“We, um, mention some of this in our catalog,” Art History Professor Yoshiaki Shimizu told the unsought crowd of 40-plus people clustered around him in the gallery of his just-opened show at the Japan Society on Friday afternoon. Since he and his co-curators Yukio Lippit and Greg Levine had worked with their exhibition designer to create a space similar to period Japanese interior, the impromptu audience seemed even larger cramped into the intimate, bedroom-sized gallery spaces in New York City. Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan was, earlier in the day, hailed by the Times’ WeekendArts section as a near life-changing experience. I doubt the crowd knew the identity of the enthusiastic paisley-bowtied Japanese man with forest green suspenders so eloquently discussing each work of art. When Shimizu began to speak to the two students from his ART217 class (one other than me) who had managed to make the trip from Princeton to see Awakenings, another woman in the gallery brushed Shimizu off as if he were a volunteer docent before realizing he might have something critical to say.
I guess I ought not have been surprised. Shimizu’s unassuming demeanor is remarkably unremarkable and modest. He lectures with such enthusiasm that his classes sometimes feel like passionate narrations of mythological stories for young children. A few weeks ago, one of his students mentioned to me with a tone of surprise, “You really have to listen to what he says sometimes. It’s like fucking poetic.” It’s true. Shimizu, despite what he may protest, has a far better command of English than I might ever hope to attain. His father grew up in a Japanese colony of Taiwan and specialized in the philology of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, so Shimizu speaks with an accent and vocabulary that transcends normal English. He has lived in the US longer than he has in Japan, but his pronunciation is neither American nor any other recognizable cadence. He says his father “speaks like an 18th or 19th century Englishman.” Shimizu, of course, speaks perfect English, and not too much else: “Only,” as he says, “Japanese, Chinese, English and German, plus classical Chinese and Japanese, but they don’t really count, and my German is terrible.” Art History professor Jerome Silbergeld, who also speaks German, says Shimizu’s is the most perfect German accent he’s maybe ever heard.
In a lot of ways, Shimizu personifies the tenets of his specialty, Zen art. Unlike some forms of Buddhism, Japanese Zen rejects the most puritanical facets of asceticism. The show opens with three different portraits of Shyakamuni, the historical Buddha, descending from the forested mountain on which he has spent the last six years after, as Shimizu says, he came “to the realization that self-incurred pain and hunger would not lead to enlightenment.” In other words, it’s okay to enjoy life.
This may explain why Shimizu is such an adventurer in academics. He spent years after his graduation from Harvard College ruminating about how to spend his future. He knew he was interested in art, but not certain whether or not to pursue oil painting or academics. He went back to Japan for the first sizable period of time since junior year of high school. Then, with his friend, Harvard art history emeritus professor John Max Rosenfield—who had just received a 1963 Fulbright—Shimizu hired an ex-Christian missionary living in Kyoto to fly them over the city in his Cessna plane left over from World War II. Rosenfield and Shimizu, outfitted in a fighter-plane helmet over his perfectly geometric goatee, then directed the man over some of the most important sites in the region and produced aerial photographs that are striking both for their unusual perspective and formal grace. This experience was Shimizu’s first official act as an academic.
“The project,” he says, “was the very serious beginning of my art historical interest in Japan.” The next year, he enrolled at Princeton and soon later became the first Japanese native to earn a PhD in Art History here. And he still makes his own art, too. Shimzu’s senses of color and negative in his abstract oil paintings and photography (his extracurricular hobby) draw from his childhood training in calligraphy in Japan in the early ’40s (gardening was also part of the core curriculum). However, partially for this reason, art for Shimizu is somewhat a private practice.
Out of sympathy to Zen art, much of Shimizu’s photography engages in the illusory nature of perception. Just as the Japanese Zen monks responsible for creating much of the art in Awakenings did, Shimizu focuses on images only visible to a camera and never the eyes, like the triple reflection of an airplane in an airport window, over the black silhouettes of passengers’ faces cast into his camera’s lens. He is interested in the shadows of things and the ambiguity of vision, two prime tenets of Zen art.
Three decades after his arrival at the university, Shimizu is preparing to leave. Administrators from the department came to assess his office a few days ago and determined that when he moves out of McCormick hall in two years, it will take approximately three days to box all of his books and other accoutrements. Harder to quantify, though, is how much Shimizu has altered Art History at Princeton. When he arrived in the ’60s, there was, as there is now, one established Japanese Art historian, Shujiro Shimada. However, the study of East Asian art is now an established program, as evidenced by the symposium occurring this weekend on Zen art, Re-Presenting Emptiness: Zen and Art in Medieval Japan, held simultaneously with the centennial anniversary of the Japan Society in New York. Part colloquium, part tribute to the legacy of Professor Shimizu, the conference is the first of its kind here, or much anywhere in the country. Shimizu speaks on Sunday morning about the Japanese Zen monks’ impressionist tendencies and “painting outside painting.”
In two years, he will retire after around 25 years of work at Princeton. However unassuming he seems, Shimizu leaves behind him an impressive legacy, and he will be sorely missed.