The history of American art has missed the mark, says curator Alexandra Munroe. It has overlooked the profound and pervasive contribution of Asian philosophy and culture to the caldron, and the exhibition she has spent five years organizing, “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia: 1860-1989,” is going to prove her point.
Vast and ambitious, the just-opened exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum encompasses some 250 works from 110 artists, writers and performers, both those well known for their Asian affinities and others whose connections may seem obscure. All have been influenced by Asian art, books and philosophy, says Munroe, influence that was reflected in their artistic output, sometimes stylistically, sometimes conceptually, and sometimes both. They embraced, at least for a time, “a spiritual philosophy which is essentially a new concept of self. That concept saw a unity, a oneness with cosmic nature.”
The exhibition features paintings, watercolors and drawings by John La Farge, James McNeill Whistler and Georgia O’Keeffe as well as contemporary artists Mark Tobey, Robert Motherwell and Agnes Martin. There are sculptures by Isamu Noguchi, Nam June Paik and Robert Irwin; and room installations by James Lee Byars and La Monte Young. There will also be live performances by Meredith Monk, a choreographer who is a practicing Buddhist, and Laurie Anderson, presenting a one-woman program about her involvement with Tibetan Buddhism and other Asian influences. The voluminous rotunda will be used for an installation by Ann Hamilton, “human carriage,” an audible and visible metaphor for the transmission of culture. A set of hand cymbals will descend and ascend the spiraling space, as bundles of books are pushed off the upper level.
“The premise of the show is rich and compelling,” says Carol Eliel, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “And, of course, to see it in a building by Frank Lloyd Wright (who himself was so influenced by Japanese art) will be particularly appropriate.”
On the day after Christmas, Munroe has come into the emptied halls of the Guggenheim’s downtown offices to catch up on work -- and to walk a visitor through the show on a scale model. She’s been thinking about the topic for a long time, and the words come briskly. The show’s overall purpose, she says, “is to compose a lineage -- an intellectual and cultural lineage -- that grounds these artists’ engagement with the East going back to the mid-19th century.” That was when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with his gunboats in Japan to force that country to open up to trade, a trade that eventually included the export of Japanese culture in objects and ideas. Over time, Chinese and Indian culture came to the United States as well, a process mediated by educators, translators, collectors and curators.
“I also want to point out the importance of the West Coast in this new narrative of American art history,” Munroe continues. “Traditionally, modern and contemporary and avant garde art have always been discussed in their relationship to Europe. The natural bias has been New York and East Coast. In this new reading the West Coast plays a central role in the dissemination of these ideas.”
The subject is a natural for Munroe, who grew up partly in Japan and spent three years living at Daitokuji Temple, the ground zero of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. “Asia is a central part of my own biography,” she admits. She has managed to express her “third-mindedness” through her writing and curatorial work. In 1994 she curated an important exhibition of Japanese contemporary art, “Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky,” at the Guggenheim SoHo. Later she served as director of the Japan Society Gallery in New York before landing at the Guggenheim as senior curator of Asian art. “The Third Mind” is divided into seven sections that follow a general chronology. A lot of the early transmission was through reproductions and translations, but Munroe values the cross-cultural understandings and the misunderstandings. “We want to show how these ideas interpreted, misinterpreted, reinvented, and why that re-invention and misreading are OK,” she says. In fact, the exhibition’s title comes from a “cut-ups” work by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, a work in which they put together random texts and images to make something that was beyond the both of them combined.
Eventually, artists had opportunities to meet Asian mystics, artists and philoso- phers as well as to travel to Asia. Some, like Adrian Piper and Bill Viola, became practitioners of Asian meditation and disciplines. Munroe sees that the expansion of definitions of art made possible happenings, conceptual art and performance art. The show’s timeline ends in 1989, she says, because that marked the beginning of a new globalism and paradigm in cross-cultural exchange.
A few highlights:
Like many artists living in Paris in 1890, Cassatt was deeply impressed by a Japanese print exhibition shown at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. “You who want to make color prints you couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful,” she wrote to fellow artist Berthe Morisot. “I dream of it and don’t think of anything else but color on copper.” Art historian Vivien Greene points out that Cassatt was the first Westerner to embrace the basic elements of Japanese ukiyo-e in her work. One major difference was that ukiyo-e was made with carved woodblocks, while Cassatt used drypoint and aquatint.
Cassatt’s “The Letter” of 1890-91 depicts a quiet scene with a heightened sense of awareness. A young woman seated at her desk is licking an envelope. The composition is unusual with the right edge defined by the side of the writing desk and the perspective slightly flattened, as in traditional Japanese art. Other Japanese influences include the use of flat planes of color and strong outlines as well as the attention paid to the decorative pattern of the woman’s blue dress and the wallpaper behind her.
Two dozen of Cage’s works on paper are in the show, including some from his “Where R = Ryoanji” series, inspired by his visit to the famous Zen garden in Kyoto, Japan. Cage’s fascination with Asia has been well documented and became an intrinsic part of his art practice. In the 1940s he was interested in Indian aesthetics and discovered Taoism and Zen Buddhism. In 1950 he read the Chinese classic “The I Ching, or Book of Changes,” and following its precepts, composed “Music for Changes” by tossing coins, in an attempt to rid the process of the artist-ego.
Cage used “The I Ching,” says Margaret Roeder, his longtime art dealer, “in order to free himself from predetermined expectations or teachings -- those limitations that you create for yourself.” While he became well known for using “chance operations” in music composition and performance, he also devised a related method for hanging pictures that will be used in the gallery featuring his drawings and watercolors. Roeder explains that the walls are first divided into grids. When hanging a picture, they get a coordinate generated from a computer that has been specifically programmed. The picture then goes to that space. If there are overlaps, another chance operation will determine whether the second picture will go above or below or to the left or right of the first picture. “With ‘The I Ching,’ ” says Roeder, “you have to ask the right question to get the right answer.”
Irwin, speaking by phone from his San Diego studio, is a little skeptical about the theme of the show in terms of his work. However, he admits that, “in my earlier paintings I did have Zen titles to my work, and my first introduction to high art was raku ware.” In the 1950s he was sometimes invited to a fellow artist’s for dinner. Afterward, Irwin recalls, “he’d set a box before me, and he’d open it. There was a cloth sack in the box, and there was a raku bowl inside the sack. The whole process made you sensitive to everything, even a thumbprint.” He found that the experience “informed very much my small paintings,” which were given titles with the word “raku” included.
He points out that he has long moved on from those concerns and that his disc works, one of which is included in the show, came from a different source. “I realized I was into this framing, this learned logic,” he says, “and I wanted to get out of the frames, so I started making these discs that didn’t begin and end at the edge.”
“You become aware of something through the culture and atmosphere you inhabit,” says Hamilton, who’s based in Ohio. “It’s an influence everywhere and nowhere at the same time.” She does recall that as a child she was fascinated by things her grandmother brought back from a trip to Japan -- boxes and textiles. As an adult, one of her favorite books was Hideyuki Oka’s “How to Wrap 5 Eggs,” which presented the Japanese aesthetics of wrapping things in simple, often natural material.
This called attention to “the care and the process in which something is offered or given,” Hamilton says, and she sees that the carefully considered, low-tech nature of “human carriage,” commissioned by the Guggenheim, has some of the same aesthetics.
In “human carriage,” the artist also responded to the interior of Wright’s museum -- and made use of the spiraling rotunda space. Throughout the day, a set of Tibetan hand cymbals, suspended in a carriage of silk cloth, will travel down a pipe hung from the curved balustrade -- creating a ringing heard throughout the museum. When they reach the lobby, a “reader” at an upper level will load a stack of books -- cut guillotine style and glued and tied together in bundles -- onto a vertical pulley, which lifts the bells back to the top of the ramp. The work is an expression of the often invisible process of cultural transmission and knowledge. “You never know how a sound dissipates,” Hamilton says, “when it arrives and where it is carried.”