A Tribute to Kiyo Higashi, a Formidable Art Dealer with Minimalist Tastes and a Curatorial Mind

Apr 25, 2016 8:53PM

Image courtesy of Peter Blake Gallery.

Seeing the new exhibition at Peter Blake Gallery feels a bit like dining in a star chef’s home kitchen or leafing through the personal notebooks of a great writer. That’s because the works on display come from the private collection of celebrated art dealer Kiyo Higashi, a legend in the Los Angeles art scene.

Higashi’s personal story is just as intriguing as her connoisseurship. She was born in 1934 to Japanese-immigrant parents living in Portland, Oregon. Higashi was interested in drawing from a young age, including during World War II, when her family was sent to live in U.S.-run internment camps. While held there, the family became acquainted with Japanese families living in California; upon their release from detention in 1944, those social connections paved the way for her family’s move to L.A.

Fast-forward two decades to 1965, when Higashi, then a homemaker and mother of three, met Frank Gehry, a client of her CPA husband. “His was the first Minimalist work I saw,” she later recalled, “and I immediately loved it for its meditative qualities. It’s art you must participate in to appreciate, and you have to slow down to absorb it.” She was aware, too, that her Japanese background may have sparked her immediate attraction to the genre. “In Japan,” Higashi said, “there’s very little space in the homes and public buildings, so you learn to think minimally and develop ways of creating a sense of spaciousness in small quarters—and into your mind as well.”

Gehry’s work acted as a sort of gateway drug, a revelation that shaped her future career. Higashi opened an eponymous gallery in Beverly Hills in 1987, years after the Minimalist movement had reached its peak. But she used her new space to showcase art that moved her. Instead of casting a wide net, Higashi zeroed in on artists at the forefront of reductivism and the Light and Space movement. Over 13 years, her gallery featured solo exhibitions by the likes of Larry Bell, Max Cole, William Dwyer, Carolee Toon, and Guy Williams, all while Higashi made a name for herself as an arbiter of taste, a dealer with the mind of a curator.

Kiyo Higashi Gallery is no more: The gallery closed its doors in 2000. Fortunately, Italian collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo acquired a good part of her collection, making it available to the public at MOCA. And now, in Laguna Beach, California, many of the artists whom Higashi had featured at her gallery are represented in “Kiyo Higashi: A Tribute Exhibition,” a new show at Peter Blake Gallery. The exhibition serves as a window into Higashi’s remarkable tastes and, on a deeper level, as inspirational proof of the unexpected paths any life can take.

Bridget Gleeson

Kiyo Higashi: A Tribute Exhibition” is on view at Peter Blake Gallery, Laguna Beach, California, Apr. 3–May 14, 2016.

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