This year’s slate of Oscar picks for Best Documentary is a rich one, but for anyone interested in visual art, director Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer stands out. The story of Brooklyn-based Japanese artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, it’s an intimate and moving reminder of the challenges artists face in their daily lives and work. Heinzerling brings together footage of Ushio Shinohara as he was in the 1960s—the notorious member of the postwar Japanese avant-garde group known as Neo-Dada Organizers—with scenes from his present-day life, replete with domestic and financial difficulties. With the promise of his early fame shattered, we see Shinohara’s struggle to retain a foothold in the art world, and the toll his choices have taken on his relationship with his wife, Noriko, who strives to establish her own voice and artistic presence.
“It’s a love story that endures extreme conditions—cultural and occupational, as well as psychological.” That is how Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim, describes the film. Those who have seen Cutie and the Boxer will know that Munroe makes an appearance in the documentary, herself: she is shown visiting Shinohara’s studio, where she expresses interest in acquiring for the museum one of his famed “boxing paintings”—artworks he creates by punching his way across a long swath of unstretched canvas with paint-laden boxing gloves. In a later scene, while the couple eats a meal in their kitchen, Noriko asks Ushio “what ever happened” with Munroe, and wonders if the Guggenheim will buy Ushio’s work. “I don’t think they’ll buy it,” he replies.
When Munroe saw herself placed within this narrative arc of hopes raised and dashed, she was taken aback. “I had expected a conventional ‘talking heads’ artist documentary. Instead, the film pits struggling artists against the art establishment. As an outlier myself, it was weird to see how the Guggenheim and I were conflated, and portrayed in the bad guys’ camp. That said, the director made a creative choice in his storytelling, and it works brilliantly for the film.”
The curator has a warm friendship with the Shinoharas that dates back to 1982, when she helped curate a solo exhibition of Ushio Shinohara’s paintings and assemblage sculptures at Japan Society Gallery. For Munroe, encountering Shinohara’s work was catalytic: “I remember visiting his studio on a snowy night in February 1982. There were giant sculptures of half-naked geisha astride motorcycles constructed of bright junk and jellybeans, thirty-foot-long paintings swirling with images lifted from Spiderman comics, Broadway, Coney Island, and Bubblicious ads, and a six-panel folding screen that combined distortions of the Tale of Genji scroll with Edward Hopper’s lonesome Sun on Prospect Street. . . . I’d never seen work like that,” she recalls. “I’d been living in Japan for eight years, immersed in the world of traditional arts. It was Shinohara who made me realize, there is a major story here that’s crying to be told, and it’s the story of the post-war Japanese avant-garde.” To this day, Munroe and the Shinoharas regularly visit each other and attend each other’s openings. “I owe my career to Shinohara, and I will always value him for inspiring the focus of my life’s work and study,” she says.
Munroe’s commitment to Shinohara’s work recently brought about something in the nature of a real-life happy ending: the curator has successfully recommended the acquisition of two historic works by Shinohara for the Guggenheim. And her early misgivings about the Guggenheim’s portrayal aside, Munroe enjoys Cutie and the Boxer and feels it faithfully describes the Shinoharas’ circumstances and “establishes who Shinohara was in the Japanese avant-garde of the 1960s.” She says, “I think the film does a beautiful job of portraying the texture of their life: the rhythm, the isolation, the creativity, the madness, and, at times, the desperation—including the desperation of seeing your early fame slip away. He really was the Warhol of Japan. . . . When we think of Tokyo in the 1960s, we think of Shinohara with his Mohawk and his boxing paintings, his complete freedom, wild antics, and refutation of conformity or convention of any kind.”
More than that, Munroe feels that Cutie and the Boxer delivers an important message to today’s art world: “It’s really about an artistic mind, and how it works, and the sacrifices two artists make to art above all else. The film calls attention more broadly to the suffering that artists go through, whether you are Pollock or Philip Seymour Hoffman. There’s a lot of suffering involved in being an artist. The film is a poetic reminder that the most authentic art comes out of a fierce struggle with the process of life itself.”