#2 Masaaki Sato


2008-05-23   /  Interviewd by Tokiko Gotoh

MASAAKI SATO (painter)

Masaaki Sato is one of the greatest American Artists. He established his reputation with his “Newsstand series” and “Hole series” where both are inspired by New York City. Newsstand symbolizes diversity. His signature motif of cone-shaped holes pierce the subway and the apple in Hole series. In April 2008, his “Big Apple” outdoor sculpture finally opened to the public at Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art. He told us about his fascinating life in this interview.

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Interview with Masaaki Sato

– Before anything else, please tell us about your “Big Apple” project which will be placed at the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art. (Interviewed by Tokiko Gotoh in February)

Sato :

I go back to my hometown Yamanashi every once a year. It was in summer 10 years ago, I saw an empty grassy hill where there used to be a flower garden in the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art. At that time, I just thought it would be great if I were to place a shining stainless Big Apple there, so that was the start. Currently, I am working on it at a factory in Tochigi prefecture in Japan. It has a diameter of 3 meters and that has a meaning to it. Because some circular cones on the top of the sculpture have holes for draining water and they look dark, 3 meters of height makes it impossible for people to see them. Also I always finish my sculpture completely at a factory, so I cannot carry it using a truck on the street if it is taller than 3 meters because of the traffic regulations in Japan. These days I have been visiting Japan frequently for the opening. When I am working on this sculpture, I am so concentrated that I even forget to take any break. The factory is pretty cold but it doesn’t bother me at all either.

The Big Apple No.45

– Now we know “Big Apple” is made of stainless steel, but how many holes are there?

Sato :

At the beginning, I thought there would be about 240 holes. But when our staff counted on a life-size model, surprisingly it had 365 holes which is exactly the same number as days in a year. I made this sculpture as a symbol of “modern technology traffic” so 365 holes represents everyday communication, and thanks to computer technology we can send any information anywhere so now in this case from Yamanashi to the world. Two years ago I had a chance to appreciate the greatness of Information Technology myself. I was in Japan and there was my group exhibition in Paris. The French magazine “Beaux” contacted me because they wanted to use my painting as an advertisement for the exhibition. But the digital image of the painting I had was not big enough in size so I emailed my son in San Francisco asking him to send them higher resolution image and it was done just in a day and a half. Nowadays, this kind of thing can be done so easily.

– What made you to start this holed apple sculpture series?

My “Hole” series began when I was in London, which is 40 years ago. I didn’t have a lot of money as a student so it was hard for me to make three-dimensional things. Then I used plastic cups and joined them with staples. The “Hole” concept started at that time. After coming to New York, I started making holes in an apple (Big Apple). I started with small ones and they got bigger and bigger and the biggest one made me feel that I wanted to make a sculpture of bronze or stainless steel. It continued like this and finally this time I finished the one of 3 meters.

– You are called “Mr. Hole, Sato Masaaki”. Why hole?

Sato :

As I said before, the “Hole” concept started in London. First, I was learning basic sketching in an art school in London. Because art schools there are conservative, when I had to start painting my own pictures, I had a hard time figuring out what to paint. I couldn’t think of what I wanted to tell to the world through my paintings. So I just found out that I had nothing to tell the world. Then I thought about why I wanted to paint. Finally the question became “What am I made of?” and the answer was “cells”, but I didn’t know what a cell is made of so I began studying about cells and I started to paint pictures consisting of cells. There is a chrysanthemum-like stuff in a cell so I paint that and the outline which is a circle. After that, I started to paint scenery in blank space so there were two different worlds in one picture. Such style started at this time. Then I painted a cone in a circle to make it contemporary Art. That is how the Hole series was born. As my last work in London, I drew cones in a circle. Then I moved to New York.

– In New York, you made your phenomenal debut as your painting appeared on the front page in The New York Times’ art section when you were 35 years old. Tell us about it.

Sato :

There is a secret story behind it. First of all, my painting was in an exhibition at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum which has a nonprofit gallery called SOHO Center for Visual Arts. The gallery usually held exhibitions for young artists and newcomers. Surprisingly, the director of the Museum visited each artist’s studio himself for any exhibition. Of course he came to my studio as well. When the exhibition was held at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, an art critic John Canady from The New York Times was there. But he didn’t report that I was the best. Actually, people don’t rank artwork at exhibitions in the United States, but the reporter wrote an article titled “I choose 6 people if I give prizes”. The artist who got the most comment was an abstract painter so her painting would not look good on the front page in the newspaper, which was printed in black and white at that time. The second artist’s painting was vertical, but because there were 3 pictures on the front page, architecture, painting, and design, the pictures had to be horizontal in shape. I painted subway and it looked clear even in black and white, so I was the lucky one. Now, the artist who got the most comment is not active anymore. Also among my 20 classmates in The Brooklyn Museum Art School, I am the only one who has kept making artworks until now. Most of them went back to their states or countries. I keenly feel that being active as an artist in New York for a long time is very rare.


– Why did you think about digging holes in subway? And how did it expand to “Newsstand series” afterward?

Sato :

I was so surprised when I took the subway for the first time in New York. It looked as if it were a prison van because there were naked light bulbs and big rivets on the wall inside the subway car. At that time, I had an insecure feeling like “I don’t belong here” or “I don’t even feel that I exist here”. I felt as if I were standing on the outline of holed circles I always painted. I guessed that many New Yorkers felt the same way I did and the idea of making holes in the subway came to my mind intuitively. The subway flows underground in all directions, so if the city is a live body, a subway car is running like blood flow. Because I was thinking like that, my research on a cell also crossed on my mind, I guess. However it was not easy to start painting a holed subway. In 10 years, I just finished around 20 paintings but as I was getting better painting it, my passion has lessened … so I felt I had to stop then.

As the next step, expanding to “Newsstand series” was relatively easy. For the Subway series, I had taken many pictures already and of course the newsstand was in those pictures. Actually when I was working on Subway series, I painted a lot of subway signs and I thought I could paint any words I wanted there. So when I saw the newsstand, I was excited because there were so many words I could put in there and I could also paint a person in the news or anybody else for the front cover of a magazine. For the Newsstand series, I brought the paintings to Ivan Karp even before finishing about 5 of them and he decided to have my one-person exhibition immediately. Now Ivan owns the long-established gallery O.K. Harris Works of Art. Before that, he had been co-director of Leo Castelli Gallery.

Newsstand No.68 A (Homage to Magritte)

Newsstand No.81 (The Spirit of NY)

Newsstand No.38, 7 Panels, O.K.Harris Gallery

–In your newsstand, some words are reversed or upside down. What is the message?

Sato :

When I was working on the Newsstand series, I was getting to understand the system in the United States or the U.S. itself. This world consisted of various cultures and each culture has certain characteristics. Knowing that, I found out that the United States or its language is not always correct in this world, because after all a language carries its culture over. In New York, people from all over the world live together and everyone has their own sense of value. Different cultures have different ways of thinking. I also realized that we have to think about a language very carefully. My newsstand is the epitome of New York City. Various races, languages, information are all condensed here. I thought I could tell many things through the newsstand as an example. To express a relative concept, I had 4 exhibitions in a row. First, I only showed my paintings with straight English. Second, with all reversed words. Third, I changed the order of words. Finally, I used many other languages too. I wanted to tell the importance of words and the value of culture behind the language. I was so shocked when the 9/11 attacks occurred, but somehow I knew that kind of thing could happen someday.

– For the last question, could you briefly tell us about your long journey starting from Japan to London and finally to New York?

Sato :

I have loved drawing since I was very little and I was winning the 1st prize all the time. I was drawing a car or a three-wheeler often when I was in the 1st grade at elementary school. Because I loved a car, I always looked around them and watched them even from the top and bottom. So I could draw a car well when other students were having a hard time drawing it. When I was in the 4th grade, I thought that I wanted to be a painter. I just had the idea vaguely. Then I was interested in abroad when I was in junior high school. My uncle was the founder of Banco America do Sul which is the first Japanese bank in Brazil, so I had a longing for overseas because of his success. A foreign country was something familiar to me compared to my friends. Somebody told me that I said “I want to paint a picture abroad” at that time, and my friend thought I was crazy because of the times.

Even so, I found Pop Art in a magazine and was surprised how it was interesting and attractive. I thought I had to be in a foreign country to paint a picture like that so decided to go abroad. Then I had a chance to see an exhibition of Jasper Johns at Minami gallery in Japan. After that, I started to research about Pop Art and learned about Ivan Karp, an art dealer who found Andy Warhol, and also the fact that Pop Art started in London. Because I wanted to be an artist on a par with Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, I decided first to learn about Europe; the roots of the United States. Then I became a pen pal with a Londoner, a ceramist, who was interested in Japanese ceramics. I studied English for writing letters to him so it helped me a lot when I was in London. I studied at Heatherly School of Fine Arts for 3 years, staying in my pen pal’s home. My first plan was to stay there about 2 years but I gained fame surprisingly so I stayed a little longer.

I had a group exhibition in the first year and had a one-person exhibition at Drian Gallery afterward. However my paintings weren’t sold much in the one-person exhibition. I guess because, since the period of the British Empire, the British think that young people come to England just to study and go back to their countries afterward. Even so, I made a good start in London so I was hanging in there for a little longer and in the middle of my 4th year, I moved to New York. I was astonished by the difference in the evaluation of art. There was an exhibition at Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in 1976 and my paintings were exhibited next to Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. Career or race is not the concern in New York. Judgment is only on a piece of work. This is the best part of being in New York City, I think.

Talking about Ivan Karp, my backbone in New York, I knew his name since when I was in Japan and he was just the owner of the gallery I wanted to have a contract with. Now, I have been under contract with him for 30 years. With his support, it has been possible for me to work on whatever I wanted. People often say to me “It must be hard to be an artist in New York!” but I never thought like that. I even raised 2 children and it was the eye-opener for me. I deeply realized that Japan and the United States have their very own cultures, through bringing up my children. My wife and I raised children in the United States so we understood how American people are built, knowing American education and its process.

Masaaki Sato

Born 1941, Kofu City Yamanashi, studied in London from 1967 to 1970. Sato moved to New York in 1970, since then he has had one-person exhibition at O.K. Harris Gallery 11 times and a retrospective-exhibition at Unison Art Center. Sato has been invited by museums and galleries all over the world to exhibit his paintings 221 times. His paintings were carried in The New York Times, ART TODAY, and The Newspaper in Art, also printed as the front cover of the town magazines in the United States, Germany and Netherlands. His reviews were written in about 395 pages in 172 newspapers and magazines. His paintings are maintained in 87 places which are museums, universities, and corporations as permanent collection mainly in the United States.