RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Ushio Shinohara was the bad boy of the avant-garde art world when he came to the U.S. more than 50 years go. The Japanese artist knew Andy Warhol, hung out with multi-media artist Red Grooms and painted wearing boxing gloves covered with pigment. He met his wife, Noriko, not long after arriving in the U.S. She's an artist, too, but she spent most of her career living in his shadow. The story of their life together is the subject of an intimate new documentary. It's called "Cutie and the Boxer." Karen Michel has the story.
KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: The film takes its title from Ushio's style of painting and the pigtailed Noriko's nickname.
NORIKO SHINOHARA: Eleven years ago, I was walking on the street with my hair tied to braid. Younger guy approached to me, like about 25 years old. He said: Hi, cutie. I, at that time, maybe '48 or 9, so it won't happen to many women who young guy approach to hi cutie, so same thing I ask my family and my friend call me cutie.
MICHEL: She sits in the same cluttered studio that filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling captured in his feature-length debut. He had been working for HBO, making mostly sports docs, when he met the couple at an open studio and knew they'd be great subjects for a documentary.
ZACHARY HEINZERLING: They live these authentically Japanese lives but sort of transplanted in Brooklyn. Yeah, they live in this loft that's this sort of catacomb of history - paint everywhere, photos everywhere. And there's a sort of open-door policy there; you kind of come in, you experience them and their world, and then you leave and you're kind of back in the city.
MICHEL: The couple lives in two upper floors of a building in one of those Brooklyn neighborhoods most artists can no longer afford. Often neither can the Shinoharas. Ushio leads the way to the rooftop.
USHIO SHINOHARA: This is my studio, so I'm very lucky because I'm an outside worker.
MICHEL: He likes working outside in part because many of his pieces are huge. He points to a motorcycle taller than he is and three times as long. It's neon green headlamp is like a cycloptic insect and its engine resembles the head of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
SHINOHARA: When I came here 40 years ago, everything (unintelligible) but finally motorcycle.
MICHEL: Shinohara came to New York in 1959, the recipient of a generous grant, and he made an impression.
ALEXANDRA MUNROE: He is a genius.
MICHEL: Alexandra Munroe is the Guggenheim Museum's senior curator of Asian art. She's been a fan for decades.
MUNROE: He is a maker of ideas. He is a maker of cultural revolutions. He never cared about making money. I think he was fashioning himself after a radical artist and fashioning himself after a kind of heroic radical artist after even a Pollock, for that matter.
MICHEL: Ushio Shinohara chose other American icons for his subjects.
SHINOHARA: This motorcycle made of cardboard.
MICHEL: Inspired by seeing Marlon Brando on this Triumph, Ushio Shinohara's scrounged cardboard, ubiquitous in the city streets, and started creating his versions of motorcycles, both smaller than life and, like the roof, much larger. Have you ever had a motorcycle?
SHINOHARA: I have no knowledge of mechanic and I'm nearsight and my temper is an artist's temper. Sometimes up, sometimes down. Very dangerous, motorcycle.
MICHEL: He exorcises his temperament in part by pounding that canvas. The creation of his boxing paintings is a performance. He wears swim goggles and boxing gloves, with foam attached to them with rubber bands.
(SOUNDBITE OF POUNDING THE CANVAS)
MICHEL: Often shirtless and still trim at 81, Ushio dips the boxing gloves into paint and hammers at the canvas, from right to left, as if he's writing kanji with his fists. The film also captures the couple's domestic life. Noriko brushes her long, gray hair and plaits her two braids. They eat dinner, they do their artwork and they bicker over rent and bills, and the son who seems to be following his father's path into alcoholism, though Ushio quit drinking a few years ago.
After his initial brush with fame, Shinohara's reputation rests mostly in the art world. Yet, he's still the dominant personality at home. The film shows Noriko Shinohara's emergence as an artist, from under the outsized reputation of her strong-willed husband. She tells me it took her three days to clear out a little of their living space to do her own work.
SHINOHARA: I moved my (unintelligible) and declared, this is my country, so he cannot come in without a visa. And this is my etching and this is the way I always work when do, do the same.
MICHEL: Towards the end of "Cutie and the Boxer," the couple opens a joint show in New York. His massive sculptures and wall-sized boxing paintings fill galleries. Noriko chooses to paint her work directly on the walls of the space she's given. It's narrative, much like a comic book, of a couple she calls Bullie and Cutie, and a relationship that seems like theirs.
SHINOHARA: People think Cutie is me, but it's not me. She's smarter than me because she treat Bullie well, tricks Bullie, and she wins. But in my life, I didn't win him yet.
MICHEL: Not after 40 years?
SHINOHARA: It's so difficult.
MICHEL: Even after 40 years together, theirs is a relationship in flux.
SHINOHARA: I am a free secretary, free assistant, free ship. If you wish, you can kick me out, right? That's what you're talking about. You are poor. That's why you are with me.
SHINOHARA: I need you.
SHINOHARA: Because you somebody to read the subway may, right?
SHINOHARA: Cutie hate Bullie.
SHINOHARA: Oh, Cutie love the Bullie so much.
MICHEL: For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in New York.