‘In 1960 Kumi Sugai moved to the affluent Left Bank of Paris and bought a Porsche,’ explains specialist Anastasia von Seibold, who describes the purchase as a ‘pivotal’ moment in the artist’s career.
Sugai had moved to the French capital in 1952. Disappointed by the mute reaction his work had received in his native Japan, he was in search of a new beginning. ‘The Parisian art world welcomed him,’ says von Seibold. A contract with gallerist John Craven launched his career ‘in a big way’ and, in 1960, his first solo exhibition opened in Germany.
Sugai’s new Porsche, however, became much more than a reflection of newfound success. ‘He experienced a sensation of huge risk driving very fast on the motorway, which started to change his work,’ explains von Seibold. ‘From 1963, his style began to shift dramatically, with hard edges replacing the looser brushstrokes of earlier works such as Chambre du Diable.’
Painted in 1966, Parking dans Fôret au Soleil exemplified this new style, capturing the warm glow of sunlight as it passed through trees to hit Sugai’s parked car following a burst of speed. Other works, such as 7 Seconds Avant (1968) captured the charged tension the artist felt mid-drive — the boldly coloured, directional shapes evoking road signs seen at a distance.
In 1967, Sugai’s love of speed caught up with him. ‘He had a very serious crash, sustaining injuries which affected him for years,’ says von Seibold. Despite this, the motorway remained a prominent theme: Sugai purchased a new Porsche with even higher functionality the following year. Subsequently he created works with lines so precise that, he commented, he felt the same risk painting them as he did when he was driving. As the specialist explains: ‘One false move would be the end of the painting’.
Improbably for a man with a predilection for fast, luxury cars, Sugai pursued an otherwise frugal lifestyle. ‘He followed the same routine for more than 20 years without deviation: coffee and cheese for breakfast, spaghetti or a sandwich for lunch, and an exact portion of beefsteak for dinner,’ says von Seibold. The decision reflected Sugai’s desire to eliminate superfluous excess — a philosophy echoed in the precise circles and straight lines of later works.
‘I find him a really fascinating artist,’ von Seibold concludes. ‘Every day he would rise at 8.30 or 9am and have breakfast, before sitting, for an hour or an hour and a half, to watch the sky alone from a window. He would then eat lunch with his assistants, work for five hours in the afternoon, and dine alone. He was really quite an independent, unique character.’