The Presence of Absence in Takao Tanabe’ s Prairie Drawings by Darrin J. Martens

The Pres­ence of Absence in Takao Tan­abe’ s Prairie Drawings

Dar­rin J. Martens

(excerpt – full essay appears in Chron­i­cles of Form and Place: Works on Paper by Takao Tanabe)

Here was the least com­mon denom­i­na­tor of nature, the skele­ton require­ments sim­ply, of land and sky.1

What is it about the Cana­dian prairie that enables it to cap­ti­vate the hearts and minds of res­i­dents and vis­i­tors? For those who have grown up, lived or vis­ited the prairie for an extended period of time the answer to that ques­tion can invari­ably lead to more ques­tions. The spaces in which land and sky con­verge in either undu­lat­ing vis­tas or expan­sive agri­cul­tural land­scapes often leave an indeli­ble impres­sion— one that can res­onate for a life­time. Per­haps it is the way the wind gen­tly sweeps across a grassy field or over a grain crop dur­ing har­vest time cre­at­ing waves of colour and tex­ture. Or maybe it is the prairie sun as it sails across the sky danc­ing with bil­low­ing clouds illu­mi­nat­ing the land­scape beneath or the evening twi­light as the sun dips beneath the hori­zon cre­at­ing daz­zling multi-coloured sun­sets that seem to last for hours. What­ever the rea­sons the prairie, as a unique envi­ron­men­tal space, has entranced, engaged and inspired artists locally, nation­ally, and inter­na­tion­ally to cre­ate work based on this excep­tional place. Cana­dian painter, print­maker and drafts­man Takao Tan­abe is no excep­tion. He is an artist that, over the course of a few years, cre­ated some of the most chal­leng­ing, thought pro­vok­ing and evoca­tive graphite draw­ings based on the prairie land­scape ever created.

Dur­ing the lat­ter part of the 1970s and into early 1980s Tan­abe cre­ated an excep­tional series of graphite draw­ings that were styl­is­ti­cally unchar­ac­ter­is­tic of the artist’s other work dur­ing this period. This suite of draw­ings explored the artist’s inti­mate and dis­tinc­tive rela­tion­ship with the prairie land­scape. The rolling foothills of Alberta along with the seem­ingly end­less vis­tas of the Saskatchewan prairie pre­sented a chal­lenge for the artist; how does one attempt to cap­ture the essence, vast­ness and sub­tle nuances of such vibrant and expan­sive spaces through draw­ing. For Tan­abe one solu­tion was to approach the land­scape in a very for­mal way—by strip­ping away all visual speci­ficity and focus­ing on the nat­ural for­ma­tions of the land and how they inter­acted with the sky. By sim­pli­fy­ing organic and nat­ural forms the artist cre­ated com­po­si­tions that, while appear­ing uncom­pli­cated at a first glance, are extremely intri­cate and nuanced. Tan­abe, through deci­sive and focused mark mak­ing, devel­oped multi-layered sur­faces that probe the move­ment of the land and its flora as they inter­act with the ele­ments. Tanabe’s expres­sive and tight-knit marks are jux­ta­posed with areas that, in some com­po­si­tions, have been erased thus cre­at­ing a pal­pa­ble ten­sion between light and dark, pres­ence and absence. These areas on a sheet often delin­eate dif­fer­ent land masses, or the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between lumi­nos­ity, the land and sky. Tonal vari­a­tions cre­ate an incred­i­ble sense of depth. What remains on the sur­face of the paper are inter­wo­ven matri­ces of graphite lines that cre­ate com­po­si­tions that extend, by impli­ca­tion, beyond the bor­ders of the sheet into some­thing more vis­ceral or psy­cho­log­i­cal in nature.

Agnes Mar­tin once noted that, “Com­po­si­tion is an absolute mys­tery. It is dic­tated by the mind. The artist searches for cer­tain sounds or lines that are accept­able to the mind and finally an arrange­ment of them that is acceptable…some com­po­si­tions appeal to some and some to oth­ers.”2 Tanabe’s “black” draw­ings are unique, rep­re­sent­ing a renewed and intu­itive con­nec­tion to the land by the artist and the explo­ration of pic­to­r­ial and per­sonal space. “The prairie land­scape became the artis­tic metaphor for space,”3 notes art his­to­rian Joyce Zemans adding that, “Tan­abe presents us with a land­scape which speaks of the nature of the expe­ri­ence of space.”4

Depict­ing per­sonal expe­ri­ences on the vast prairie land­scape and relat­ing those expe­ri­ences to a larger audi­ence is a crit­i­cal fac­tor within Tanabe’s graphite draw­ings of this period. “The viewer is invited to project him­self [or her­self ] into the space by the imme­di­acy of its pres­ence,”5 notes Tou­s­ley. The artist’s abil­ity to cap­ture the immen­sity of the prairie, its tran­quil­ity and author­ity and relay that expe­ri­ence to a larger con­stituency denotes an keen under­stand­ing of spa­tial rela­tions and of visual trans­la­tion. Enabling an audi­ence to expe­ri­ence the pres­ence of absence within these draw­ings dimin­ishes the bar­rier, whether real or per­ceived, between artist and viewer. Through Tanabe’s marks on each sheet the fore­ground is ren­dered almost inde­ci­pher­able from the back­ground. Only a thin lightly ren­dered hori­zon line dif­fer­en­ti­ates land from sky. A rel­a­tively sim­ple delin­eation, it is the point where the cur­va­ture of the earth is rep­re­sented, pro­vid­ing a glimpse into infi­nite space where light folds and trans­forms itself. Nancy Tou­s­ley wrote that these draw­ings depicted, “…a kind of twi­light.”6 They are about a spe­cific time and space dif­fer­en­tial that denotes a tran­si­tion between lumi­nes­cence and the total­ity of dark­ness or absence.


This hard­cover pub­li­ca­tion of Takao Tanabe’s works on paper, beau­ti­fully illus­trated in colour with over 60 of the artist’s works, is avail­able directly from the Burn­aby Art Gallery. Includes essays by Dar­rin Martens, Ihor Hol­u­bizky and Denise Leclerc. Con­tact info@burnabyartgallery.ca to order a copy.


  1. 1 W.O. Mitchell, Who Has Seen the Wind (Toronto: McClel­land & Stew­art Ltd., 1947), 3 []
  2. Agnes Mar­tin, “Beauty is the Mys­tery of Life”, in Writ­ings, edited by Her­aus­gegeben Von Dieter Schwarz, (Ger­many: Hatje Cantz Ver­lag: 1992), 155–6 []
  3. Zemans, op cit., 95 []
  4. Zemans, op cit., 95 []
  5. Nancy Tou­s­ley, “Night Prairies: new draw­ings by Takao Tan­abe,” ArtsCanada, vol. 36 (October/November1979): 38 []
  6. Tou­s­ley, op.cit., 38 []