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Empty Town in the Desert

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Empty Town in the Desert

Artist: Yasuo Kuniyoshi (American, born in Japan, 1893-1953)

Date: 1943
Medium: Oil on linen
Framed: 29 1/2 × 45 3/4 × 2 3/4in. (74.9 × 116.2 × 7cm)
Signed: Lower left (black paint): 'Kuniyoshi'
Inscribed: Printed across top of canvas stretcher: 'Empty Town in Desert 1943 Kuniyoshi'
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.170
Text Entries

One of the leading artists of his day, Yasuo Kuniyoshi fused three discrete traditions—early American folk art, European modernism, and traditional Japanese painting. Images of spare landscapes, children, casually attired women, and circus themes re-emerged throughout his career, even as his style evolved from the naive works of the 1920s, toward naturalism in the 1930s, and, ultimately, to nearly abstract compositions in the late 194.05 and early 1950s.

While his early landscapes recall Ogonquit, Maine, where he summered, Kuniyoshi’s two trips to the Southwest, in 1935 and 1941, deeply affected him. The vast and primitive terrains of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming inspired a series of paintings which Empty Town in the Desert typifies. In his diary, Kuniyoshi compared this type of landscape to Maine: “I thought it is more of a beginning of creation of earth. . . . I like those ghost towns, deserted places. Buildings still standing of 1870s. Their bigness of sky and earth react so much different than Eastern states.”(1)

The events of World War II initiated a period of political awareness that influenced his Work throughout the 1940s. The barren ruins of Empty Town in the Desert reflect his melancholy over world affairs. An avid patriot, Kuniyoshi denounced Japan and was outspoken in his support of the United States involvement. In his art, Kuniyoshi looked to the stark drama of the Western landscape as a symbol of America. “Somehow I feel that if ever a real American painting is produced, it must come from these sources. . . .After all, I think we must have an expression that will grow from the soil of this country.”(2)



1. Kuniyoshi Diary, August 20, 1944 (Yasuo Kuniyoshi Biographical Notes and Diaries, Sara Kuniyoshi, Woodstock, New York).

2. Ibid., November 18, 1944.


© Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi.