An Interview with Takao Tanabe


Takao Tanabe, Untitled (10-08-70), 1970, felt pen and pencil crayon on paper, 436. x 28.0 cm. Collection of the artist. © Takao Tanabe, 2012. Photo: Scott Massey

At 87 years of age, Takao Tanabe is recognized as one of Canada’s most important painters. It is a description that Tanabe tends to dismiss with laughter and exasperation even though a first-ever touring retrospective of his art would seem to validate that distinction. Chronicles of Form and Place: Works on Paper by Takao Tanabe features more than 60 paintings and drawings, showcasing his artistic career from 1949 to the present. The works—many of which have never been on public display—are drawn from both the artist’s personal collection and that of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

As the son of a commercial fisherman, Tanabe frequently accompanied his father to fishing camps on BC’s Skeena River. Although the idyllic summers of his youth ended when Tanabe and his family were interned during the Second World War, he began pursuing a career in art as soon as the war was over. Starting out at the Winnipeg School of Art, he also studied in Banff, New York, London and Tokyo, and was long associated with the Banff School of Fine Arts as a teacher and arts advocate.

Since 1980, Tanabe has worked and lived on Vancouver Island. During a career that spans nearly 65 years, his work has been featured in numerous group and solo exhibitions. His prints and paintings can be found in private and public collections around the world—including the National Gallery of Canada, which has 26 works by Tanabe in its permanent collection.

Takao Tanabe recently spoke with NGC Magazine about his art and the retrospective, on view at The Reach Gallery Museum in Abbotsford, BC until September 7, 2014.

NGC Magazine: In 2013, you received the Audain Prize honouring lifetime achievement in the visual arts. You are typically described as one of Canada’s most important painters. How do you feel about that description?

Takao Tanabe: I try not to think about it. It’s very hard work, painting and trying to decide what a good painting would be, and then trying to do it. I haven’t got time to think, “Oh, this is great; oh, isn’t this wonderful?” I haven’t got time for that kind of stuff.

NGCM: You have painted the landscape of British Columbia extensively, and you once said that you felt you were “finished” with that particular geography and region and could move on. What is it about BC that keeps drawing you back?

TT: If you know BC, you know the variety of landscapes and seascapes with all the big waters all around, islands, mountains, and valleys. It’s got a prairie-like atmosphere up in the Cariboo area. The variety is here, and you don’t have to go look anywhere else. I have painted in the Arctic and in Newfoundland. But nothing holds a candle to the variety of views that BC offers.

NGCM: A number of the pieces in this exhibition have not been seen before. How are they different from your other work?

TT: It covers a time of Abstraction from the 1950s on. It was the atmosphere at the time. Abstraction was in the air. It’s a retrospective, so Darrin Martens—who put this show together—came to the studio and I opened up all the drawers for him, and he made the selection. I started out as an Abstract painter, so Works on Paper reflects that. I was in New York in 1951–1952, and again in the late fifties, and the whole painting ethos in those early days was Abstraction of various kinds. But I guess I don’t have a very long attention span. So I got kind of bored working one way, so I tried another method of Abstraction and went from very gestural brushstrokes into hard-edged geometric Abstracts. But, as I said, my attention span isn’t all that great, so after 20 years or so, I said to myself, “What’s the next move?” So in the late sixties I tried a very Abstracted landscape.

Takao Tanabe, Untitled (1960/2005), sumi, acrylic on paper, 59.7 x 86.4 cm. Private Collection. © Takao Tanabe, 2014. Photograph: Scott Massey

NGCM: What do you like about this exhibition?

TT: It shows my view of works on paper from Abstraction to realism. From that point of view, it’s very satisfying that he [Darrin Martens] chose a range of methods and techniques and styles. I don’t deliberately go out and say I’m going to paint a Realist painting. I go out and look at stuff, and come back to the studio and fiddle around until something happens.

NGCM: The National Gallery has 26 of your works in its permanent collection, ranging from earlier works such Landscape of an interior place (1955) and Interior arrangement with red hills (1957) to more recent work such as Dawn from 2003. How has your work evolved from Abstract landscapes to your present-day, non-Abstract yet fairly Minimalist landscapes?

TT: I don’t know. I decide to paint a landscape and I am a Minimalist type of painter. But I avoid the manmade stuff which is the railway lines, the telephone poles, the grain elevators and cows. I didn’t put in any cows. So essentially, it’s stripped down human intervention to the basic, which is kind of just patterning the landscape. Then I carried that over into the seascape and the other kinds of landscapes that I painted. When I came out to BC, retired from Banff, it was a deliberate move, because I had exhausted the idea of the Prairies and I needed a new area. Since I am somewhat of a loner, the whole idea of mists and fog and storm on the West Coast intrigued me then, and it still intrigues me. Although some of the paintings I’m doing now are somewhat sunnier. It might be my old age. But the whole idea is Mother Nature, not human intervention, that I see and try to paint.

Takao Tanabe, Yellow Sky (1967), acrylic on paper, 58.4 x 78.7 cm. Private Collection. © Takao Tanabe, 2014. Photograph: Scott Massey

NGCM: In one of your interviews you said that you are still experimenting, still learning. What is it that you still want to learn or accomplish?

TT: I want to learn how to paint the most brilliant, mysterious, appealing painting. Not necessarily landscape. I have been fiddling around with a very loose kind of abstraction on paper, not on canvas. I’ve got quite a number of them now.

NGCM: You have travelled extensively to study different approaches to landscape painting. How would you describe your technique?

TT: I would say I’m a kind of a control freak when I’m painting, because I want the paint to be put on there as though it just arrives without visible brush marks. So the surfaces are, generally speaking, quite flat. There’s some modulation, but I try to avoid heavy paint and brush marks. The paint does get very heavy because I put on up to eight or nine layers of paint. But I try to avoid brush marks, so that it looks as though the paint has just floated on.

NGCM: Do you have a daily routine?

TT: I get up in the morning and eat breakfast. Then I have chores to do, because I live on a fairly large chunk of ground. Now, for instance, the dandelions are sprouting so I have to kill the buggers. I mean I have to dig them up. Then cut the grass, and today I have to prune the fruit trees. So in the spring painting slows down considerably. Then I try to spend some part of every day in the studio.

Takao Tanabe, English Bay, Dawn (1974), graphite on paper, 70.6 x 100.0 cm. Collection of the artist. © Takao Tanabe, 2014. Photograph: Scott Massey

NGCM: In 1999, you were made a Member of the Order of Canada for your painting, but also for your continued teaching and support of young, emerging artists. If you could give one piece of advice to a young artist, what would it be?

TT: Stay away from painting! (Laughs loudly) Try something else. I don’t have any advice. That’s why I stopped teaching.

NGCM: I can’t believe you would tell young artists to stay away from painting.

TT: Why not?

NGCM: Because I think you find it very satisfying.

TT: I find it satisfying, but it’s been hard, hard, hard work. And it’s not always rewarded. There are so many very good painters who struggle to find an audience and buyers, and they get by through teaching and stuff. I tried to avoid all that stuff, and tried to stick to painting. I didn’t actually dig a ditch, but I was damn close to it. I worked as a job printer for a friend of mine, and that was good because I could make a bit of money at it. When I made some money, I quit and went back to painting. 

Chronicles of Form and Place: Works on Paper by Takao Tanabe is on view at The Reach Gallery Museum in Abbotsford BC until September 7, 2014. For more information, please click here. To view works by Takao Tanabe housed in the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection, please click here.

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