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