Arakawa established his career during the 1960s in New York with paintings that combined words and schematic images, playing off the ambiguities between verbal and visual languages. Before he left Japan in 1961 he completed two diagram-like works in pencil on canvas and ink on photographic paper that announced the direction his art was to take in the United States. Describing the origins of these works, Arakawa said: 'Personal things were distressing me. With the diagrams I wanted to map my mental state.'
Arakawa continued to identify pictorial equivalents for an idea or 'mental state' in his first pieces made in New York, especially the Bottomless series, which he began in 1963. These works typically depicted a square form diminishing in perspective, much like a funnel with an interior mapped by endlessly subdividing grids. According to Arakawa's wife, the poet Madeline Gins, these images represent 'the thinking field ... which as far as we know ... is itself bottomless ... through which a volume of thought may pass'. In some of the Bottomless series of 1964 and 1965 a circular channel emerges from the diagram. The metaphor was extended and refined with the images of diagrammatic tubes which appeared in Arakawa's work in 1964. These open-ended structures were intended 'as visualisations of thought passages, and as such representations of some behaviour or aspect of the thinking field'.
Tubes 1965 is one of the earliest paintings by Arakawa using diagrammatic tubes, a motif that appears in a number of works of the mid-1960s and again in the 1970s. Tubes was begun in New York in 1964 and completed in 1965. The painting is, however, signed and dated twice-in the lower right as 1965 and as 1975 in the lower left: 'I was anticipating and incorporating the "Thickness" of a decade', explained the artist.
In 1978 the painting was damaged in transit from the vendor to the Australian National Gallery's shipping agents in London; the canvas was torn in the middle of the blank test-tube shape on the left. Tubes was returned to Arakawa in New York in 1980. He repaired it by collaging a new piece of canvas onto the damaged area which is the same test-tube shape but fractionally larger than the original shape underneath. Arakawa saw this as restoration rather than as a reworking of the painting.adapted from Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra: 1992 pp.350-52, by Christine Dixon
- Paul Gardner, 'Arakawa: I am looking for a new definition of perfection', Artnews vol.79, May 1980, pp.60-5
- Madeline H. Gins, 'Arakawa's intention (to point, to pinpoint, to model)', in Arakawa, Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf 1977, p.14
- Shusaku Arakawa, correspondence with the National Gallery of Australia, 18 May 1982
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010