Yasuo Kuniyoshi was born in Okayama, Japan on September 1, 1893 to a working-class family. Alternate sources cite 1889, however, as the year of Kuniyoshi’s birth, which would concur with the artist’s claim that he was born in the Year of the Cow or Ox.
As a teenager, Kuniyoshi persuaded his father to let him come to the United States instead of doing his required stint in the Imperial Army, and by 1906 Yasuo had boarded a ship bound for Seattle. A series of menial labor jobs financed his route to California, where he learned English and eventually enrolled in the Los Angeles School of Art and Design.
Yas in New York
Kuniyoshi’s artistic aspirations led him to New York to study with realists Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller, and to befriend other up and coming talents like Stuart Davis and Walt Kuhn. In 1919, “Yas” married Katherine Schmidt, another fellow artist, and began dividing his time between Manhattan and the creative upstate community of Woodstock, New York. The versatile Kuniyoshi developed his talents as a painter, photographer, printmaker and lithographer, worked for the Federal Art Project during the Depression, and also had a respected teaching career.
In terms of style, Kuniyoshi often fused certain Asian elements with sights and scenes from his adopted American homeland, along with a personal otherworldly dreaminess. At times his palette was somber, yet he could also produce vibrantly bright—yet ironically less idealistic—paintings. He was fond of carnival and burlesque themes, animal figures, still lifes, landscapes and portraits of beautifully melancholy women, working with multifaceted energy and sometimes, as he noted, having a dozen projects “going all at once.”
Kuniyoshi and World War II
Though Kuniyoshi earned critical acclaim and awards such as a Guggenheim Fellowship in the 1930s, his Japanese heritage and appearance became of issue with the arrival of World War II. Kuniyoshi outrightly condemned Japan and worked for American war efforts, but he still found himself caught up within a haze of suspicion adding to any preexisting prejudices against Asians in America.
Following the war, Kuniyoshi was able to regain his equilibrium and was elected as the first President of the Artists’ Equity Association in 1947. In 1948, the Whitney Museum of American Art honored Kuniyoshi with its then only retrospective of a living artist—a welcome change in status for a man who had been labeled as an enemy alien by the U.S. government just a few years before.
Yasuo Kuniyoshi died of cancer in May of 1953 in New York, survived by his second wife, Sarah Mazo. His artwork can be found in many American museum collections, and in the 1990s, his home city of Okayama established a museum of his own in his honor.