Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Asian Influences on Western Art

A friend sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal, a portion of which I've excerpted below. The article is about Western artists over the last 150 years or so, whose art has been influenced by Asian art and ideas. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article. There is a slide show that accompanies the article.

A Look at American Artists Wrestling With Asian Ideas

New York

Not so much an art exhibition as a dissertation illustrated with artworks, "The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989," on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through April 19, presents a new art-historical construct aimed at upending the view that American artists forged the idioms of modern art in dialogue exclusively with Europe.

The Third Mind

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
April 19

An enticing installation in the lobby hints at the show's central thesis. By Ann Hamilton, "Human Carriage" consists of a small metal cage that travels down the museum's spiraling ramp, its white silk canopy billowing. At the bottom, the cage sways while, floors above, an attendant loads onto a pulley a handful of bound book-slices. As these counterweights descend, the silk-clad contraption rises. Once the texts have plopped to the ground, the cage once again glides down the ramp. Intermittently, a bell inside it rings, its crisp tone reverberating among the show's 230-plus canvases, videos, photographs, prints and sculptures.

In an email to curator Alexandra Munroe, the artist explained that she was musing on reading, which "leaves no material trace, but which might forever change you." While the writings concern Asia and the bells are Tibetan, there is nothing visibly "Asian" in the piece -- as though signaling that we have to look beneath the surface to evaluate the show's contention that artists' engagement with Asia, and not just Europe, changed the very fabric of American art.

By beginning with 19th-century works, Ms. Munroe at once strengthens that argument and robs it of its bite. In a beautiful eddy of side galleries, John La Farge watercolors of Buddhas swirl near evening cityscapes by James McNeill Whistler, Japanese-inspired Mary Cassatt prints, and such clear homages as Charles Caryl Coleman's "Still Life With Plum Blossoms in an Oriental Vase."

Such overt references to Asia set the tone for some of the later works, from the poetry of Ezra Pound and Alan Ginsburg to the calligraphic paintings of Brice Marsden and Robert Motherwell, or the mandala-inspired paintings of Bruce Conner and Charmion von Wiegand.

At first blush, this might suggest that the show is not nearly as revolutionary as it claims. Artists' incorporation of, say, calligraphy in the 1950s and 1960s is hardly news. But Motherwell's broad strokes are not just about the adoption of an Asian form. They are about the "hand taking over," as the artist himself puts it, and they point to a distrust of the mind that overtook many artists -- and spiritual seekers generally -- as they read Asian texts and strove for spontaneous, unmediated gestures and valued process over product.

Similarly, a close look at John Cage's "Ryoanji series" reveals an intricate and illuminating backstory that begins with art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, who preached that ancient Indian artists sought to emulate the workings of nature without letting their own taste and predilections get in the way. To achieve a similar no-self art, Cage used the Chinese book of divination, the I'Ching, to find random order for the circular shapes he drew to denote 15 rocks -- the same number that appear in the Ryoanji Zen temple's garden in Kyoto, Japan.

In framing the show, the Guggenheim ends before Asian-American artists emerged as a category and before the Internet drew the world into a virtual whole. The show also excludes decorative arts on the ground that their relationship to Asia has been extensively documented. Too bad. Even just one work in ceramic would have reminded audiences that potters' engagement with Asia led the likes of Peter Voulkos to punch holes in the wall separating craft from art.


Madame Strange said...

American artists wrestling with Asian ideas...have you seen my magic?

Erik the Strange said...

Sorry I posted the above under my wife's account.

Rick Matz said...

Nice stuff! Sensei Strange's blog is:

There's a link over in the link list as "KyuRyu AikiBudo." Please pay a visit.