Takao Tanabe: Biography

Biog­ra­phy on Takao Tanabe

Cour­tesy of Ian M. Thom

Takao Tan­abe has long been iden­ti­fied with the land­scape, but his approach to this sub­ject mat­ter has changed rad­i­cally over the course of his long career. Now iden­ti­fied with sweep­ing West Coast land­scapes and iso­lated sites around the world, Tan­abe was for a decade in the sev­en­ties the pre-eminent land­scapist of the prairie. His often-brooding images of the nat­ural world rep­re­sent an odyssey of dis­cov­ery for both Tan­abe as an artist and the viewer.

Tan­abe was born in 1926 in the small fish­ing set­tle­ment of Seal Cove, near Prince Rupert, B.C. Of Japan­ese ances­try, Tan­abe and his fam­ily were unfor­tu­nately among those fam­i­lies ‘reset­tled’ dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Tan­abe even­tu­ally moved far­ther inland, join­ing his brother in Win­nipeg. There, imme­di­ately fol­low­ing the war, he attended the Win­nipeg School of Art. The School was run by artist Lionel LeMoine FitzGer­ald, but Tan­abe was taught by Joe Plas­kett, who became a life-long friend and impor­tant exam­plar. Plaskett’s impor­tance to Tan­abe was not so much his work as the exam­ple of his life. Plas­kett had cho­sen to be an artist and to make his way in the world as an artist first, and only sec­on­dar­ily as a teacher. For Tan­abe, this was an impor­tant real­iza­tion, and he has never worked exten­sively as a teacher, always mak­ing art his pri­mary focus.

Fol­low­ing grad­u­a­tion, Tan­abe attended the Uni­ver­sity of Man­i­toba, return­ing to Van­cou­ver in 1949. He obtained a vari­ety of com­mer­cial work and began to build a career. Fol­low­ing Plaskett’s lead, he also stud­ied with Hans Hof­mann in New York in 1951. But he wanted to go to Europe, and he was even­tu­ally able to do this with the help of an Emily Carr Schol­ar­ship, which allowed him to spend the period 1953–55 trav­el­ling through­out the continent.

Tan­abe returned to Canada in 1955 and began pro­duc­ing paint­ings that call on the forms of abstract expres­sion­ism, but have a greater lyri­cism of touch and, tellingly, are often titled with ref­er­ence to the nat­ural world. Land­scape of an Inte­rior Place (1955) is typ­i­cal of the com­plex­ity of the work of this period. A densely lay­ered image, it evokes depth and uses colour force­fully, but with a strong mea­sure of con­trol. The yel­low pat­tern of strokes has a stac­cato effect, which serves both to define and deny the amor­phous field of white. The forms in the upper right cor­ner sug­gest, per­haps, foliage, but the paint­ing is delib­er­ately obscure and for Tan­abe it must func­tion as an abstract work.

This inter­est in abstrac­tion, rather than the land­scape itself, con­tin­ued to dom­i­nate his work upon his return to British Colum­bia in 1956. In 1959, with the aid of a Canada Coun­cil grant, Tan­abe vis­ited Japan for a year of inten­sive study with a sumi painter. This dis­ci­pline, which required intense con­cen­tra­tion and quick, deci­sive exe­cu­tion of a com­po­si­tion, was to serve him well when he later returned to the landscape.

Mean­while, how­ever, he con­tin­ued to pro­duce an impor­tant series of abstrac­tions, rich in colour and evoca­tive in form, even­tu­ally mov­ing to hard-edged abstrac­tion in the mid-to-late six­ties. His paint­ing, Unti­tled No. 4
(1968), is among the most severe of his paint­ings of this type. Closely defined in its use of colour, blacks, greys and white, it is a can­vas that exists on for­mal rather than emo­tional terms. If one does not respond to the pat­tern, bal­ance, colour and form, the paint­ing fails. Unti­tled No. 4 is uncom­pro­mis­ing in its geom­e­try, and Tan­abe has dis­pensed with an allu­sive title.

In 1968, fol­low­ing sev­eral years in Van­cou­ver dur­ing which he taught both com­mer­cial art and paint­ing at the Van­cou­ver School of Art, Tan­abe left for Philadel­phia, and later New York, where he set­tled in 1969. In the early sev­en­ties, his paint­ing under­went a major shift. Tan­abe had spent some time in the Hud­son River val­ley and, in his New York stu­dio, evolved an approach to land­scape that would allow him to adhere to his mod­ernist instincts, while at the same time begin­ning to re-examine the nat­ural world. Tan­abe used the raw can­vas of the colour field painters and the pre­cise appli­ca­tion of paint of his sumi paint­ing to cre­ate images that evoke land­scape but retain the forms of his abstract paint­ing. In The Land III (1972), the fields on a Hud­son River hill­side are sug­gested rather than depicted. The rigour of Tanabe’s approach is seen in the fact that these paint­ings were real­ized in one “go.” Tan­abe never returned to the image after it had been worked on at a sin­gle sit­ting. He was inter­ested in evok­ing a land­scape rel­a­tively free of human­ity. He has described his quest as a search to “find the per­fect land­scape,”1 min­i­mal in form, care­fully exe­cuted and seek­ing the essence of the subject.

In 1973, Tan­abe returned to Canada to become Head of the Art Depart­ment and Artist-in-Residence at the Banff School of Fine Arts. He had ben­e­fited from work­ing at Banff in the fifties and his tenure there saw the visual art pro­gram rein­vig­o­rated and gain a new respect. The posi­tion of Artist-in-Residence, which he occu­pied until his return to B.C. in 1980, allowed him a stu­dio and con­sid­er­able time to devote to paint­ing. While many artists focused on the spec­tac­u­lar scenery of Banff’s Rocky Moun­tain land­scape, Tan­abe chose to explore the prairie famil­iar to him from his days in Man­i­toba and observed in reg­u­lar trips when he trav­elled for the school. The sev­en­ties saw Tan­abe pro­duce a major series of prairie land­scapes that are unprece­dented in Cana­dian art. Pared down to two ele­ments, land and sky, these images are at once highly evoca­tive and rig­or­ously pre­cise. They are almost abstract in their divi­sion of space, but in works such as Prairie Hills 1/78 (1978), Tan­abe is able to con­vince us of the verac­ity of his vision through the excep­tional con­trol of colour and light. The black of the earth is con­trasted with the evanes­cent glow of the sky. The image seems sim­plic­ity itself, but is, in real­ity, the result of an exact­ing appli­ca­tion of paint and min­i­mal, but telling, use of colour. The qual­ity of light that Tan­abe has achieved is a rev­e­la­tion: the sub­tle con­tours of the land are clear and the bal­ance of the dark of the land and the light of the sky is taut and absolute.

In 1980, Tan­abe took up per­ma­nent res­i­dence on Van­cou­ver Island. His home has afforded him suf­fi­cient iso­la­tion to devote nec­es­sary time to his paint­ing but is close enough to the city to allow reg­u­lar con­tact with the larger art world. Tan­abe turned his atten­tion to the coastal land­scape. In another con­text, I described him as the “poet of the ocean shore,” and cer­tainly there is lit­tle doubt that his images of these mist-shrouded coast­lines are among the most strik­ing of his accom­plish­ments. The shift of loca­tion marked a shift in his approach to paint­ing as well. The sin­gle “go” was replaced by a painstak­ing appli­ca­tion of paint in thin lay­ers – some­times as many as seven or eight – to cre­ate a par­tic­u­larly rich and deep colour. So too did the min­i­mal­ism change: Tan­abe began to intro­duce more detail, and occa­sion­ally human pres­ence, into the land­scapes. Pho­tog­ra­phy, which had been impor­tant to the cre­ation of the later prairie paint­ings, began to play a greater role in Tanabe’s work­ing process, pro­vid­ing source mate­r­ial for the dis­til­la­tion that occurs in all of his paintings.

It is dif­fi­cult to sin­gle out a par­tic­u­lar paint­ing from this remark­able series of land­scapes, but Low Tide 1/94: Hes­quiat Bay (1994) is among the most accom­plished. An image that is strik­ing for both the lack of “con­tent” and for the excep­tional rich­ness of the artist’s vision, Low Tide, like the water itself, steals over us. It is only grad­u­ally that we real­ize the excep­tional power of the com­po­si­tion. A myr­iad of small details, care­fully depicted, accu­mu­late to cre­ate a visual land­scape that is reward­ing to con­tem­plate, sat­is­fy­ing as a for­mal pat­tern and demon­stra­tive of Tanabe’s pro­found pow­ers of obser­va­tion. There is no inci­dent in this land­scape other than the atmos­pheric qual­ity of the light and the moisture-laden atmos­phere. Tan­abe has brought all his skills as a painter to bear on the image, and it suc­ceeds brilliantly.

In the last two decades, Tan­abe has also explored land­scapes in other parts of B.C. and the world. The images, which are based on his own pho­tographs, share a pre­cise atten­tion to com­po­si­tion, a deep under­stand­ing of light and a time­less qual­ity that tran­scends sim­ple look­ing to achieve a more med­i­ta­tive state. The route to land­scape was not a direct one. Indeed, it might be said that Tan­abe con­sciously avoided it for much of his career. I think how­ever that his old friend Joe Plas­kett was right when he observed that “Tan­abe has a feel­ing for the coun­try and for Nature. He is a land­scapist by his nature.”2

  1. In con­ver­sa­tion with the author, Decem­ber 17, 2002. []
  2. In Takao Tan­abe: Paint­ings and Draw­ings 1954–57 (Van­cou­ver: Van­cou­ver Art Gallery, 1957), no pag­i­na­tion. []