We never master Haraguchi Noriyuki’s art. It strips away sentiment and returns us to a world divorced from human desires. There are no false joys or falser pains, no little lies we tell ourselves in the hope of making sense of everything. Self-expression, whatever that was, gets washed away by material form. What a welcome relief!

Haraguchi’s empiricism remains urgent today, even though it was central to the important art, music, literature, and theater of the 1960s. If we would see reality, there could be no fairy tales, no magic mirrors on the wall, no happily-ever-afters. Every storyteller hides existence and is complacent. A war hero is as dead as the next person.

One basic way to stave off self-deception is to make something new rather than to represent something familiar. Haraguchi’s strategy has been to develop suggestive works while also preventing their associations from becoming frozen in place. His method is bait and switch, and it points to an ethics that the French new novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet explained with these famous words: “But the world is neither significant nor absurd. It is, quite simply.”

Fig. 2. Lee Ufan, Relatum (formerly Phenomena and Perception B), 1968–69. Steel, glass, and stone. Plates, each 3/8 x 55 1/8 x 67 3/8 inches (1 x 140 x 171 cm); stone, height approx. 150 inches (40 cm). Private Collection

Again and again, Haraguchi plants seeds that tantalize and tease but never survive to harvest. One of his major projects, for example, has been to build objects based on US Navy warplanes—five since 1969. Each develops a scale he considers to be “one to one”: one part new, one part derived, which is the core contention of Mono-ha, the “School of Things.” Reality, these artists maintain, is always in flux and never reaches a final state (fig. 2). There is a disparity between what we sense and what we know, and the best art amplifies this awareness; it cautions modesty.

Haraguchi was born in 1946 in Yokosuka, a port city on Tokyo Bay with a large US naval base. Like many members of the industrialized world’s protest generation, he wanted a future freed from the past. In the 1960s, Japan remained beholden to US imperialist policies; Prime Minster Sato Eisaku’s government aided the US military in exchange for, especially, the promised repatriation of Okinawa. The student movement was widespread, and 1968 saw the “200-meter demonstration,” the formation of the All-Campus Joint Struggle Committee, and public meetings with university presidents—thirty-five thousand students reportedly confronted the president of Nihon University, overflowing the lecture hall to fill the streets.

Fig. 3. Christian Marclay, installation view of The Clock at White Cube, London, October 15–November 13, 2010. Single-channel video, 24 hours

Haraguchi started making his first fragment, A-­4E Skyhawk (1968–69), immediately after an incident that he says was responsible for shaping his artistic vision. Glimpsing the tail section of a US fighter jet as it was being transported through the streets, he gave chase. It was an odd sight: a plane shifted through a cityscape, a boy never catching up. The harried dash is emblematic of the elusive nature of meaning. “My thoughts and reflections are in a constant state of indecision,” he once observed. Reality exceeds our ability to grasp it, and if this truism bleeds toward the mystical, it also forms the core of Christian Marclay’s concrete video The Clock (2010), which tallies the passage of the 1,440 minutes of a day with thousands of movie clips spliced together (fig. 3).

Fig. 4. Thomas Doney, Portrait of Henry Clay, 1845–47. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Library, Williamstown, Massachusetts

A-4E Skyhawk is part effigy—“malice, harm, and violence,” Haraguchi offered. It was destroyed during clashes between students and riot police at Nihon University, where he was studying painting. At this tense moment, a single material, scavenged plywood, took the form of both art and barricade. When remade in 1995 (without military markings), it became clear that A-4E Skyhawk never fully exists under any one cultural condition. The viewer’s attention mixes the complex political history with its complicated art history, and puts senseless destruction and creative production into circulation.

A-4E Skyhawk is fortified with multiple contingencies, which is a type of aesthetics that art historian Michael Leja discussed in relation to nineteenth-century mezzotint copies of daguerreotypes (fig. 4). He described their vibrating nature in this way: “Seeing them as one or the other, print or photograph, is not usually easy. They often refuse to settle into one category . . . which can produce a sense of uncanniness or an unsettling cognitive uncertainty.” If Leja had wished to update this indeterminacy, he might well have discussed works on paper by Vija Celmins, since, for example, during the height of the Vietnam War, she made graphite drawings of photographs of World War II clipped from newspapers. Fortification prevents closure by creating instabilities among mediums and meanings.

Fig. 5. Charles Ray, Hinoki, 2007. The Art Institute of Chicago

The second A-4E Skyhawk also brings to mind Charles Ray’s Hinoki (2007), which artisans in Japan made by carving cypress planks to resemble a rotting log that Ray came across in a field in California (fig. 5). In both cases, the associations cycle and ultimately vanish. What is left? Shimmers, “ghosts of ghosts,” as Sherrie Levine called them, the material residue she claimed for her own appropriation art (fig. 6). A fortified work remains beyond comprehension.

Fig. 6. Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans: 2, 1981. 22 black-and-white photographs, each 8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm)

Haraguchi’s White Series, from the late 1960s, also partially disappears, promising, but failing to be, an antidote to endless war. Plywood, paint, and cheap fabric suggest the exhaust vents of jet planes and navy ships, as well as Lee Bontecou’s jutting relief sculptures. The objects are props, stage sets, readymades. Like Claes Oldenburg’s Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks (1969), this theater of the absurd gives a sexual send-up to patriotism (fig. 7). That whole charade collapses in a heap of shapes, materials, references, and reactions.

Fig. 7. Claes Oldenburg, Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, 1969.  Collection Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Colossal Keepsake Corporation

The war-era pieces foment endlessly. They are never one thing, another thing, or even a third. They are only potential, only a switch we might or might not flip. As the philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote, “To be potential means to be one’s own lack, to be in relation to one’s own incapacity.” Potential is opposed to actuality, and is similar to the indecisiveness Haraguchi described within himself. It is strong but mute.

I-Beam and Wire Rope (1970) is potential. Haraguchi carefully tethered a steel I beam upright but on the brink of falling. The counterbalance is like a stalemate between an excited dog and his stern master. It creates a tense silence similar to that which Richard Serra, who visited Kyoto in 1970, ascribed to the experience of his own sculptures. “Any linguistic mapping or reconstruction by analogy, or any verbalization or interpretation or explanation, even of this kind, is a linguistic debasement, in a sense, because it isn’t even true in a parallel way,” he asserted (fig. 8). Potential is the darkness out of which something new might come, however unlikely.

Fig. 8 (left). Richard Serra, Sight Point (For Leo Castelli), 1972–75. Weatherproof steel. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Fig. 9 (right). Carsten Höller, installation view of Untitled (Slide) in Carsten Höller: Experience, at New Museum, New York, 2011–12

Haraguchi’s rejection of meaning in favor of information extends to his celebrated oil pools. “I seek the abstract in my works,” he wrote, “for there is something absolute which can only be shaped in the climate of the undefined.” He showed Matter and Mind (1977) under a different title at Documenta 6 in Kassel, Germany. The work is both gorgeous and toxic: perpetually shifting reflections compete with industrial smells, and we cannot help but feel simultaneously absorbed and repelled in this place of art. Matter and Mind charges our body’s sense receptors—we are focused and alive—and not just the expected ones of sight, smell, and touch (not allowed), but also kinesthetics, acceleration, and balance. Immersive and gracious, the oil pools amplify the sensations that the world provides, and limit our ability to confine reality to any single iteration.

Understated, Haraguchi’s environments, including new objects such as A-7E Corsair II (2011), cast the world as an exchange of positive and negative forms. In this regard, they stand apart from other recent works of art, whose brashness turns galleries into amusement parks and other spectacles. This trend is exemplified by the giant playground slide that Carsten Höller installed in the New Museum, New York, in 2011 (fig. 9). Eschewing such arrogance, Haraguchi’s works use their spare dignity to suggest the American Minimalism (though not its cultural context) from which the newest generation’s practices grew. An

Fig. 10. Donald Judd, Untitled, 1965. Stainless steel with fluorescent Plexiglas, 20 x 48 x 34 inches (50.8 x 121.9 x 86.4 cm). The Rachofsky Collection. Art © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

especially apt comparison would be to Donald Judd’s Plexiglas prisms, which share the reflective shimmer of the oil pools and the ephemeral volumes of the warplanes (fig. 10). By amplifying information beyond common meanings, art replaces the world we knew with one that comes unfiltered.

This is a rare occurrence, to experience reality as it is rather than as we wish it were. These inhuman moments come when artists abstract experience rather than define it, which is an aesthetic version of the radicalism that characterized political dissent during the Cold War. Perhaps this oppositional attitude is what Haraguchi hoped to convey when he explained his practice: “Somewhere within the process of simplification, I often create an undefined area—a breathing element—which, just like the empty spaces in Japanese ink paintings, is at once symbolic and concretely material.” It is a return to the indefinite that most strongly characterizes the art associated with Mono-ha.

Fig. 11 (left). Haraguchi Noriyuki, Untitled (car roof ), 1993. Aluminum and die-pressed sheet steel, 47 1/2 x 42 3/8 x 7 1/8 inches (120.5 x 110 x 18 cm). Private Collection; Fig. 12 (right). John Chamberlain, Sugar Tit, 1964. Painted, metal-flaked, and chromium plated steel, 36 x 38 x 26 inches (91.4 x 96.5 x 66 cm). Collection of Peter Morton

If art would remain undefined, it must hold off human projections. Attenuation does not crush reality but instead amplifies its misadventures. In this respect, we have seen how Haraguchi’s resistant art liberates sensations and substances from war and waste, but he has also focused on the by-products of other heavy industries. In the late 1980s, he started working with die-pressed steel sheets. Never the car parts they were destined to be, these self-supporting and wall-mounted colors fold and crease, creating a free rhythm of surfaces and volumes (fig. 11). These works are more similar to John Chamberlain’s fluid proliferations from the 1960s than to Richard Prince’s static redeployments in the 1990s (fig. 12). When they were exhibited in New York in 1993, the critic Holland Cotter remarked on their elegance. Haraguchi’s is an art that lends empirical uncertainty to the force of lived culture.

Fig. 13. Ian Schneller, Specimen Freeman Royale Archtop Guitar and SPECIMEN XL Horns in Sonic Arboretum, at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2011

When art serves as an amplifier, it transforms standard meanings into rare sensations, as does 100, Revised (1985–86). A stepped pyramid of stacked wooden planks and copper I beams and prisms, it has had a number of presentations and assumed an admirably unclear form on one notable occasion (fig. 1). Shorn of its wooden base tiers and miked to an electronic music interface, its copper was fused with the avant-garde jazz of the trumpeter Toshinori Kondo. As with Ian Schneller’s XL Horns (2008), stock meanings become aesthetic experiences, as reality distorts us to the breaking point (fig. 13). Released from the grip of self-expression, we face a world we do not know.

A scale of one to one objectifies every phenomenon, including the human one. It increases the explosive energy of time and space, and it overwhelms their expressive qualities. Whether a model of a battleship warped in place or a cement floor cranked tight with steel rope, Haraguchi’s art is neither literal nor mystical. This is Haraguchi’s potential, a world put to the test again and again.

Note: Thanks to Mika Yoshitake and Reiko Tomii for their help on this project, and to my readers, Jodi Cressman, Stanley Murashige, and Michael Schreyach.


  1. Alain Robbe-Grillet, “A Future for the Novel” (1956), in Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, trans. Richard Howard (1963; repr., Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989), 19, italics in the original. Robbe-Grillet continued: “That, in any case, is the most remarkable thing about it. And suddenly the obviousness of this strikes us with irresistible force. All at once the whole splendid construction collapses; opening our eyes unexpectedly, we have experienced, once too often, the shock of this stubborn reality we were pretending to have mastered. Around us, defying the noisy pack of our animistic or protective adjectives, things are there.”
  2. Noriyuki Haraguchi, “Circulations: The Permanent Process,” in Noriyuki Haraguchi: Catalogue Raisonné, 1963–2001, ed. Helmut Friedel (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2001), 27.
  3. Concerning Mono-ha, Alexandra Monroe wrote, “Mono-ha, literally ‘School of Things,’ changed the course of Japanese contemporary art by positing Asia as central rather than peripheral to contemporary artistic practices and discourse. In contrast to Gutai’s explosive experiments which became more myth than catalyst, Mono-ha’s theoretical and formal innovations continued to evolve and be debated well beyond the group’s short duration from 1968 to the early seventies.” Alexandra Munroe, Japanese Art after 1945: Scream against the Sky (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), 257. See also http://blumandpoe.com/exhibitions /requiem-sun-art-mono-ha#images.
  4. In his important article on Sekine Nobuo, Lee Ufan wrote, “Even if an object serves as the object of knowledge or information, conforms to a certain form and weight, and is placed in a certain place at a certain time, as long as it cannot vividly present itself in a structure of depth and expanse, mono will never be encountered—and will have no meaning at all in the ‘visible world.’” Lee Ufan, “Beyond Being and Nothingness: On Sekine Nobuo” (1970), in Alexandra Munroe, Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2011), 112.
  5. Peter Gerald Kelman, “Protesting the National Identity: The Cultures of Protest in 1960s Japan” (PhD diss., University of Sidney, 2001), 248–93.
  6. The artist tells one version of this frequently recounted incident in Noriyuki Haraguchi, “Haraguchi and Kobata in Conversation,” in Noriyuki Haraguchi: Society and Matter (Kanagawa, Japan: BankART1929, 2009), 231.
  7. Haraguchi, “Haraguchi and Kobata in Conversation,” 235.
  8. In line with the sense of time suggested by Marclay’s video, Haraguchi wrote, “Japan does not live in real time. We have to realize that it exists in a virtual world. Yet we cannot rewind the last fifty years.” Haraguchi, “Circulations,” 29.
  9. Haraguchi, “Circulations,” 29.
  10. Michael Leja, “Fortified Images for the Masses,” Art Journal 70, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 66. With the notion of “fortification,” Leja hoped to suggest the synergistic combination of elements: fortified milk is a single drink that is pasteurized milk as well as vitamins A and D.
  11. On Celmins’s graphic practices, see Katie Elizabeth Geha, “Like Life: Data, Process, Change, 1967–1976” (PhD diss., University of Texas, Austin, 2012).
  12. Sherrie Levine, quoted in Jeanne Siegel, “After Sherrie Levine,” Arts Magazine 59, no. 10 (Summer 1985): 141; as in Leja, “Fortified Images,” 75.
  13. On circulation, Haraguchi wrote, “Time and space—boundless and vaguely defined. . . . Moving from one moment to the next, from one place to the next. . . . I only want to look at things, the world, not focus on anything, not make any connections.” Haraguchi, “Circulations,” 27.
  14. Giorgio Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 1986, in Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed., trans., and intro. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 182. Michael Newman engaged Agamben’s ideas when he wrote about Ian Kiaer’s recent works, which resonate strongly with Haraguchi’s practices: “There is no ‘necessity’ to these marks, they could have been otherwise, which is precisely what is meant by the word ‘contingent.’ Contingency thus involves potentiality. The very materiality of the work is allowed to emerge insofar as the elements brought into the studio are freed from the linear time of means and ends and released into a virtual multiplicity of possible configurations, echoed in the degree to which the installations may vary in different locations.” Michael Newman, “Models and Fragments: Ian Kiaer’s Studio,” in Ian Kiaer (Aspen, CO: Aspen Art Museum, 2012), 23.
  15. Richard Serra, quoted in Liza Baer, “Sight Point ’71–75 / Delineator ’74–76” (1976), in Richard Serra: Writings, Interviews (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 36.
  16. Agamben wrote, “The greatness—and also the abyss—of human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential for darkness.” Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 181.
  17. Haraguchi, “Circulations,” 29.
  18. The piece was originally entitled Busshitsu (Matter) / Relationship. In relation to this work, Kobata Kazue incorrectly contended that Haraguchi and Takamatsu Jiro “were the first Japanese and Asian artists to be invited to participate in the Documenta series.” In fact, other Japanese and Asian artists took part in Documenta 6 (1977), including Imamura Shohei, Kubota Shigeko, On Kawara, Lee Ufan, and Oshima Nagisa. There were others even before that: in Documenta 5 (1972), Yoko Ono; in Documenta 4 (1968), Arakawa Shusaku and the US-born Shinkichi Tajiri; in Documenta 3 (1964), Azuma Kenjiro, Nagai Kazumasa, Tanaka Ikko, the US-born Isamu Noguchi, Yamashiro Ryuichi, and Yanagi Sori; and in Documenta 2 (1959), Inoue Yuichi and Yamazaki Taiho. See Haraguchi, “Haraguchi and Kobata in Conversation,” 237, and http://artnews.org/documenta/?a=exhibitions. 
  19. Haraguchi rightly rejects attempts to explain his oil pools as a Japanese version of American Minimalism, writing: “This is a mistake, because my works should be seen in the context of Japanese scenery. The oil reflects the surrounding interior, the roof, the pillars, and even the visitors present.” Haraguchi, “Circulations,” 28.
  20. Noriyuki Haraguchi, in (C)overt: A Series of Exhibitions at P.S. 1 (New York: Institute for Art and Urban Resources, 1987), n.p.
  21. Holland Cotter, “Noriyuki Haraguchi,” New York Times, November 21, 1993, C22. Without a sense of Haraguchi’s career as a whole, Cotter wrongly thought that these works belonged to the then-current deadpan take on car culture: “But car parts have been a popular item in New York art in the last few seasons, what with Richard Prince’s sculpture and Peter Cain’s paintings, and Mr. Haraguchi’s sleek, muted examples did not add any significant spin to the form.” However, Cotter held a completely different opinion about Matter and Mind, writing, “It’s a lovely effect that gives a good idea of the sensual pull that simple material can have, and it shows Mr. Haraguchi’s contemplative Minimalism at its best.”