de Young Museum, San Francisco, October 24, 2008 – January 18, 2009
Now in my late forties-yikes!, I am old enough to remember that when I started school, forty-odd years ago, we did not know or use the term Asian American. Instead, there were Orientals, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos and other ethnic groups whose lives and experiences were not emphasized as an integral part of the fabric of America. The phrase Asian American was coined in Berkley in 1968 and was adopted gradually, in an awkward transition to a mind-set that considered and later came to honor diversity and cultural awareness in America. ”Asian/American/Modern: Shifting Currents, 1900-1970” reflects on the vital and unrecognized contribution of Asian American artists to America modern art and should serve as catalyst for further scholarship. The show presents nearly 100 works of art by over 70 artists of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Korean ancestry and is co-curated by Daniell Cornell, deputy director, Palm Springs Museum of Art, and Mark Johnson, professor of art, San Francisco State University. The project emerged as a collaboration between the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Stanford University’s Asian-American Art Project, and San Francisco State University. While this is one of the de Young’s most important exhibitions to date, due to its complex subject matter, it has not received the critical attention that it deserves.
Rather than defining an aesthetic of Asian American art, the exhibition highlights the diversity of expression that emerged from major artists such as Chiura Obata, Yun Gee, Ruth Asawa, Isamu Noguchi, Nam June Paik and Carlos Villa and in artistic working groups such as Japanese camera clubs and from artists who were previously ignored or unknown. While several thematic areas are explored that flush out stylistic influences, the two major areas of emphasis are the modernist matrix of the early twentieth century and the post-WWII era. The term “shifting currents” in the context of the conventional categories of “American” and “Modern” art suggests the need to include and further explore this rich legacy.
The exhibition also points to the pivotal role of the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco in developing the careers of Asian American artists. Beginning in the late 1920′s and continuing through each subsequent decade, the de Young has hosted several important exhibitions of artists of Asian ancestry. Tseng Yuho had solo shows in 1947 and 1952, and Ruth Asawa and Gary Woo had solo shows in 1960. More recently, there have been exhibitions for Chiura Obata (2001), Ruth Asawa (2006), and the current “Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes.”
A new style with many influences
The first part of the exhibition is devoted to the incredible energy, manifestos and organizing activities of the 1920′s and 30′s undertaken by Asian American artists which were sometimes embraced but often misunderstood by the mainstream American art establishment. Chee Chin S. Cheung Lee’s “Mountain Fantasy,” (1933), is a lush California landscape of a small nude woman peering up at a waterfall gushing down a cliff face comprised entirely of nude figures. It was first exhibited at the de Young in 1935 in conjunction with an exhibition of the Chinese Art Association. The original review of the show lamented that the Chinese had thrown away the lessons of Sung Dynasty (China’s third golden age) and were mimicking Western art. ”There was this idea that people had to paint one way or another,” says Mark Dean Johnson. “Lee is really painting the living qi of the earth, the dragon vein, but in a Western style,” says Johnson.
Chiura Obata’s “Setting Sun: Sacramento Valley,” (1925) is experiencing a homecoming: it was first exhibited 84 years ago at the Legion of Honor in 1925.
The silk scroll pulses with a turbulent firestorm of vivid orange rays and exemplifies Obata’s ability to depict nature as powerful enough and universal enough to contain and subdue man’s divisiveness. When Obata came to California as a teenager, he had been schooled in nihonga, a blend of traditionally Japanese and late-19th century European modernist painting. ”No matter where he was,” writes critic Jerome Tarshis “he subordinated the topography of the Far West and the American ideal of expansiveness to conventions rooted in animism and Buddhism. Consciously bridging two cultures, he depicted stylized, at times phantasmagoric landscapes that bear comparison with the finest painting done in American between the wars.” (Art in America, 4.2001) By the early 1930′s, Obata had become a leading cultural figure in Northern California, a respected teacher at UC Berkeley and after the war, working from behind the barbed wire fence, he turned his powerful expression to documenting the internment of Japanese-Americans.
Yun Gee’s “Where is My Mother” (1926-27) clearly shows a cubist influence and a mastery of bold color that resonates with the high emotional tension that accompanies leaving loved ones behind to pursue one’s dreams. Gee, Chinese, is one of the best-known Asian American artists. After studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, he was celebrated in San Francisco in the 1920′s and went on to form the groundbreaking Chinese Revolutionary Artists Club and the radical Modern Gallery.
Japanese camera clubs flourish on West Coast
Throughout the period before WWII, artists of Asian ancestry grouped themselves together intentionally and formed clubs and art associations to exhibit and promote their work. Japanese camera clubs, all over the West Coast, thrived and Japanese-American photographers, created highly innovative photographs that were integral to the emerging modernist photography movement, which had similarities with the European avant-garde photography. “Although many of these photographers stressed the pictorial quality of their work,” said co-curator Mark Johnson, “there were strong and very interesting elements of abstraction evident too.” Shigemi Uyeda’s “Reflections on the Oil Ditch” (1924) shows simple pools of water that have formed after a rain storm, a very elegant and abstract rendering of a natural phenomenon with a reference to machine-age production with its repetition of shapes and reflection of an oil derrick. Asahaci Kono’s “Perpetual Motion” captures motion abstractly and innovatively with light spirals, spinning and receding like coils, strongly referencing the spiral forms that appear in Man Ray’s Rayographs.
War takes its toll
The developing tensions in Asia which led to WWII, broke apart the integrity of the art associations and groups that had formed and ushered in a new era. Many things changed after WWII-Asians were relocated, interned, discriminated against, and trust was shattered. Several works in the exhibition testify to artists’ responses to their isolation and incarceration. Obata’s work from this period was given an exhibition at the de Young in 2001 but an untitled painting (c. 1943) by George Matsusaburo Hibi, that captures the stark and depressing isolation of winter at an internment camp in Topaz, Utah, is displayed at the de Young for the first time.
Along with themes of urban life, industrialization and abstraction, artists of Asian ancestry also addressed the Cold War and conflicts in Asia, such as preparation for the Vietnam War.
Professor George Miyasaki’s lithograph “The Flying Machines,” (1961), executed in dark gritty shades of khaki and green, is an abstract piece that reflects darkly on the militarization of Laos and Vietnam.
When curator Daniell Cornell began researching for this exhibition, he found that art historians had not examined or credited the important contributions of several Asian American artists to the thread of American modernism, particularly abstraction. Asian American artists contributed directly to American abstraction through their own stylistic influences and use of narratives that broached cultures suggesting a much more international dialogue than previously thought. “I had been taught in all my art history courses that abstraction was invented in NY by Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner,” said Cornell, “but they had actually looked at work of Asian influence and appropriated that kind of gestural marking but given it an American identity…. There is a line that goes back historically and that line needs these works by artists from Japan, China, the Philippines, Korea in order to tell the true story of abstraction. That story is one of fusion.”
Cornell is referring largely to Alfonso Ossorio, an artist of Filipino, Hispanic and Chinese heritage, who studied at Harvard and did his graduate work at R.I.S.D. (Rhode Island School of Design). Two Ossorio works are on display– “Martyrs and Spectators” (1951) and “Beachcomber” (1953) and both are critically important, and under-rated, in the history of American abstraction. “Martyrs and Spectators” combines a gestural line that is often attributed to Pollack, elements of Debuffet’s Art Brut, and Ossorio’s own personal take on Catholicism. “Beachcomber,” his masterwork large mural, contains densely layered webs of interlocking fragments and biomorphic forms that have overshadowed a central reclining female form and seem to suggest something like Miro. Ossorio and Jackson Pollack were great friends, became highly interested in each other’s work, and they inspired each other but it was Pollock who received exponentially more attention. One of the unexplored premises of the show is that artists of Asian descent have not been adequately credited and some re-calibrating needs to follow.
Why did the story get lost in the first place? “I could guess,” said Cornell, “that it has a lot to do with dealers and the art market in New York which was trying to establish itself as the center and to define what modern/contemporary art was. A lot of these artists were on the West Coast and were not New York centric. Their entrance to the US came through the West Coast and that was something out of the East Coast purview.
Carlos Villa is an artist whose ground-breaking work almost defies categorization and as such he represents and transcends the designation Asian/American/Modern. Now 72, he is a first generation Filipino American, born to immigrant parents in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. After his return from service in the Korean War, he studied at the California School of Fine Arts and began exhibiting his abstract expressionist paintings in the late 1950′s within the milieu of the flourishing beat movement. He moved to NY in 1961, where his work took a more reductive turn and when he returned to San Francisco in the late 1960′s, he was consciously developing an iconography that explored his cultural identity. “Tat2″ (1969) is based on a photographic portrait of Villa, that was copied on an Itek copy machine. With a felt-tip marker, Villa drew successive curvilinear lines over it giving it a Maori look and linking his identity to the indigenous cultures of the Philippines and to other islanders.
His spectacular Painted Cloak (1970-71) is one a series of elaborate cloaks he created in the 1960′s-a vibrantly painted feathered celebration of his existence. “This show is so important because it affirms to the younger generation that they are coming from something substantial,” explained Villa. ”A lot of the kids that were in my generation were forbidden to think about think about art as a profession: it could be a hobby but fine art was not in the purview of a Filipino household. This exhibition shows what we have done.”
The exceptional mural “Western Frontier” (1964) by Tseng Yuho that originally hung in the San Francisco headquarters of Golden West Savings is on exhibition and featured as the cover image for the catalog. Comprised of nine giant panels, the work pays homage to Northern California’s beloved redwoods abstracted in rich hues of golden brown and richly textures with layers of handmade paper and natural fibers and overlaid with gold leaf and silver palladium leaf. The work is stylistically reminiscent of Gustav Klimt and its layering is evocative of joss paper which has numerous ritual applications in various Asian cultures.
While the de Young exhibition gives a historical grounding and cuts off at 1970, it has also been organized with community partners throughout the Bay Area who are showing contemporary Asian American art.
The show travels next to The Noguchi Museum, February 18, 2009 to August 23, 2009. Geneva J. Anderson
Legion of Honor, October 18, 2008 – January 18, 2009
Now in its final two weeks at the Legion of Honor, The State Museums of Berlin and The Legacy of James Simon offers a glimpse into an unparalleled art collection built in a bygone era. Industrialist, philanthropist and collector James Simon, (1851-1932) who was Jewish and a patriotic German, died one year before Adolph Hitler came to power but his remarkable legacy lives on in the art he gave to Berlin before the Nazis seized power. From literally thousands of treasures Simon bequeathed, roughly 140 artworks from nine Berlin state museums are on display at the Legion. The sampling makes most sense taken as a delectable appetizer meant to entice you to go to Berlin and experience the feast. I visited this exhibition last week to gaze once again at the ancient art from Babylon and Egypt. The exhibit also includes classic works by Andrea Mantegna, Andre della Robia, Auguste Renoir as well as Kuniyoshi Japanese woodcuts, medieval, Renaissance and Baroque sculptures and folk art including models of Frisian Hauberg farmhouses. It struck me that Simon not only collected and bestowed these objects from various cultures and ages but in many instances, he financed the grand and grueling expeditions which unearthed them.
The credit for spearheading this exhibition goes largely to San Francisco resident Tim Simon (59) whose great-grandfather Edward Simon, was James Simon’s second cousin and business partner. It was Tim Simon who visited Berlin in 2006 with his wife Ann and children and began poking around the museums and encountered the astounding Simon legacy firsthand. A businessman with considerable experience in China, Simon was comfortable with obstacles—organization and financial. After securing permission from the Germans to exhibit the works if the financing came through, he then approached the Legion and agreed to underwrite a large portion of the cost. John Buchanan, Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Renée Dryfus, the Legion’s Curator of Ancient Art and Interpretation, were eager to continue the relationship with the Germans that had started so wonderfully in the 1990′s when portions of the Pergamon Altar were displayed at the Legion’s grand re-opening in 1995.
James Simon, great wealth and great vision
James Simon (1851-1932) was born into a wealthy Prussian Jewish family of textile merchants (Gebruder Simon) that increased its fortune considerably by stockpiling cotton in advance of the civil war. He became a partner in the family firm at age 25 and along with his second cousin, Edward Simon, guided it to becoming a leading European concern. By 1910, James Simon was one of the richest men in Germany. As a young boy he had been enamored with ancient civilizations and artifacts. As an adult of means, he channeled his passion for art into collecting and began in the 1880′s with an acquisition of important 17th century Dutch paintings. He struck up a close friendship with Wilhelm von Bode, the renowned scholar and art historian who mentored his early collecting and, before long; Simon expanded his collection to include Renaissance works. Working together, Simon and Bode developed a vision of preserving art and artifacts, indeed world culture, for future generations that was tied to the establishment of core collections of exceptional artworks. In 1904, Simon made his first of many substantial gifts to the German museum–his Renaissance collection that had grown to some 450 artworks.
As part of his enduring fascination with early cultures, Simon financed twelve pioneering excavations in Babylon, Asur, Uruk, Jericho, Bogazköy, Amarna and several other sites. “He gave money when no else was financing these digs,” explained Renée Dryfus. “Many of the treasures that he brought back were saved from loss due to neglect, the elements, or, in the case of Buddhist relics, conscious efforts to deface them.” Along with his share from the archaeological finds, Simon stepped up his collecting of artworks from Europe and Asia and donated most of this to the German museums, elevating them to world prominence. Although James Simon was an outstanding patron of the arts, his main philanthropic focus was actually support for socially marginalized people, especially children. He did not limit his support to Jewish causes either but like his father and grandfather provided help where it was needed. World War I, the hyperinflation of the 1920′s and poverty of post-war Germany led to the failure of Simon Brothers in 1931 and the end of a golden era of museum patronage. Simon died a year before Hitler came to power and his name and role were largely forgotten in the tumultuous years to follow.
Exquisite Nefertiti and Tiye
It is due to James Simon that the Berlin Egyptian museum holds one of the world’s richest collections of Egyptian art. Simon financed renowned Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt in the 1911-1914 Tell el Amarna excavations and purchased the sole license to excavate Amarna with the finds to be divided between him and the Egyptians. Simon lent the entire share of his finds to the Egyptian Museum in 1913 and then in 1920 designated the loans as gifts. Amarna is famous as the short-lived capital built by Pharaoh Akenatan to the sacred sun-god, the Aten, the only divine force that Akhenaten recognized in his mystical concept of worship. Amarna was abandoned shortly after Akhenaten’s death in 1332 c. BCE and most of the sculptures he commissioned during his brief heretical reign were destroyed and left in fragments. In 1912, the famous Bust of Nefertiti (too fragile to travel to San Francisco) was found in the sand-filled workshop of chief sculptor the Tutmosis along with several other busts in various stages of completion that had not been disturbed for some 3000 years. On exhibit at the Legion is a striking unfinished limestone portrait of the Head of Nefertiti that still has black chalk lines on it cheeks which would have served as a guide for the artist.
One of the most powerful pieces in the exhibition stands just 9 inches tall and it was not excavated at Amarna by Borchardt but rather was purchased by Simon at Borchardt’s insistence. The sculpture of Egyptian Queen Tiye, ca. 1355 B.C., of carved yew wood with a gold and silver headpiece is a striking portrait executed with sensitive realism. Captured in middle-age with the countenance of maturity and dignity, this regal woman-almond eyes in an imperious gaze— is the mother of Akhenaten and fully aware of her power. Inspecting her head, we note that one of her lapis inlaid earrings is missing. At one time, she had another headpiece but it was replaced (it is not know when or why) and the other earring lays beneath. Tiye’s strong character and intellect endeared her to her husband, Amenhop III, whom she married at a young age. Records indicate that she shared the crown with him and was active in decision-making. We are left to wonder if Tiye’s strong personality influenced her son’s radical metaphysical views.
Allure of Babylon
The illusive mystery of ancient Babylon is tantalizing. A walled city in present day Iraq renowned for its tower of Babel, lush hanging gardens, stunning color, as well as its engineers, mathematicians, and dream interpreters, there is no parallel to Babylon. Whenever I visit a museum that has a tiled panel from Babylon—The Louvre, The Metropolitan Museum, The Pergamon–I vault there first and stand captivated, imagination running wild. In James Simon, I would have found a kindred spirit. Simon provided the main support for the excavations in Babylon, which lasted from 1899 to 1917. His uncle, Louis Simon, had financed the first German expedition to Babylon in 1886 in search of the illusive Tower of Babel. James, who was deeply interested in the Old Testament world, viewed the cuneiform texts discovered there as the key to this rich culture. The Neo-Babylonian empire reached it zenith under the rule of the statesman and conqueror general Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604-562 B.C.) Because stone was rare in southern Mesopotamia, molded glazed tile bricks were used for building and Babylon was a city of dazzling color and splendor described by Herodotus and in the Old Testament book of Daniel. The most important street was the Great Processional Way which led from the inner city through the Ishtar Gate to the Bit Akitu, the “house of the New Year’s festival.” The Ishtar Gate (580 B.C.) stood 47 feet high and 100 feet wide and was made of glazed brick adorned with alternating figures of bas-relief aurochs (bulls) and sirrush (dragons), symbols of Adad and Marduk. To the north of the gate, the processional way was lined with an estimated 120 glazed figures of lions in stride. The lion was the animal associated with Ishtar, goddess of love and war, and these repeating panels guided the ritual procession from the city to the temple.
It was due to James Simon that 400 crates containing literally millions of glazed clay brick fragments were brought from Babylon and painstakingly reconstructed into the famous Ishtar Gate and its processional way in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. The reassembly and installation of the lion reliefs at the Legion was undertaken by Dr. Joachim Marzahn from the Museum of the Ancient Near East in Berlin. There are two reliefs-one is restored and one is not-in the exhibition. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco financed the restoration of the panel on display. It would have been instructive to include a panel explaining how new technology had assisted in the laborious process of reconstructing and restoring these figures.
Silk Road Discoveries
Berlin’s collection of Central Asian art is unrivaled and almost entirely due to Simon’s efforts.
When no one else would offer funds, Simon supported the first pioneering expedition in 1902 to investigate the northern route of the ancient Silk Road. This resulted in a series of rich German finds that uncovered lost cities, Buddhist communities and countless artifacts that have informed our understanding of the ancient world. The Silk Road was not only the great trade route connecting Asia with the Mediterranean World, including North Africa and Europe but was also an important conduit for cultural and technological transmission. The northern route which ran through the region of Chinese Turkistan and the northern foot of the Tianshan Mountains extended to as far as the Black Sea. A stunning seventh century wooden statue Eleven-Headed Avalokiteshvara was possibly a Chinese Tang Dynasty import to Chinese Turkistan (Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjian). The masterfully carved wooden statue evokes serenity and exhibits particularly masterful carving of the drapery. The Sanskrit name “Avalokiteshvara” means “the lord who looks upon the world with compassion” and Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is the embodiment of great compassion and has vowed to free all sentient beings from suffering. In Buddhist art, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is sometimes composed with eleven heads which would enable seeing in all directions.
Late found recognition
Just a few years ago, Germany’s greatest patron had nearly been forgotten in his own town of Berlin–there were a few commemorative plaques but nothing substantial. Efforts by the German Oriental Society to a have street in Berlin named after Simon were repeatedly dashed and it wasn’t until 2006 that he was honored with a bronze relief plaque at Tiergartenstrasse 15a, the former site of the Simon family home.
In 2007, the State Museums of Berlin presented the design for the James Simon Gallery, a new central entrance building and exhibition hall on Museuminsel or Museum Island, located right in the middle of Berlin’s Spree River. Museum Island was established in 1840′s when the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, commissioned architects Stuler and Karl Friedrich Schinkel to design a series of extravagant neo-classical museums, envisioned as temples to high culture. In the decades to come, fueled largely by Simon’s cash, German archaeologists returned with vast treasures from global expeditions which built the reputations of these museums. Even when the brutality of Germany’s military state asserted in full power, these museums stood tall. Unfortunately, much of Germany’s art—an estimated 2 million treasures-became war booty for Stalin-and while 1.5 million pieces were returned fifty years ago, after Germany’s reunification, the Germans have been pressuring Russia for the remainders which are believed to be held in secret depots in Russia and Poland. When complete in 2012, Museum Island will become the world’s largest museum complex. How fitting it is that people will enter the museum complex by first passing through the Simon Gallery. Geneva J. Anderson