Excerpt from interview by Glenn Phillips, June 2, 2010

Glenn Phillips How did you first come to Los Angeles?

Hirokazu Kosaka I came in 1966 to go to Chouinard Art Institute. My parents insisted that I receive an American education. When I came to the United States, I brought fear; there was a language problem, a cultural difference. During the occupation in Japan in the 1940s and ’50s, I met American soldiers. Seeing American soldiers with rifles coming into the house with their boots on was very scary. I came from Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. You see thousand-year-old homes there, and merchants that go back hundreds of years.

I never knew the word “art.” In Japan, it’s called craftsmen or artisans. The Chinese ideogram is three symbols: ear, sound, and ladder, to support it. We have to hear it, the sound of the crafts. That’s how I grew up: I thought brush-makers were artists. Paint-makers were artists. We didn’t have museums. The museums were Buddhist temples, and the walls were screens that were painted five or six hundred years ago. Japanese gardeners were artists. I thought, coming to Chouinard Art Institute, that I would be learning something in that line of craftsman. But Chouinard was very different.

GP What were the other students like?

HK The first year, I met many non-Americans: people from Mexico, people from Europe, one or two Japanese. The students were very diverse. I always thought Americans were six feet tall, blue eyes. I was surprised. It was nothing like what I imagined. Most of my teachers were draftsmen in the lineage of Rico Lebrun. The first year was figure drawing for eight hours a day. I think there were thirty students in the class. We drew with charcoal. That’s all we did that first year.

GP And then you studied painting after that?

HK It was general studies: We had drawing class, painting class, sculpture class. I had an incredible handicap with language, but one of my interests was art history. Our teacher was a writer for the Los Angeles Times.

GP Jules Langsner.

HK Yes. He was showing some Chinese and Japanese paintings, and one of the paintings was from my neighbor’s temple. I told him this, and he was very surprised that I’d seen this painting. He asked me to sit around on the patio, talking about these paintings. He was also very fascinated with experimental art. The name Gutai came up. And I said, Jules, I know these guys.

GP So you had known some of the Gutai artists in Japan.

HK Yes, I knew some of them as a teenager. There was a publication that came out around 1956–57, which I had. My high school teacher was very experimental, and he was showing these photographs. I had collected a lot of photographs of that period.

GP And what did you think of that work? Did you think of it as performance, or photography, or was it just another approach to art making.

HK I think when I came to Chouinard, Allan Kaprow’s book on Happenings had already been printed. There were Gutai photographs in that book. That was very surprising. The word “Happening” was a kind of fashion for that period, not so much the word “performance.” I don’t think Gutai group called them happenings or performances. The word Gutai means concrete forms. That’s what’s Mr. [Jiro] Yoshihara, the leader of the group, was concentrating on. He painted circles all his life. The circle connotes Zen ensō, meaning empty. I think that’s the word Gutai was trying to say something about, this Buddhist notion of emptiness. I don’t think Allan Kaprow knew that. I talked to him a couple of times about that, and he just said, “I don’t understand.” But John Cage was profoundly moved by ensō. He did a lot of pieces about that.

I think my potential for making art was just seated in certain periods. I did well at drafting, and I did well in painting, but I think there was a limitation. The Gutai artists really influenced my work after my junior year. I started to see pictures of Joseph Beuys’s work in Art International magazine, and I saw Conceptual art, like Douglas Huebler. I saw pictures of earth art—[Robert] Smithson, [Dennis] Oppenheim, people like that. But when it became body art—that really brought back the Gutai group. Especially [Saburo] Murakami going through paper, or [Kazuo] Shiraga in the mud, looking for his art.

At the same time, I came from a very traditional background, and there was a conflict. I think the conflict was the Vietnam War. I was seeing the Vietnam War and looking at the images of bodies, just piling up. That also went back to Lebrun’s drawings for Dante’s Inferno from the early sixties. He was an artist in the army, and he went to death camps and drew all these incredible bodies. I also knew the photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the first image that really blinded me was the Vietnamese monk who burned himself. I think it was in Saigon, and he just poured gasoline over himself and burned himself. He was so stationary. It was like meditation in a way, in this posture, and then he just collapsed. And I thought: I could do it. I wanted to do it. But…I couldn’t do it.