Portrait of Ray Yoshida: Wm. H. Bengtson, Chicago. © Estate of Ray Yoshida. Courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York.
While Ray Yoshida was an undergraduate student in the liberal arts at the University of Hawaii, he corresponded with his sister, who was living in Chicago and sent him postcards from the Art Institute. Thus inspired, Yoshida applied to transfer to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). This goal was postponed when he was drafted into the Korean War, but after completing his service, he moved to Chicago and enrolled in SAIC’s program in 1950. He completed his bachelor’s in 1953 and went on to Syracuse University to obtain his master’s degree in fine art in 1958. By 1959, Yoshida had been hired as an instructor for SAIC, where he would remain until he retired from teaching in 2005.
Though he did not participate in the Hairy Who, False Image, or Non-Plussed Some exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center, Yoshida played a central role in the instruction of the SAIC students and alumni whose works were exhibited in those exhibitions. Himself a recent SAIC graduate, Yoshida acted as both an advisor and a peer of his students in their formative years in the 1960s. He was well known for his perceptiveness and for having an effective voice; students frequently found their work praised and criticized through Yoshida’s comments to a third party. Most significantly, he pressed his students to make their work personal and to embrace the peculiarity of their own viewpoint.
Yoshida also encouraged his students to collect images, as one might collect stamps, in order to develop patterns of “looking.” He himself was a dedicated collector of odd and eclectic objects and often visited the flea markets on Maxwell Street to scour the stands for old toys and signs, which he identified as “trash treasures.” He inspired a similar habit in his students, particularly Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg, Jim Nutt, and Gladys Nilsson. Soon enough, he was leading trips to the markets on an almost weekly basis. At Yoshida’s death in 2009, his collection of 2,600 objects was donated to the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, WI.
At the time of the final Hairy Who exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1968, Yoshida was immersed in his “Comic Book Specimens,” a study of comic imagery by way of dissection and reassembly. Throughout his career, Yoshida shifted back and forth between collage and painting. In his paintings, he primarily worked in earth tones; his most recognizable images depicted amorphic beings cloaked in robes. Yoshida’s series of torn papers embellished by strokes from a felt-tip pen and assembled in rows, demonstrate a collector’s dedication to inventory.
Yoshida’s legacy as an educator is enormous. Jim Nutt observed in the catalog for Yoshida’s 1998 retrospective at the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, “Although Ray’s painting has never been affected directly by the work of his students, I believe the interaction with students somehow stimulates his creativity. There seems to be something about an art school community that he finds it necessary to be a part of.”
collage on paper
Ray Yoshida had a voracious appetite for the designed object and for the extraordinary among the mundane. By the end of his life, the walls of his home were covered with prized objects from flea markets and artworks by self-taught artists. Similarly, his penchant for the arrangement of everyday materials in the creation of a work of art guided his practice as an artist and teacher. As an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he would challenge his students—which included all of the Chicago Imagists, with the exception of Karl Wirsum—to deeply examine ordinary objects and ask, “How many ways can an object be represented?”
The transformation of ordinary object to objet d’art is exemplified by Yoshida’s practice of cutting out speech bubbles and architectural elements from comic strips to create collages. He began collecting comic cutouts in 1967 as a way to refresh his artistic practice—an example of a scrapbook containing these elements has been digitized by the Archives of American Art. Yoshida collected thousands of these “specimens,” as he called them, which he stored in a variety of containers around his Chicago apartment—even inside cough drop tins. After completing a series of these collage works in the 1960s, Yoshida wouldn’t return to this type of work until the 90s. In Really?, newspaper comic clippings that are entirely devoid of context—a flotsam of carefully pruned abstract shapes—surround a single figure, a woman with a collaged-on nose. With the word “Really?” hovering over her head, the woman appears annoyed with the artist and her new appendage. In this newly constructed narrative, Yoshida presents an enigmatic pattern derived from the overlooked forms of the comic strip, while maintaining the characteristic humor of the genre.