and delicate modulations are key elements in his approach to painting.

Mario Naves' assessment of the work in his New York Observer review of the inaugural exhibition of 2007 at Walter Randel Gallery is that the artist "mines stringent turf (leaving) little wiggle room for the vagaries of individuality." True to this exigent observation, though the exhibition includes "portraits" of rich reds, joyful yellows and brooding blues, it is Kurahara’s works with black and white that are the most challenging and rigorous. As the artist comments, " I use just black and white for their simplicity; but also for their complexity, as all colors reside there."

Ted Kurahara is a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Guggenheim Fellowship. He has exhibited world-wide in France, Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland. His paintings, artist's books and drawings are included in the collections of Yale University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Columbia University, Pratt Institute, and the Museo Civico in Taverna.

Pictured Above:

Tints of Cadmium Yellow Medium, 2009
Cadmium Red over Alizarin Crimson, 2008

24 x 24 inches, Acrylic on Canvas


Ted Kurahara is an abstract painter born in Seattle and working in New York.  His paintings, seemingly minimal, are very rich and alluring as a result of a thoughtful and meticulous layering of paint.  The works address the strengths of silence and solitude. His recent exhibition Facing the Wall: Recent Abstractions was reviewed by Mario Naves in The New York Observer. 

Mr. Naves wrote, “Ted Kurahara’s diptych paintings, at Walter Randel Gallery, mine stringent turf—symmetrical geometric structures that admit little wiggle room for the vagaries of individuality…

Brooding colors predominate, but it’s the scumbled pinkish tones in two single-panel paintings that divulge Mr. Kurahara’s romantic streak.”

Donald B. Kuspit has written that Ted Kurahara’s paintings have “ a manifest rational look, but tingles with irrational excitement–  the latent sensuality built into the picture by the painting process…The generation of the effect of the unexpected within what seems a “predictable” surface is a major task of this kind of painting, a task Kurahara accomplishes exquisitely.”

Ted Kurahara received his art training in St. Louis and did graduate work in Peoria, Illinois before arriving in New York City in 1959.  While working in the supportive and energized atmosphere of downtown New York, he showed at the Mi Chou Gallery, one of the first important Asian-American venues in America.  He has exhibited world-wide, notably in France, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland, to great critical acclaim.

In essence, Ted Kurahara’s oeuvre speaks about quiet yet forceful persistence; there is in his work the desperate and successful search for the fundamental and the inaccessible. As the critic Jerome Sans noted, “All imperfection, all hesitation has been excised.