Masaaki Yamada 山田正亮
Japan 1930 - 2010


“Masaaki Yamada is like a mystery man of modernism. He apparently had no specialist art training of note and is known only by a skeleton biography that is mostly blank before 1943, and patchy thereafter. Said to have begun painting from the so-called tabula rasa of bombed out World War II Tokyo, his unforgettable memories of conflict forced him into a covenant with painting in which he sought meaning and direction in a world he could control.  


Yamada assiduously documented his 2,281 oil paintings and 2,777 works on paper in 56 handwritten notebooks detailing his production processes from 1948 to 1972, and photographed most of these. His cryptic but suggestive artist-statement sound bytes, stenciled on the gallery walls between works, also create a distinctly sage atmosphere. Yamada’s magisterial career retrospective at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, is both obsessive and attractive. It also potentially warrants some rewriting of the major art-history narratives of modernism. He was certainly an anomaly, and no one seems quite sure what to do with him now.”  


-Matthew Larking 

The Japan Times


Artist : Masaaki Yamada
Title : Work C. 98, 1961-1962
Media : Oil/canvas
Dimensions : 130.3 cm x 80.2 cm


Born in Tokyo in 1929, Masaaki Yamada began his artistic career amidst the chaos of post-war Japan. Being a self-taught artist, his works were first publicly exhibited in February 1949, at the first Japan Independent Exhibition. He held annual solo exhibitions in Tokyo from 1969-1997, which were noted for their influence and brought him artistic recognition. His works were also displayed at the ‘The 1960’s: A Decade of Change in Contemporary Japanese Art’ at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo and Kyoto in 1981, which increased his fame, and his paintings were shown at a number of exhibitions both at home and abroad, including the Biennale de São Paulo held in 1987.  


Yamada’s large body of work is divided into three periods: Still-Life, Work, and Colour. Fascinated by the symbolism of still life as vanitas representing ephemerality and death, he began his first series: Still-Life (1948-55). In this series, Yamada depicted objects such as vessels and fruits in a style influenced by Giorgio Morandi and Paul Cézanne, instilling in him a focus on shape and flatness that would define his entire career. He gradually disassembled the forms into its basic components of lines, shapes and colours, which developed into his second and most influential period: Work (1956-95).  


Yamada’s Work series consists of abstract paintings using motifs such as stripes, crosses and grids. These paintings, particularly the striped ones, seem mechanical and flawless at first sight. However, on close inspection, the coloured bands show subtle variations in texture and brushstrokes, sometime deliberately, at other times accidentally, unveiling a world of sensitivity within the canvas. In spite of the rich palette used within a single work, the colours do not interfere with one another, giving a sense of evenness to the canvas that anticipated his final period: Colour (1997-2010). Yamada undertook his last series in constant pursuit of the flatness of the painting, filling the entire plane with a single shade of colour.  


Yamada’s philosophical approach to art-making, which centered on an internal logic based on form and colour, challenged the fundamentally visual experience of painting. He devoted his life to painting for 50 years, and some 5,000 pieces he created during his lifetime are recently being re-evaluated for their unique position in Japanese modern art. In the years following his death in 2010, his fame continued to increase, and his first large-scale retrospective was held in 2016 at The National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and Kyoto. 


Artist : Masaaki Yamada
Title : Work C.250, 1965 
Dimension : 162cm x 162cm 
Media : Oil/canvas





1958  First solo exhibition at Kyobunkan Gallery, Tokyo  


1962  Solo exhibition in Yoseido Gallery, Tokyo  


1964  Solo exhibition Nantenshi Gallery, Tokyo  


1965   Solo exhibition in Tsubaki-Kindai Gallery, Tokyo  


1966   1966 Summer, Muramatsu Gallery, Tokyo  


1978   Masaaki Yamada 1957-1978, Koh Gallery, Tokyo  


1979   Late `60s paintings, Satani Gallery, Tokyo  


1980   Oil pastels new works, Satani Gallery, Tokyo  


1981   Early `60s paintings, Satani Gallery, Tokyo  


1982   Yamada Masaaki 1950-1980, Satani Gallery  


1983   Recent works by Masaaki Yamada, Satani Gallery, Tokyo  


1984   Solo exhibition, Galerie Denise René, Paris  


1985   Mid `60s Monochrome Period, Satani Gallery, Tokyo  


1986   Masaaki Yamada New Works Exhibition 1985-86, Satani Gallery, Tokyo  


1987   Works on Paper 1950-67, Satani Gallery, Tokyo  


1988   Masaaki Yamada 1986-87, Satani Gallery, Tokyo  


1989   Early `70s paintings, Satani Gallery, Tokyo  


1990   New Works 1989-1990, Satani Gallery, Tokyo  


2005  The Paintings of Masaaki Yamada from Still Life to Work to Color, Fuchu Art Museum, Tokyo 


2016   Endless: The paintings of Yamada Masaaki, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; 

            The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto;


Works from the 1960’s, held in Larkin Erdmann, Zurich from 30 September – 11 November 2016, was the very first exhibition of Masaaki Yamada held in Switzerland. 


2017  Form on the Borderline, Sakurado Fine Arts, Tokyo   





1949   1st Japan Independent Exhibition  


1952   4th Japan Independent Exhibition;

            16th Jiyu Bijutsu Exhibition  


1963   Jewish Center Hall, Los Angeles, CA  


1974   Contemporary Japanese Art: Tradition and Present, Kunts Museum, Düsseldorf  


1981   The 1960s—A Decade of Change in Contemporary Japanese Art, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; 

           The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto  


1985   Japanese Contemporary Paintings, Museum of Modern Art, New Delhi  


1987   19th São Paulo Biennale  


1994   Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama; 

            Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY;

            San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts, San Francisco, CA; 

            Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA  


2000  Japanese Art in the 20th Century, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo