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Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) opens Matsumi Kanemitsu: Figure and Fantasy

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) presents Matsumi Kanemitsu: Figure and Fantasy, an exhibition of 60 works by the American artist created during and shortly after the artist’s residence in Baltimore, including rarely and never-before-seen paintings, drawings, and sculpture. Over the course of his life, Kanemitsu (1922-1992) created a remarkable body of work that blended reflections on personal experience with imaginative fantasy. While he worked across media, he is most recognized for the evocative ink drawings and prints that he created after becoming associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement. The BMA’s exhibition emphasizes the depth and range of the early, largely figurative drawings created during a pivotal moment in the artist’s career when he was living in Baltimore in the late 1940s, before his association with the New York School. The BMA hosted the artist’s first museum exhibition in 1954, and seven decades later, it is introducing new audiences to the artist’s work in the Stanley Mazaroff and Nancy Dorman Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs. Figure and Fantasy will be on view from May 14 through October 8, 2023.

“Matsumi Kanemitsu is an important second-generation Abstract Expressionist and one of the most talented draftsmen of the 20th century. While he was affiliated with both the New York and Los Angeles art communities, Figure and Fantasy provides an opportunity to explore the artist’s little known, but highly influential time in Baltimore, and reveals how his years in our city helped establish his artistic voice,” said Asma Naeem, the BMA’s Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director. “The exhibition also advances our knowledge beyond the small circle of well-recognized names to capture a deeper and truer history of Post-War American art.”

Figure and Fantasy is organized thematically to highlight the ways in which Kanemitsu’s period of self-reflection in Baltimore following World War II established the trajectory of his career. The exhibition is drawn exclusively from gifts made by J. Blankfard Martenet (1898–1957), a Baltimore collector who befriended Kanemitsu and was instrumental in launching his career. These rarely seen works capture the artist’s distinct synthesis of eastern and western aesthetics and poignant expressions of his lived experiences—his boyhood in Japan, his fascination with the humble aspects of daily life, his dual experience as both an enlisted U.S. soldier and a prisoner of the U.S. military, and portraits of those who formed his community in Baltimore. The exhibition also explores the significance of the relationship between artist and patron, and the ways in which Martenet’s commitment to the artist has led to the preservation of a critical part of his work and career.

Matsumi Kanemitsu

Kanemitsu (b. Ogden, UT 1922; d. Los Angeles, CA 1992) was born to Japanese immigrants in Utah. At an early age, his parents sent him to live with his grandparents outside of Hiroshima. His childhood in Japan would later inspire his interest and engagement with emotive depictions of flora and fauna reminiscent of the country’s landscapes. He returned to the United States in 1940 and enlisted in the U.S. Army prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Despite his American citizenship, his Japanese heritage led to his detention and confinement. Kanemitsu’s time in the Army intensified his experience of living between two worlds, an emotional and psychological toll that would influence his work as an artist. Yet, his service provided opportunities to live in Europe, where he became immersed in the arts, visiting museums and connecting with other artists, including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

After being discharged from the Army, Kanemitsu moved to Baltimore, where he worked at the Bethlehem Steel shipyards and studied masonry and bricklaying. While he had begun creating oil portraits and pen and ink drawings during his service, his years in Baltimore were marked by a concentrated dedication to his artistic practice. During this time, he studied art informally with Karl Metzler and focused his attention on the study of the human body. While his work from the late 1940s and early 1950s retained strong elements of figuration, Kanemitsu often juxtaposed different styles into one work and experimented with painterly abstraction, developing a visual vocabulary entirely his own.

It was also during this period that he met J. Blankfard Martenet, an avid collector of the artist’s drawings who donated his collection to the BMA in 1957. Thanks in part to Martenet’s patronage, Kanemitsu’s first professional successes were achieved in Baltimore. He was featured in regional artist invitationals, winning a prize at the Peale Museum’s 1952 Life in Baltimore Twelfth Annual Painting Show, and receiving his first solo museum exhibition at the BMA in 1954. Kanemitsu would later move to New York and then Los Angeles, becoming a prominent member of noted art world circles and taking on prestigious teaching roles. Starting in the mid-1950s, following his time in Baltimore, he fully embraced abstraction in his practice, and it is this that is most readily recognized.

This exhibition is curated by Leslie Cozzi, BMA Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

More information:

Matsumi Kanemitsu. Fish in a Pond. 1949. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of J. Blankfard Martenet 2012.711.22