The picture above is by the American print artist, Michael Knigin. Michael Knigin was a native of New York, a Professor at the Pratt Graphic Centre in New York and co-owner of the Chiron Press where he worked with Andy Warhol, Louise Nevelson, Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons, and Tom Wesselman. In this way he echoed the careers of ukiyo-e printmakers like Toyokuni who were robustly involved in the business of designing, printing and publishing. Knigin is well regarded in the States, a NASA commissioned artist for major space events and his work is held in collections of Brooklyn Museum, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and many other institutions.
The print is one of at least four large scale screenprints from a 1976 series that borrow their imagery from a woodblock print series by the Osaka ukiyo-e printmaker Yoshitaki. The Yoshitaki prints date from 1865:
Very unusually there are ten prints in this series which propose at least, roles in the play Narihibiku date no yudachi, although the print is a mitate and the actors in reality may never have performed them in real life.
Knigin keeps the bars of lighting in the background but replaces the shaded charcoal grey of the Yoshitaki with half-toned and screen-printed aerial views of New York City. I think that this is the first time that the original Japanese prints have been identified and associated with the Knigin. The Toshidama Gallery has acquired several Knigin prints and is showing one of these – Number 2 – at the forthcoming exhibition on kabuki theatre woodblock prints. A comparison betweeen it and the original Yoshitaki reveals a great deal about the design process.
As you can see from the above comparison, Knigin has made only slight changes to the figure of kabuki actor Enjaku I in his print. He has deftly adapted the small scale techniques of the woodblock – 24cm x 18cm blown up to 81cm x 60cm – to the large scale technique of the modern screenprint. In the screen-print, Enjaku towers over a toy town city but to what end?
Juxtaposition was the primary tool of postmodernism in painting during the 80’s and 90’s. Colliding two differing cultural tropes was easy stuff and produced unexpected and challenging results. There is something of that approach in this to be sure but there is also surely a deeper acknowledgement of the ‘spectre’ of Japanese influence over American culture… something that Americans try hard to deny. American intellectuals immersed themselves entirely in Japanese culture almost as soon as the gunships of Commander Perry blockaded the port of Nagasaki in the 1860’s.
Japanese domestic and castle architecture came to influence the architecture of the very city that Enjaku towers over in the Knigin print… Frank Lloyd Wright’s obsession with Japan and Japanese woodblock prints was a primary influence in the development and the creation of the modern skyscraper. That love affair of course comes crashing down in 1942. American coyness about its crush on Japanese culture is only now beginning to lift; perhaps this print series and others that Knigin embarked upon reflect something of that complex affair.
Of course screen-printing itself is essentially and historically a Japanese technique. Originally silk threads were used to hold the islands of paper stencils together when colouring in by hand the early monochrome woodblock prints of the 17th century. It’s instructive when looking at what seems like the innovative visual aproach of an artist like Andy Warhol to make at lest a casual nod to primary influence!
Kabuki! Art of Yakusha-e is at the Toshidama Gallery, online from 18th March 2021.