“The Incomplete Araki” is a knowingly redundant title for an exhibition of Japan’s most prolific, most controversial, and most disobedient photographer. For more than 50 years, Nobuyoshi Araki has pushed the limits of production — he has taken an uncountable number of photographs, gathered into something like 500 books — and pushed the limits, too, of free expression. He was arrested once on obscenity charges, and Japanese and foreign authorities have censored his exhibitions of Tokyo streetscapes, blossoming flowers, and, most notoriously, women trussed up in the baroque rope bondage technique known as kinbaku-ki, or “the beauty of tight binding.”
Even more than his colleague Daidō Moriyama, or the slightly younger Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mr. Araki has emerged as Japan’s most famous living photographer, and the 77-year-old ropemaster has been enjoying a victory lap of sorts lately. A major retrospective of his work took place in 2016 at the Musée Guimet, Paris’s Asian art museum. Last summer, the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum assembled hundreds of his large-scale prints, Polaroids and books; another show is up in Munich. Now he receives his largest exhibition in New York, though at a different sort of institution: the Museum of Sex, better known for its anatomically explicit bouncy castle and Studio-54-manqué cocktail bar than its engagement with visual art.
Credit Yoshii Gallery, New York, via Museum of Sex
The Museum of Sex is a for-profit enterprise (note the .com, not .org, in its web address), and since opening 15 years ago its exhibitions have skewed closer to mass amusements than rigorous investigations of art and intimacy. Yet Serge Becker, a former night-life impresario who joined the institution as artistic director last year, has been leading efforts to make this place into something more than a titillating tourist trap, and “The Incomplete Araki” is its boldest effort yet to present an art exhibition up to international museum standards. The Museum of Sex brought on Maggie Mustard, a specialist in Japanese photography, to co-organize this show (with Mark Snyder, the museum’s director of exhibitions), and “The Incomplete Araki” tangles with the photographer’s debts to Japanese literary modernism, the line between art and vulgarity, the West’s fetishization of Asian women, and the power relationships between photographer and model — which, to use a word Mr. Araki will appreciate, can get very knotty.
I appreciate the effort, even if the audience here is — shall we put this diplomatically? — not always overly concerned with the development of Japanese photographic style in the years after World War II. Which is O.K. sometimes! On a recent Friday night (the museum is open until 11 p.m.), I watched young couples having a great time in front of Mr. Araki’s images, tittering at the naughtier pictures, looking closely at the sheen of a silk kimono over scratchy, taut cordage. These pictures are much more than erotica, but the curators have done their job, and hey, some museumgoers ogle David and the Venus de Milo too.
You will know you are not in a traditional museum from the start of “The Incomplete Araki,” whose first darkened gallery contains a walk-in vaulted web of knotted rope. Four of his most explicit black-and-white images appear under a spotlight. One of them, dating to 1997, pictures a young woman suspended from a roof beam, her expression glacial, her hair swept into the geisha’s chignon known as the shimada, her pudenda only partly covered by a blooming tiger lily.