Gagosian Is Building Tetsuya Ishida’s Legacy in the U.S.

The mega-gallery hopes its newest show will expose the artist, relatively unknown outside of Japan, to a new global audience.

Nick Simunovic, Gagosian’s senior director in Asia, was living in Hong Kong thirteen years ago when he was first introduced to the striking, melancholy and at times chilling paintings of Japanese artist Tetsuya Ishida. He was “immediately astonished and captivated by the material” and subsequently shared the works with gallery founder Larry Gagosian, who “was equally amazed,” Simunovic told Observer. 

Oil painting of man trapped in bunk bed made of boxes
Tetsuya Ishida’s Untitled, (1998). © Tetsuya Ishida Estate/Courtesy the artist, Kyuryudo Art Publishing, and Gagosian

Now, more than 80 works have come together for Gagosian’s Tetsuya Ishida: My Anxious Self, the most extensive exhibition of Ishida’s work in the U.S. thus far. The month-long show at the gallery’s 555 West 24th Street location opened yesterday (September 12) and showcases Ishida’s reflections on the alienation, corporate numbness and technological advancements of Japan’s “Lost Decade” recession in the 1990s.

Ishida, who died in 2005 at age 31, combined muted tones with the occasionally violent mutilation of his subjects, who are often depicted fused with buildings, tech products and animals. “But at the same time, there’s incredible humor and empathy and solidarity,” noted Simunovic. “We as humans find ourselves in Tetsuya’s paintings.”

Young man in blue hoodie
Tetsuya Ishida circa 1995. © Tetsuya Ishida Estate/Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

Gagosian, which began representing Ishida’s estate in August, wants to bring the artist’s work to a broader audience, one that’s likely entirely unfamiliar with his work. Previous showings of Ishida’s  paintings in the U.S. have been limited to small presentations at Chicago’s Wrightwood 659 gallery and San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. “Ishida is certainly an artist whose work has been underappreciated and underrepresented and underexposed for a very, very long time everywhere outside Japan, but especially in the United States,” said Simunovic.

A domino effect of international recognition

After both Simunovic and Gagosian became enamored with Ishida’s foreboding imagery, they staged a show of the late artist in Hong Kong in 2013, using secondary market material loaned by collectors. The exhibition had a domino effect in the art world. After viewing the exhibition, curator Jessica Morgan brought Ishida’s work to the Gwangju Biennale in 2014, where the late Okwui Enwezor saw the material and decided to showcase it in the 2015 Venice Biennale. That earned the attention of curators at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, whose 2019 exhibition later traveled to Wrightwood 659. “In a way, what Gagosian has done has really amplified his international recognition—and with an exhibition they did 10 years ago,” Cecilia Alemani, curator of the current Gagosian show, told Observer.

Painting of man in suit with lobster claws for hands
Tetsuya Ishida’s Gripe, (1996). © Tetsuya Ishida Estate/Photo: Martin Wong/Courtesy Gagosian

While Ishida himself enjoyed little commercial success in his lifetime, after Gagosian’s Hong Kong show, his family realized the artist’s work had appeal beyond Japan. As his paintings journeyed around the international art circuit, Ishida’s eldest brother Michiaki, who oversees the artist’s estate, got in touch with Simunovic. “That’s really when we began to make plans for our exhibition in New York in earnest,” said Simunovic. Originally planned for 2020, the show was pushed back due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the New York debut eventually scheduled for the 50th anniversary of Ishida’s birth.

“Tetsuya’s wallet, which he kept until the end of his life, contained several American one-dollar bills,” said Michiaki in a catalogue accompanying the exhibition. “Perhaps it was his wish to go to New York, the center of contemporary art, one day. We are grateful that he finally has a chance to spend them.”

Painting of three men at restaurant counter with gasoline pumps in their mouths
Tetsuya Ishida’s Refuel Meal, (1996). © Tetsuya Ishida Estate/Courtesy the artist, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, and Gagosian

Building a legacy for Tetsuya Ishida in the U.S.

Gagosian has a long history of representing artist estates, having worked with those of Roy Lichtenstein, Helen Frankenthaler, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder, among others. “We’re only and always interested in showing the best and most relevant art, and Tetsuya obviously fits this narrative, in our view,” said Simunovic. “We fully believe that he deserves to take his rightful place among the greatest contemporary artists of our time.”

Painting of man on treadmill escaping legless men attempting to cut off his own legs
Tetsuya Ishida’s Exercise Equipment, (1997). © Tetsuya Ishida Estate/Photo: Rob McKeever/Courtesy Gagosian

Through exhibitions and published scholarship, Gagosian aims to grow Ishida’s legacy in the west, according to Simunovic. “We hope that our audience here will fully appreciate and sense that Tetsuya Ishida is a major, major artist who has not been fully understood or exhibited in many parts of the world.”

An important segment of that audience is museums, he added. Besides the previous shows at the Reina Sofia and Asian Art Museum, “there hasn’t really been a major survey of Tetsuya,” said Simunovic. “We are hoping that with this show, that will change.”

Gagosian Is Building Tetsuya Ishida’s Legacy in the U.S.