When I heard that the artist Ray Yoshida had passed away, I was brought up short. In my mind, he was eternal—like a Platonic form. He was 78, and nature has its plan. Yet I can’t help wishing nature had a different plan—one that would allow men like Ray Yoshida to live forever. He was a terrific artist—you’d have to see his paintings and his small, edgy-sweet collages of cut-up comic images to know why I say this. He was also a terrific teacher.
Like many graduate students of my era at the Art Institute of Chicago—the late 70s—I had Ray as one of several teachers, each there to offer his or her own take on students’ work. When I think about my paintings as a whole, I realize Ray was one of the most crucial of my teachers in helping me develop as an artist—but not in the way one might think. Certainly I never painted like him, and my paintings don’t resemble his.
For the past 50 years, most young painters in graduate school have been educated by latching onto the personalities and insights of a few inspirational teachers. We made paintings and then our teachers reacted to what we had painted. It was then our responsibility to choose how to respond to their reactions.
Don’t fret. We learned some real skills (especially while we were undergraduates). But keep in mind that skills per se have been a mere aside in art for a long time, and university and art-school art education, appropriately enough, have followed the modern mandate for artists to master only those skills they need in order to say what they need to say. In graduate school education, in particular, the quality of the mind of the artist who is the teacher matters the most.
People who studied with Ray often say he was “mysterious” or “enigmatic.” I don’t know about that, but he was profoundly private. He had his circle of friends, obviously, but I was never in that circle. I knew him only as my teacher, and I kept a respectful distance. In his teaching, he spared the words. He liked to say things cryptically and with light, even-handed irony. I think of him as standing in the corner of the graduate studios, smoking a cigarette, staring quietly out into the room. Then he’d approach someone and say a few (emphasis on the word “few”) words—rather loudly, so that everyone could hear. “This part,” he’d say, gesturing with his cigarette, “This part here isn’t as strong as the rest.”
I remember one time in particular—we’re talking almost 30 years ago, so I probably have the words a little wrong—when I was working on a large, flat blue shape that I was particularly proud of. I’d found a fancy way to use wallpaper paste with my pigments so the paint took on the look of a rock’s surface. I was nudging the thing along to look as if it had fallen away from some blue sister shapes to the right of it. From across the room, like a bolt from Zeus, Ray startled me. “Laurie!” he yelled. I froze. “That shape looks like a piece of the moon.” He began to say he thought I should change it, but suddenly checked himself.” On second thought, just keep going.” It’s very simple. He was teaching me to be a painter who would be alert to the ways invented shapes accidentally take on associations from the real world.
Several years after I graduated and had moved to New York, I had a drawing show at the Jan Cicero Gallery in Chicago. After the show ended, my friend, the Chicago painter Judith Geichman, told me that she’d encountered Ray and he’d wanted her to tell me that he’d seen the show and had really liked the drawings. I lived on those words for a long time.
I saw Ray’s last solo exhibition, in 1999 at the Adam Baumgold Gallery in New York. They were vintage Ray Yoshida—small, crisp collages, not paintings this time, that harked back to his work from much earlier. They were made of neatly cropped pieces from comics, arranged in clean grids with precision and attention to detail. Even in an age of huge installation artworks and distressed deconstruction, Ray honed the small work, lovingly crafting it down to the tiniest detail.
After I saw Ray’s show, I wrote him a note saying how much I had liked it.