Jan 12 2018

Obituary: Toyo Tsuchiya (1948–2017)

by Brady Ng

TOYO TSUCHIYA, Japanese-born artist and photographer, passed away on November 23, 2017, at the age of 69 in New York. Image via the artist’s Facebook

Japanese-born artist and photographer Toyo Tsuchiya died of heart failure on November 23, 2017, at the age of 69. 

Tsuchiya was born near Mount Fuji and grew up in Kyushu and Yokohama, and studied industrial design at a technical high school during his teenage years. After graduating high school, Tsuchiya decided to become an artist, so he studied art in Osaka, Yokohama and Tokyo, where he showed paintings, drawings and collages in the 1970s. In 1980, he left for New York with a three-month tourist visa and eventually decided to remain in America.

In his new home city, Tsuchiya switched gears and took on a documentarian’s slant. He used his camera to chronicle the Lower East Side’s art scene in the 1980s, often training his lens on outsiders like himself when revisiting the street corner of Rivington and Forsyth, ever quietly observant. Thinking back on his first two years in New York, the artist once said, “Everything was new to me. I was like a child. Even without a clear objective. I was busy enjoying everyday life. My camera was like another eye or another arm. I carried it with me all the time, like identification, and documented what I saw.”

In 1983, Tsuchiya met Ray Kelly, the founder of No Se No Social Club and the Rivington School, which is noted for its public sculptures made from welded scrap metal. It was at this juncture, when Tsuchiya began to document these communities as one of its members, that he transitioned from outsider to close associate. In particular, he photographed the many events that were staged at No Se No, such as the series of free performances and exhibitions titled “99 Nights,” as well as the venue’s many visitors. 

Two years later, he moved into No Se No and directed exhibitions for the Rivington School, where he was one of the figures who spearheaded the establishment of its sculpture garden, located in an empty lot beside the intersection of Rivington and Forsyth. The sculpture garden was bulldozed by a real estate developer in November 1987. A second garden was established the same year, but was destroyed by the City of New York in June 1992.

In 1999, the Asian American Arts Center mounted the exhibition “Six O’Clock Observed,” a showcase of Tsuchiya’s photographs taken in New York in the two decades leading up to the presentation.

Though Tsuchiya carried a camera for most of his life, he returned to painting in his final months. His legacy is in the massive visual archive of the Lower East Side’s art happenings from three decades ago.

Brady Ng is the reviews editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

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