Fun & Games: Who Said Art Had To Be So Serious?

Over an intricately and beautifully prepared homemade meal, Artparasites dines with Japanese artist Nobu Fukui and his wife, Kwisoon. The setting is their immaculately kept, warm and inviting apartment (part home, part studio) in the heart of Chelsea. To the taste of red wine, moist and tender chicken, farro, seasoned corn husk, South African Rooibos tea, and fresh raspberry pie straight from the oven (all courtesy of Kwisoon), we exchange anecdotes on topics spanning from Andy Warhol’s short temper (Fukui knew him personally) to Fukui’s alleged nickname as the “Pie Prince” (prince of eating pies, not baking them). The most notable topic of the night, however, is of course Fukui’s personal journey as an artist.

Nobu Fukui is known for his colorful collage paintings made of newspaper, circularly cut images and beads. This is an artist deeply entrenched in pure visuality as well as a charming, raspy-voiced man who experienced and took part in a fascinating time of experiment and transition.

Food For Thought

APs: Why did you decide to come to the U.S. from Japan?

Nobu Fukui: After high school, I decided to come here. The first time after the war [World War II], a contemporary American art show came to Tokyo—blew my mind. This was 1962. One hundred and two Americans—Rauschenberg, Franz Kline and a lot of expressionists. When I saw this I thought, 'Wow! If this is possible, I want to go and take a look.' That’s why I decided to come here. It was very difficult to get out of Japan because there was a very strict foreign exchange law; my father found somebody in Chicago to sponsor me.

Great dinner (thank you Kwisoon!) over great conversation at the Fukui household. Photo: Elizabeth Borda

APs: Which artist affected you the most?

NF: In the Japanese art magazines, I saw Jackson Pollock. That was a really incredible experience, just looking at his production. It was a very interesting time when I came. I came to America December of ’62. I was in Chicago until March and then I came here with a big trunk in a Greyhound bus without knowing anybody. Jack Kérouac was still around. Allen Ginsberg was reading poetry in the Village Café. It was a really interesting transitional time.

On a tour through Nobu Fukui's studio and history as an artist. Photo: Elizabeth Borda

APs: How did you start creating your collage paintings? You seem to have a very distinct style.

NFI went through a lot of styles of work. My interest shifts. I never really believed in establishing one style. Long time ago, I decided I’m not a great talent. I don’t have some ambitious idea of what art should be or what can I do for art. My philosophy was: I love painting. I cannot live without painting, producing. I’ll paint whatever I like. Whatever way I like, regardless of anything. My two loves are painting and writing.

One summer, Isamu [Fukui’s son] was collecting bugs and then he was painting using color marker. I said, 'Wow, this is beautiful.' He said, 'Well, when I see something I like, I copy it. If you like them so much, why don’t you copy it?' That’s how I started to paint a series of bug paintings.

The unconventional media of Nobu Fukui. Photo: Elizabeth Borda

As for the collage paintings, one day Isamu brought a few beads from art class and he was playing with them—it was very interesting. He and I made a painting together. So I started with the beads on the canvas. I wasn’t really crazy about comic books but, one day, I was at Barnes & Noble with my children and I found a digest of comic books. So I bought it and then cut them out. Anything interesting—magazines, catalogs—I’ll cut. I have a collection. These cut out images become like my paint. I select which and make a combination.

APs: Are you ever trying to convey a message through your selected imagery?

NF: There is no message. Images are all visual. Even though there might be a theme, there’s no particular meaning behind it. To me, it’s just visual. What you see is what you see. I like to have a lot of elements in my paintings. So as you look at my paintings from far away, it looks totally abstract and all you see is color. So as you go closer, you start recognizing images, and then people start going, 'Oh…'—I like that. Most important thing when you do art: when you create something, you must have fun. And I have lots of fun making paintings.

Artist Nobu Fukui is full of fun stories, just like his work. Photo: Elizabeth Borda

APs: You mentioned earlier that you wrote; do you still write?

NF: Yes, I wrote two years ago a 220 page novel. It’s called The Tama River.* That’s where I grew up, so it’s based on childhood memories. It’s a very quiet story. I was fat. When I was a kid, people picked on me. But I was strong and I didn’t just take it. Anybody who teased me, I went after them and punched them. I was branded a bully. I was bullied so I tried to protect my integrity. I didn’t have any friends. Then fifth or sixth grade, this little girl came into class and she had heart trouble. We became friends. And it’s that kind of story. It was 50 or 60 years ago. This story shows more or less how I started to paint seriously.

*Although Nobu’s novel is not yet published, let’s hope we’re fortunate enough to read it when it is.

Nobu Fukui [Price range of works: $4,000 – $65,000]

Article by Maggie Wong