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We huddle over a coffee table, staring at a picture of the Japanese sculptor Kan Yasuda’s work. The sculpture is a square frame chipped out of marble, rough hewn yet cosmically perfect in its angles, that opens down a wooded path. Farther along, a second one just like it beckons. It is a major piece for Yasuda. He’s sitting next to me, studying his own work like a hungry pupil. I want to know: How long did it take? Did he always know what he was going to make? He answers for several minutes, in Japanese, his deep rustle of a voice labored with thoughtful pauses. He speaks directly to me, and even though I can’t understand him, I feel moved by his tone.

The translator says: “While I was in Rome, there was this house with a bunch of horses. Often those horses were stolen. One time I found this house empty. The owner approved me to start working on my art right there. In the blank house, without horses.”

That’s it. A tightness creeps into my upper chest, a constriction so familiar in museums and galleries — raw, noxious futility. Even with a translator, modern sculpture is, for me, indecipherable. It’s a shameful little secret, one that I hide by nodding heavily when I go to museums and walk among nude forms, listening to friends discuss flowing lines and the artist’s intent. Studying a great sculpture is like staring at a NASA picture of a far-off nebula or galaxy: I understand the beauty but not the meaning. Now I look into Yasuda’s bespectacled eyes and know for sure that what’s inside this man’s head will stay there, a perfect answer locked in a block of marble I have no tools to release.

Little do I know, Yasuda is just beginning to understand his own sculpture and what drives him to make it. At 71, with a face that beams out from behind circular glasses and a wry sense of humor no translation can kill, he plays the role well of a sculptor who is critically acclaimed in Europe, and as close to a rockstar as a sculptor can get in Japan. He has his own 17-acre sculpture park in his hometown of Bibai, in the Hokkaido prefecture.

His workshop in Pietrasanta, Italy — home of some of the best sculpting marble in the world — is a gathering place for great sculptors throughout Europe. He has been awarded the Premio Pietrasanta nel Mondo international sculpture award, the Yasushi Inoue Prize for Culture in Japan and the Italian Commander of the Order of the Star of Solidarity, given to foreigners who promote national prestige abroad. Though he sculpts smaller works, he’s most famous for his very large public works made out of marble, bronze and steel, which blend into their surroundings whether they be in the middle of a sidewalk in Florence or a serene Japanese grove. They are monumental, impressive and unforgettable, and they sell for tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And yet futility is a feeling Yasuda understands. It haunted him when he first moved from Hokkaido to Rome in 1970 as a young man pursuing a career in sculpture. He was overwhelmed by the greatness surrounding him. “I was shocked when I first went to Rome and saw the real art. It was on a totally different level,” he says. “Even if I tried so hard and worked on so much, I was not going to be able to reach that same level.”

Kan Yasuda Gear Patrol Ambiance 1
Yasuda at his first-ever major American exhibition, in New York City.

A statue without a face changed everything: the Rondanini Pietà, its date listed as 1564. Michelangelo died before completing the form of the Virgin Mary draping herself over the body of Christ. To the casual observer, it’s little more than an amateur effort shunted to the back of a high school art room, faces hardly human and bodies malformed. None of Michelangelo’s greatness radiates from perfect human-like details in the marble.

Yasuda was stunned.

“I felt something spiritual coming from this rock,” he says. “I found the possibility that each person has a different way of understanding the art. When I saw the Pietà, I realized millions of people have come to see this art. And they all have a different way of describing this art.” This was the beginning of Yasuda’s obsession with the abstract.

The man mimics his inspiration — nebulous and sure, he weaves answers that flit away into the heavens and leave me whirling. I can’t keep up. In response to a question about why he creates both organic and geometric shapes, he jabs, “Did anyone say you can’t make one day a square and the next day something round?”

The details of his work are like the Pietà: powerful but unclear. “I only make something that I can’t stop creating,” he says. “I put all of my passion toward that piece of art, and I can’t help it. The feeling is not like you are creating, but that you are forced to create. From maybe a god, or not a god. I can’t tell. Something moves me. Something forces me to do it.”

He returns to clarify the sculptures on the wooded path that so transfixed us, and to explain the house with the stolen horses. The arch took seven years to create. Yasuda kept trying and failing, so much so that his partner, the famous stonecutter, Giorgio Angeli, felt that it was a shape humans were not supposed to make. “But I could not stop,” Yasuda says, “because I was ordered by something to do it.”

Isamu Noguchi, one of the great American biomorphist sculptors and a close friend and influencer of Yasuda’s, was so moved by Yasuda’s seven-year arch that he wrote a short essay on it entitled “For Kan Yasuda.” It is cryptic, but it explains a lot about how Yasuda thinks of his sculpture: art for art’s sake is an absolute wrong. A nameless wise man tells Noguchi, “Never make art that pleases you.”

Noguchi writes: “I saw a recent sculpture of his which I thought came from a similar area of search which transcends art. I felt that perhaps he did not know what to make of it. Is there such a thing as better?”

Yasuda says, “Whenever I see this sculpture, I think this is not something that I made. It’s more than that.”

At Yasuda’s first-ever major American exhibition, Touching Time, two huge, dimpled stones of marble dominate the room. Each one is six feet long and five feet wide. They probably weigh 1,000 pounds each. Yasuda invites his audience to sit on them. One has a little pool of water in its dimple; a birdbath, a mirror.

What Yasuda asks of his audience seems simple. “To see yourself. To get to know yourself. Each person creates their own answers. And the sculpture is like a trigger for that.” In person, I’m struggling for answers, though I very much want them to be triggered.

The only way I see myself in the stones is in an immediate, convincing daydream of picking them up off the wood floor of the Christie’s showroom in Midtown Manhattan, dropping them in my pocket, walking to the East River and skipping them across the surface to Brooklyn with a quick sidearm.

Kan Yasuda Gear Patrol Ambiance 2
Tenpi, White Bronze. Touching Time Exhibition, New York City

This is all the meaning I can pull. The rest is thoughtless awe. I move across the packed room to another imposing piece, titled Myomu. It is a big, amorphous shoulder of stainless steel with a donut hole in it. I study its burnished surface, focusing intently, trying to read it like the bottom line of an eyesight chart. I touch it. I step back, turn slightly, look at its sloping angles. I think about doing a rolling dive through its hole and taking a theatrical bow on the other side. I’m acutely aware how sweaty I am in this public space, feeling out of place and awkward reporting amid a filthy-rich crowd looking to buy modern sculptures for many thousands of dollars, nervous that I don’t understand abstract sculpture.

There is something in the sculpture. I step in and a dark shape does too, and I realize I’m looking into Yasuda’s sculpture at myself.

“If you put it on the windowsill in the evening,” Yasuda says of one his smaller pieces that has a membrane of marble so thin that light glows through it, “the sunset light will change in it, minute by minute.”

I look around the room and imagine each sculpture cast in the changing light of Yasu-da’s knowledge. The stone is permanent and unchanged, but it glows with the shifting colors of the evening of his life. It’s a beautiful sight.

We sit alone in the white room of his exhibit at Christie’s, which today is open to the public. Yasuda’s son, Taku, translates. Our voices hum with the warm echo of the room. For the first time, I’ve relieved myself of the pressure to speak about each sculpture like a professor, instead drinking them in as well as I can. The realization is as heavy as Yasuda’s stone, yet it makes me feel light: if all I do is feel awed and silly, slowly unwrapping how a work makes me feel or not feel, that is what I have gleaned from the sculptor’s work. It is worthwhile. I think of his words again: “I can’t tell. Something moves me.”

There is a reason Yasuda named the exhibit Touching Time. Like any aging artist, he is drawn to the idea of living on. Most people, though, are obsessed with a self-indulgent version of immortality. Yasuda claims not to care if anyone remembers him. It’s his art he wants to live on. Not to be remembered as great even, just to be.

He is especially proud to have been lately inducted into the 500-year-old Boboli sculpture gardens in Florence. It is the perfect place to plant his work for future generations to see after he is gone. “Looking back at my age now, I realize it is important that my art out-survives me,” he tells me. “Not that my name be attached to it, but that it continues to influence people.”

Time, also, has crumbled away the artistic wall between Yasuda’s work and himself; in some places, he can peek over to the other side. What he sees, after 40 years of sculpting, is perspective, and a brief lapse in the unnamed wise man’s creed to never make what pleases him. “I now recognize that the sculpture I made 30 years ago is good. These pieces were made unconsciously, but now, with time and experience, I can see consciously that the piece is good.”

He smiles. “It is a good feeling.”

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