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By Joe Houston

There is a breathtaking continuity to Tadasky’s lifelong enterprise. For more than fifty years he has made paintings of a single form: the circle. Both delimiting and infinite, the circle proliferates and reverberates in his painted universe, emerging as a powerful catalyst for stimulation and contemplation. Organized around a central axis, his orbital compositions bring our perception into sharp focus, a process that leads the attentive viewer to expanded awareness. The duality of concrete form and transcendent experience in Tadasky’s paintings, a concept whose lineage dates back to the origins of geometric abstraction, makes manifest the diverse eastern and western influences that have shaped his work from the beginning.

Tadasky was born Tadasuke Kuwayama in 1935 in the industrial city of Nagoya, Japan, the youngest of eleven children. His father was a prominent shrine builder, whose factory specialized in Shinto shrines characterized by symmetry and lack of extraneous ornament. The young Tadasky took a keen interest in the design and construction of the impressive and elegant structures, and, over time, gleaned fundamental carpentry skills from the expert craftsmen. The Kuwayama business thrived due to the demand for large scale shrines on the Korean peninsula. The factory burned during the US bombing of Nagoya in the 1940s and after the war the Kuwayama business endured by shifting its focus to miniature shrines. Tadasky still had expectations of joining the company, and after being sent to a strict religious school in Chiba, he pursued advanced study at a technical school in Tokyo, earning a certificate of engineering. But both his parents passed away while he was at school and another sibling took direction of the family business, freeing him to pursue his growing interest in art.

As a student in Tokyo Tadasky gained his first exposure to modern painting, and through American magazines, became especially enamored with geometric abstraction of Bauhaus origins. The spare Homage to the Square compositions of pioneering formalist Josef Albers were a particular revelation. Painting of such deliberate clarity had no parallel in Japan, and yet, its formal rigor resonated with the purity of the Shinto architecture Tadasky had long admired. Although postwar Tokyo was fast becoming a cosmopolitan city, vanguard art remained a foreign endeavor, and there existed few venues for modern art forms. Artist organizations and academic officials exerted control over exhibitions, mostly sanctioning traditional Japanese arts and western-style academic realism. Seeing little prospect for pursuing advanced painting in his own country, Tadasky looked toward America.

To gain admission into art school in the United States Tadasky spent several years developing a portfolio of paintings and drawings, which earned him a scholarship in 1961 to the historic Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. However, at the encouragement of his older brother Tadaaki, who had emigrated to New York several years earlier, Tadasky headed directly to New York. He soon won a scholarship to the Art Students League, taking their top prize with two sculptures and three paintings featuring circular motifs, harbingers of what was to come. Always an independent spirit Tadasky was uninspired by the traditional course of study at the League and disliked clocking in every morning as required. When Augustus Peck, director of the Brooklyn Museum Art School, offered to let him work independently in his own studio, Tadasky switched enrollment, becoming classmates with a group of young Japanese émigrés, Arakawa among them. Working undisturbed in a studio he renovated on Canal Street in lower Manhattan, Tadasky embarked upon an obsessive daily regimen of painting.

By 1962 Tadasky limited his repertoire to concentric circles radiating from a central point of his compositions. His earliest efforts executed in his own acrylic and pigment paint mixture on rectangular scraps of Masonite were characterized by staccato brushstrokes of primary colors swirling around a central pivot point, an effect akin to a Neo-pointillist cyclone. As his technical confidence increased, the raw agitation of these early works incrementally gave way to a more organized and restrained energy. While always eschewing specific external references in his paintings, Tadasky acknowledges that his ideal geometric form has many parallels in the real world, and has long surrounded himself in the studio with collections of cacti, geode cross sections, and other reminders of nature’s hidden order. “The circle is the essence of nature,” he has noted, but he has no wish to depict nature, only to convey “a power, a vibration,”1 the inherent potency of what Gestalt psychologist Rudolph Arnheim called the "primordial circle." Although Tadasky does not profess a particular religious practice, the circle in its pure form resonates with spiritualist philosophy, and appears in ritual symbols throughout diverse cultures. Critic Donald Kuspit has noted a direct correspondence with the symbolic "squared circle" of Buddhist and Hindu veneration, viewing Tadasky's abstractions as "mandalas for modern 'scientific' eyes."2

It is perhaps not surprising that Tadasky's thoughtful painting process mirrors an act of meditation. Prior to beginning each painting, Tadasky sits quietly by his blank canvas, resting his mind until a painting gains clarity in his imagination. He then executes the work starting from the outermost ring and working inward until he fully realizes his original conception. Each painting is thus envisioned in all its formal specificity following its predetermined path, deviations from which Tadasky considers "taboo." Moving to a more expansive studio in lower Manhattan Tadasky was able to execute progressively larger canvases up to six feet square, the limit of his reach. Early on he had discovered that the most effective way of painting circles was not by moving the brush across the picture plane, but by rotating the canvas under his brush, and he devised a delicately balanced turntable "easel" for the purpose. Sitting cross-legged atop a wide plank suspended over the surface of his canvas, he gently spins his turntable with one hand, while holding the brush in position with the other. Using long haired calligrapher's brushes, Tadasky carefully calibrates the flow of paint onto the undulating surface of the stretched canvas, an exacting technique that requires absolute concentration.

In works dating from 1962-1963, many of them monochrome, his concentric patterns appear as textural striations within a thick layer of paint, at first expanding beyond the boundaries of the rectangular panels. By 1964, his circular patterns are suspended within the confines of the canvas, grounded by a margin of white gesso, a neutral hue, or reflective gold and silver leaf. Within this minimal structure, Tadasky summons a wide variety of visual and expressive effects, ranging from the measured tones of C-182 (1964) to the festive, multi-hued C-200 (1965). The gyrating rings of his compositions, whether placed equidistant or in diminishing progression, captivate our attention and activate our vision in inexplicable ways. Given time, his circles can appear to wobble, spin, and vibrate in response to one’s own perceptual anomalies, even inducing a vaguely hypnotic sensation.

In 1962 Tadasky vowed to complete 100 paintings before revealing the results of his labors, and began to identify his works sequentially with an alpha-numerical system, purposely avoiding descriptive or otherwise delimiting titles. During this time he met Patricia Hagan, whom he married in 1963. Tadasky earned his living with a range of carpentry projects for various clientele, including gallerists Betty Parsons and Leo Castelli. Ivan Karp, director of the Castelli gallery, enlisted Tadasky to construct canvas stretchers for artists Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. Known for nurturing new talent, Karp encouraged William Seitz, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art to visit Tadasky's studio. Seitz responded enthusiastically to Tadasky’s art, choosing several works to be delivered to the museum, one of which his MoMA colleague Philip Johnson acquired for himself, and one of which Larry Aldrich acquired for MoMA, a painting titled A-101 (1964). This two-toned composition of evenly spaced cobalt blue circles scribed against an atmospheric fade of ochre became a centerpiece in the international exhibition The Responsive Eye, which opened in February of 1965.

In preparation for his groundbreaking exhibition, Seitz visited studios throughout Europe and the Americas to gather art employing new modes of geometric abstraction, much of which embraced new materials and technology, while engaging recent research into optics and perceptual psychology. Largely unknown to each other at the time, many of the artists Seitz selected, such as Bridget Riley, Luis Tomasello, and Victor Vasarely were creating hard-edged compositions with repetitive linear structures and modular forms. This “new tendency,” as it was becoming known in Europe, was expanded upon by Seitz, who presented the diverse group under the banner of “perceptual abstraction.” Even before the exhibition opened, The Responsive Eye generated significant fanfare, and the press dubbed the optically stimulating work “Op Art.” Along with Riley, Vasarely, and the inspirational Albers, Tadasky was featured in the pages of LIFE magazine and other prominent publications. His concentric compositions echoed the circular design of the human eye, making it a fitting poster for the MoMA exhibition and an irresistible icon for the burgeoning movement.

In January of 1965, just weeks before The Responsive Eye debuted, Tadasky opened his first solo exhibition at Kootz Gallery on Madison Avenue, a premiere venue for European and American modernism. These two successful exhibitions were followed in 1966 by Tadasky’s inclusion in MoMA’s The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture, which traveled to museums throughout the country over several years. Seen in context with a variety of Japanese-born abstractionists, a growing number of whom were now working in Manhattan, Tadasky’s compositions appear distinctly minimal and more structurally rigorous, sharing little affinity with the emotive and painterly approaches of Kazuo Shiraga, Atsuko Tanaka, and other prominent artists of his generation. Tadasky’s progressive work gained attention in Japan and in 1966 the Tokyo Gallery mounted the first solo exhibition in his homeland. Later that year Yoshihara Jiro, founder of the Gutai Art Association, invited Tadasky into the legendary group and mounted a large exhibition of his paintings at the Gutai Pinachotheca in Osaka. Japanese museums also recognized Tadasky’s unique contribution, including him in survey exhibitions of both American and Japanese modernism.

Throughout the late 1960s, Tadasky had further solo shows with Kootz and Fischbach Gallery and appeared in a continuous stream of museum exhibitions and publications promoting the Op movement. His work was acquired by a number of prominent collections, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Larry Aldrich Museum, Baltimore Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and Phoenix Art Museum. This commercial and institutional endorsement was testament to the powerful public embrace of Op, which rapidly eclipsed Pop in the popular consciousness. However, as a more analytical brand of formalism gained currency with factions of the art press, both Pop and Op were denigrated by some critics suspicious of such mainstream appeal. The association with Op limited critical interpretations of Tadasky’s work at the time, although his emphasis on structural logic had much in common with concurrent tendencies of serialism and systemic painting, aspects of the developing Minimalist movement. Seitz acknowledged this affinity in his thoughtful installation of The Responsive Eye, positioning Tadasky’s A-101 (1964) next to Frank Stella’s Line-Up (1962), a painting also ordered upon a repetitive linear sequence. Tadasky’s work however has never been explicitly rule-based. Guided more by inspiration than analysis, each work is generated in accord with its own internal spirit. In their more reductive state, Tadasky’s uniform patterns of geometric units share an affinity of both form and purpose with the recurring grids of Agnes Martin, the parallel stripes of Gene Davis, and the superimposed squares of Albers, individualistic artists who, while included in The Responsive Eye, also evade definitive categorization.

Throughout the ensuing decades, Tadasky’s circles have undergone subtle and expressive permutations. In 1966 he introduced a new variable of implied surface dimension, using varying widths of black circles to create a chiaroscuro effect reminiscent of traditional linear engravings. As seen in D-127 (1966), sculptural rings appear to bulge forth like ripples in water. Tadasky also employed this technique in a related series of vertical stripe paintings created by painting circular lines around the circumference of a canvas attached to a large cylinder that he rotated by hand, another of his studio inventions. By 1968 he began to imply more substantial sculptural form through soft blends of pigment with the aid of an airbrush, a tool that became increasingly integral to his technical process, allowing for a soft diffusion of pigment that provides a foil for his knife-edged calligraphy brush. This lends a more substantial presence to D-211 (1968), wherein a bold succession of thick tubular rings of red, orange, yellow, and white convey a volume and luminosity not seen previously. This effect of light and shadow, also visible in compelling monochrome works such as D-212 (1968), is one of reverberation, an outward expansion of the composition into the viewer’s space.

Tadasky's work took a dramatic turn in 1968 after he and his wife returned from extensive travels throughout the Southwest, California, and Hawaii, followed by months in Japan. These new experiences may have contributed to the striking evolution of his compositions during this period. In contrast to previous works, which placed a circular pattern within an empty and indeterminate background of his square canvas, his rings began to activate the full expanse of the canvas. The area around the central orb-like forms in works such as E-137A (1969), the most illusionistic to date, take on greater dimension and substance. These works are given a palpable presence by the textured surface accumulation of sprayed paint. Their granular atmosphere is disturbed by subtle undulations in hue and value, an effect not unlike sonar waves emanating from the glowing nucleus of the painting to the space beyond its edges. Light becomes a central feature and subject of the 1969-1971 paintings. In F-132 (1970) the luminosity of a single spherical mass imparts an uncanny sensation of heat, calling to mind the glowing husk of a dying sun. The vastness of space is evoked in these paintings up through the early 1970s, although specific terrestrial and celestial references remain for him anathema. In essence, each painting represents its own universe, an expression of the force of nature, rather than an illustration of it.

In October of 1969 Tadasky bought a rundown building on Grand Street in SoHo, where he and Patty began their family. Larger studio space allowed him to explore the medium of ceramics, which had long intrigued him. He installed a kiln, hired teachers, and began Grand Street Potters, an educational project that offered studios and firing time to other artists. The lengthy procedure and unpredictable outcome of ceramics ultimately proved too incompatible with his usual creative process, and he closed the workshop several years later. However, the influence of Tadasky's pottery experiments is visible in his G series of paintings created soon after. G-108 (1975-77) contrasts a central coil of circular lines, a hair’s breadth in width, with hazy surrounding hues, all of which is circumscribed by a anxious ring of midnight blue. The jagged edge of the outermost ring of paint suggests a rotational velocity not seen since his earliest experiments in 1961, when he first came to Manhattan. No longer wanting to look after a building of artist studios, Tadasky sold his building in 1977 and found a new studio and home across the street. Later that year, the family traveled to Europe as Patty’s job at the Federal Reserve sent her to the Bank for International Settlement in Basel, Switzerland. They lived in nearby Riehen where without a proper painting studio, Tadasky focused intently on an exquisite series of works on paper related to the G series of paintings, which he achieved on a small pottery wheel. Tadasky and his family returned to New York by the end of 1978 where he became focused on renovating his new home and studio on Grand Street.

Tadasky, Patty, and their two sons lived in Japan from 1986 to 1994 when Patty started working for the Chemical Bank’s Tokyo branch and later became JP Morgan’s Japan economist. During this period Tadasky’s paintings become more minimal and the white ground of previous works is replaced by a rich black color, invoking a cosmic depth. Throughout the 1980s the grid also emerged as a structural counterpoint to Tadasky's evanescent rings, introducing planar surfaces that add a new level of dimension and spatial incongruity. This is evident in such works as J-15 (1988) wherein Tadasky's once pervasive circles have nearly evaporated into darkness, leaving behind two gauzy squares emerging from a delicately scribed grid. Many of the gridded paintings in the J series were shown in Tadasky’s 1989 retrospective of 130 paintings at the Tokyo Gallery, an exhibition that revealed the breadth of his circular compositions. In the 1990s Tadasky's compositions evolve further, incrementally transforming the circle from a single globular form to a glowing central mass. The spherical structure seen earlier in F-132 (1970) dissipates into scintillating fragments, barely maintaining its integrity in J-119 (1990) before atomizing fully in J-111 (1991-92) where it appears much like residual embers of a galactic explosion. The powerful J-117 (1990) takes this dissolution to its most arresting state: a radiant nebula circumscribed by a faint blue halo, backlit by a silvery light emerging from the central recesses of the canvas. In these works Tadasky conveys a source of explosive power hovering within a delicate equilibrium.

In the ensuing years Tadasky's canvases have progressively become more uncluttered and expansive, imparting an aura of stillness and quietude. The ebullient clatter of early works such as B-181 (1964), a vibrating surface of cheerful hues, is a world away from the more sober and contemplative tone of the recent M-222 (2007). In this haunting work, the once dominant primary colors are absorbed into infinite blackness, leaving behind a single neon-white halo, a luminous portal for meditation that exerts a uncanny gravitational pull. All of the paintings in the M series intermingle sprayed and spattered pigment with sharply defined lines of paint and graphite. This complex technique helps to gently activate internal tensions between accident and precision, solidity and transparency, light and darkness; an equipoise verging on a state of grace. While his early paintings still generate undeniable visual excitement for us today—perceptual art is always "of the moment" in that regard—this transition toward the sublime imparts an even more timeless quality to Tadasky’s mature work. Since 2001 Tadasky has maintained studios in Chelsea and rural upstate New York, where he continues his daily regimen of painting with few distractions. More than fifty years since he embarked on his first circle paintings, his work continues to evolve along new trajectories, often repurposing and recombining past motifs to fresh and unexpected ends.

Within the past decade, Op Art has been given serious reconsideration, and has now gained full admittance into the official canon. This is due, in part, to an increasingly inclusive view of art history, as well as to the continued relevance of perceptual practice among a new generation of artists today, who are engaging viewers through more sensual and immersive approaches in painting, sculpture, video, and environmental installation. Such critical attention validates the significance of Op Art as a movement that heralded a profound shift from object to experience, privileging the viewer as an active participant in the aesthetic process. As a result Tadasky's work is gaining renewed critical attention and is again being featured in major surveys of perceptual art at museums internationally. Now widely recognized as an innovator in postwar abstraction, five decades on, Tadasky continues to explore the primacy of perception in exquisite and enthralling paintings. He challenges us to experience the space within and beyond his concentric cosmos with observant eyes and a receptive mind, and in the process, affirms the transformative potential of vision.

1Interview with the author, 2006
2Kuspit, Donald. "Sacred Circles and Sensate Colors: Tadasky's Paintings" in Tadasky: The Circle ReViewed: 1964 to 2012, David Richard Gallery, Santa Fe, 2012, p.27.

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