The Frank Okada retrospective at the Museum of Northwest Art is not only good news for Okada fans, it's also a sign that MoNA is moving...

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The Frank Okada retrospective at the Museum of Northwest Art is not only good news for Okada fans, it’s also a sign that MoNA is moving beyond its first decade in the new building in downtown La Conner. For 10 years, it tended to favor ecological “mysticism” as a house art style.

MoNA is shifting direction from the Northwest School artists — Tobey, Graves, Callahan, Anderson and others. Modernism, not “mysticism,” explains the broader history of Pacific Northwest art. The beautiful and complex art of Frank Okada is a great place to start.

Born in Seattle in 1931, Frank Okada (who died in Eugene, Ore., in 2000) spent crucially formative periods as a young man in New York, Paris and Kyoto, Japan, after graduating from Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit. It took a while for Okada to find his true voice as a painter, as this survey demonstrates through works selected by co-curators Kazuko Nakane and Susan Parke. Realism, cubism, sumi painting and New York-style “action” painting all left their mark before his various phases of individualized hard-edge abstraction kicked in.

Filling both floors of the museum, the curators also helpfully hung a few works by Okada’s friends and colleagues — Paul Horiuchi, Paul Havas and William Ivey — so viewers can see the artistic dialogues he carried on in Seattle, especially when he and Ivey shared a studio in Pioneer Square in the mid-1960s.

While Ivey favored brushy, soft blocks of toned-down hues, Okada made the blocks into bigger, harder forms and — his greatest weakness — concentrated mostly on primary colors of red, yellow and blue.

Living in Eugene and teaching at the University of Oregon from 1969 on, Okada was cut off from the camaraderie and intellectual ferment of abstract painting in Seattle. His style turned inward, trimming off any painterly fat and constructing large, nearly monochrome canvases that were interesting, dispersed compositions. However, because of his strict primary palette, they can appear utterly cold and devoid of feeling.

Although the exhibit at MoNA (like most there) seems generally underlit, viewers can take in Okada’s progression from student “action” painter to mature, cold-eyed geometric structuralist. Edges often prove to be the most interesting part of an Okada oil painting, as in “AX-II” (1980), “Swingline II” (1989) and “Untitled” (1995), because the centers are often one giant mass of tiny brushstrokes in the same overall color. It is as if Okada wanted to retain the frantic movement of abstract expressionism, but tame it and turn it into muted surface-covering for the middle of each work. The edges are often where the only “action” is.

Exhibit review

“Frank Okada: The Shape of Elegance,” 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, through Jan. 8, Museum of Northwest Art, 121 S. First St., La Conner (Skagit County); $5 adults, $4 seniors, $2 students, children are free (360-466-4446 or

Seen in another light, Okada’s paintings are like Asian textiles: asymmetrically patterned, vividly bright or foggy and dim. The strong reds and yellows are like imperial kimono colors and sometimes mimic the silhouettes of ornately framed scroll paintings or box lids of lacquered wood. Nakane’s catalog essay goes a long way toward establishing Okada’s Asian aesthetic but, looking at the works, I am still not wholly convinced about classical Japanese and Chinese art as influences.

As a result, Okada remains an enigma in Pacific Northwest art history. His older Seattle peers like Mary Henry and Francis Celentano gave up brushwork completely in favor of flat acrylic shapes and rainbow palettes. Okada, for all the considerable beauties and lush expanses, remains caught half-way between the animated surfaces of the 1950s that he could never leave behind and the strictly optical hedonism he never attained.