News & Events


Secret Obsession: Paul Jenkins, Artist and Collector of Japanese Art

January 12, 2024

Left: Noh Mask of Ko-Beshimi
Seal: Deme Mitsunori
Japan, Edo period, 18th century
Wood with gofun and pigments
Collection of the Paul and Suzanne Jenkins Foundation
Right: Noh Mask of Shintai
Japan, Edo period, 19th century
Wood with gofun and pigments
Collection of the Paul and Suzanne Jenkins Foundation

Period:February 9 – March 1, 2024


The Nippon Club is proud to present a remarkable selection of Japanese art from the private collection of Abstract Expressionist American painter Paul Jenkins (1923-2012) and his wife Suzanne (1948-2023), displayed publicly for the first time in Secret Obsession: Paul Jenkins, Artist and Collector of Japanese Art. Comprising nearly 70 works—netsuke, woodblock prints, arms, and armor, Bunraku puppet heads, Noh and Kyōgen masks, paintings, lacquer, ceramics, and tools, as well as collages by the artist that incorporate Japanese elements often in relation to his own biography, the exhibition underscores the artist’s passion for collecting and his deep engagement with Japanese art.


Paul Jenkins was an American artist, a contemporary of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell, widely recognized for his unorthodox method of pouring paint and his richly colored abstract canvases. His fascination with Asian art and culture began when he was only ten years old as a frequent visitor to the Nelson Gallery (now the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, known for its Asian art collection. As a young boy he was so enamoured with Japanese art that he saved his lunch money to buy netsuke, the miniature carvings in wood and ivory used as toggles for inrō or medicine cases worn during the Edo period (1615-1868).


At 21 years old, while stationed at the Naval Air Corps in Virginia, he made copies of Kabuki actor prints by Katsukawa Shunkō (1743-1812), Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) and Katsukawa Shunei (1762-1819), and then he trained in oil painting at New York’s Art Students League: in the early 1950s Jenkins studied for four years with the Japanese-American painter Kuniyoshi Yasuo (1889–1953). At that time, he purchased a Noh mask at an antique store on 57th Street to give to his beloved teacher. He soon relocated to Paris, where he acquired most of Hokusai’s Manga volumes as well as the complete set of Hokusai’s 100 Views of Mount Fuji. Jenkins deeply studied these and drew after Hokusai; he went on to write about his experience of being taught much by the great ukiyo-e master. Jenkins’ letters document how he constantly sought fine examples of Japanese art, for example, when he exhibited at the Gutai Pinacotheca in Osaka in 1964 he purchased a group of Bunraku puppet heads with Gutai leader, Yoshihara Jirō (1905-1972).


Left: Scenes from the Legend of the Yūzū Nenbutsu engi emaki
Scroll fragment, ink and ground mineral pigments on paper
Edo period, 18th century
Collection of the Paul and Suzanne Jenkins Foundation
Right: Paul Jenkins
Phenomena Taught Reel, 1962
Acrylic on canvas
Collection of the Paul and Suzanne Jenkins Foundation


Jenkins interest in Japanese art collecting was comprehensive from paintings and prints to ceramics, lacquer, arms and armour and netsuke. What is most striking about the collection, however, are the nearly one dozen Noh and Kyōgen theatre masks, more than can be found in most US museum collections, as well as the rare Bunraku puppet heads. Jenkins passion for Japanese theatre, reflects his own lifelong connection to the stage: he studied playwriting at Carnegie Tech (now known as Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh before attending the Art Students League.


In this quote from his 1983 book Anatomy of a Cloud, Jenkins elaborates on his deep ties to Asian art:


“For some reason unknown to myself, I was very receptive to Eastern art… Eastern attitudes fostered in me a sense of mystery about the universe that has drawn me all my life. Eastern art has inspired, nourished, and helped me enter a state of mind where dualism seemed normal. Knowing that you are two instead of one allows you to see and perceive more than one thing at the same time. The abysmal and the heavens. As above, so below. The dark side, the light side. The dark of the moon, the blinding sun.”


From the 1960s through the 1990s, Jenkins exhibited at galleries in Tokyo and Osaka and his artwork is in several private and public collections in Japan such as the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art and the Toyama Museum of Modern Art. During this time, he met and maintained friendships with several notable Japanese people including actress Kuroyanagi Tetsuko (b.1933). Recent research has uncovered Jenkins in a Kirin Seagram’s Whiskey commercial circa 1973 and his artwork has been found on several Japanese book covers. In the United States, Japanese-American artist Kanemitsu Matsumi (1922-1992) who was born in the US but spent his childhood in Hiroshima, was a fellow student at the Art Students League and a life-long friend and colleague.


The exhibition presents the finest examples from the Japanese art collection brought together for the first time in a public setting, alongside the artists own collages and paintings, including 12 works by Paul Jenkins and one work by his teacher, Kuniyoshi Yasuo. This unique exhibition is the first to bring Jenkins lifelong passion to Japanese art full circle.


This exhibition is organized by The Nippon Club, supported by the JCC Fund, and co-curated by Martha Blackwelder and Sachiko Hori.


About the Curators:
Co-curated by Martha Blackwelder and Sachiko Hori, experts in the field of Japanese art. Martha Blackwelder is Managing Director and Curator of Collections for the Jenkins Estate. She is a former curator of Asian Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art and former director of the Asia Society in Houston. Sachiko Hori is a private consultant and former director of the Japanese Art department at Sotheby’s.