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Ben Sakoguchi

American, b. 1938

circa 1968

Acrylic on canvas
48.625 x 48.75 x 1.875 in.
Gift of the Kathryn C. Wanlass Foundation

The Big Painting, by Ben Sakoguchi, consists of twenty-six separate panels joined to form a single artwork eight feet high by fifty-two feet wide. The painting presents a cacophony of images culled from midcentury visual culture, unified—if just barely—by recurring motifs and continuous passages of color. It was unveiled at the Brand Library Art Center in Glendale, California, in 1971. When the show ended, the painting was dismantled and its parts dispersed. Like performances and installation art from the period, this ambitious project survives in documentary photographs, as well as a few of the original panels, of which this untitled canvas is one.

It is filled to the brim with discrete pictorial objects—women (7), gorillas (4), snakes and kimono-clad couples (3), Santas, elephants, and dinosaurs (2 each)—that invite, if also frustrate, interpretation. We know who hosted the raucous party, but why these guests? However the images were chosen, Sakoguchi’s painting demonstrates that meaning results from the poetic act of selection and combination, nothing further required. Untitled (c. 1968) applies the surrealist principles of free association while substituting pop culture for surrealism’s privileged category, the unconscious.

“Psychoanalysis in reverse” is how a Marxist critic characterized the operations of modern American popular culture. Sakoguchi concurs, approaching his topics with a mix of fascination and horror that distinguishes his position from the smugly affirmative politics of pop art. While his critique would grow more biting over time, it is evident here in nascent form, as is his unflagging good humor, the one reliably counterbalancing the other. Sakoguchi has gone on to become one of the best and most consistent social critics
of his generation.

Tom Jimmerson

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