Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 17, 2008
Daniell Cornell and Mark Dean Johnson, eds. Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900–1970 Exh. cat. San Francisco and Berkeley: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in association with University of California Press, 2008. 176 pp.; 95 color ills.; 12 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780520258648)
Exhibition schedule: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young Museum, San Francisco, October 25, 2008–January 18, 2009; Noguchi Museum, Long Island City, NY, February 18–August 23, 2009
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Chiura Obata. Setting Sun: Sacramento Valley (ca. 1925). Hanging scroll: mineral pigments (distemper) and gold on silk. 107 1/2 x 69 in. Courtesy of Gyo Obata.

“Forty years ago there were no Asian Americans,” reads the provocative first sentence of Gordon H. Chang and Mark Dean Johnson’s introduction to the catalogue for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco exhibition Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900–1970. It seems that until the first recorded use of “Asian American” at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968, the terms for Americans of Asian ancestry were either “Orientals” or more ethnic-specific descriptors. As early as 1896—eight years before the birth of Isamu Noguchi in Los Angeles—Asian American artists began clustering into art associations like the Southern California Japanese Art Club (founded 1910). Chinese art associations sprang up in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, and by the 1920s there were a number of progressive Japanese photography clubs on the West Coast and in Hawaii.

The more encompassing “Asian American” emerged in the San Francisco Bay Area in the context of the identity politics of that era and the emergence of a new academic focus: Asian American Studies. I sent an e-mail to Johnson, Professor of Art at San Francisco State University and a Berkeley alum, requesting more information on this point; his reply says as much about the demographics of California as the revolutionary year of 1968:

The term “Asian American” was first coined in 1968 by Yuji Ichioka at UC Berkeley. Ichioka was born in San Francisco, interned at Topaz, and received his MA from Berkeley in 1968. San Francisco State University (ironically, under President S. I. Hayakawa) experienced a massive student strike in 1968 because of the lack of ethnic-relevant curricula, and both schools responded. Chinese poetry scholar and professor Kai-yu Hsu at SFSU developed the vision of a “college of ethnic studies,” with a separate department of “Asian American Studies.” Both Berkeley and SFSU began offering Asian American courses in 1969. (e-mail to author, 26 October 2008)

UCLA was not far behind: the Department of Asian American Studies was established there in 1970.

There have been a number of exhibitions of work by contemporary Asian Americans—in the fall of 2007, for example, the Berkeley Art Museum hosted One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now, organized by the Asia Society Museum, New York. In contrast, the work of earlier twentieth-century Asian American artists has been relatively neglected by mainstream institutions, with the notable exception of the Zimmerli Art Museum’s Asian Traditions, Modern Expressions: Asian American Artists and Abstraction at Rutgers University in 1997. It was a wonderful, revealing show with an excellent catalogue, but it dealt only with the years 1945–70

Now we have Asian/American/Modern Art, developed jointly by the de Young Museum, where work by several of these artists was shown early on, and by Stanford University. The exhibition, which travels to New York’s Noguchi Museum in February 2009, represents the tip of an iceberg of research done in conjunction with Stanford University’s Asian American Art Research Project, a study of art produced by individuals of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Korean ancestry in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to 1965.

The project was made somewhat manageable by three delimiting devices. The first is the temporal frame provided by the California gold rush (1848) and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that eliminated the national origins quota system. The act led to a surge in Asian immigration from China, Korea, and the Philippines, which accounts for the exhibition’s slightly later end-date of 1970. The act came only one year after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which would generate a new wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia. Neither Southeast nor South Asian Americans were represented in the research project; nor are they in the exhibition. Second, neither the research project nor the exhibition include architects or practitioners of distinctively Asian art forms, such as ikebana. Third, the research project emphasized West Coast artists, while the exhibition broadens the focus.

From the Asian American Art Research Project’s mountain of information, Daniell Cornell, formerly a curator at the Fine Arts Museums and now at the Palm Springs Art Museum, and Johnson, who led the original research effort with Stanford’s Chang, have created a pithy exhibition of ninety-five objects grouped into seven somewhat chronological thematic or media-based sections: “Looking Both Ways,” “Japanese American Pictorialist Photography,” “War and Peace,” “Urban Life and Community,” “Philosophy and Religion,” “Nature and Sexuality as Abstraction,” and “Ink and Line.” The resulting exhibition can easily be absorbed in less than ninety pleasurable minutes, despite lengthy, informative text labels taken from the exhibition catalogue. The catalogue comprises three essays and extended captions for each object. The first essay, by Karen Higa, is that rara avis in exhibition catalogues, a thoughtful, informed critique of the concept of the exhibition itself. In the second essay, ShiPu Wang brings identity-based cultural theory to bear on a discussion of several of the figurative works in the show. Cornell contributes a third essay emphasizing themes of displacement and dislocation as modernist markers in the work of Yun Gee, Alfonso Ossorio, and Noguchi.

As for the exhibition, an important point is made at the outset by the section “Looking Both Ways.” During the early twentieth century, Asian American artists were as likely to look toward Europe as Asia for stylistic sources—Europe was, after all, where influential American artists like Stanton Macdonald-Wright had trained, and several Asian American artists traveled there as well. It is not really feasible, therefore, to analyze Asian American art without taking into consideration the European context. The work of the Mexican muralists had an impact as well—the presence of Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco in the United States during the late 1920s and early 1930s clearly affected artists like Hisako Hibi and Henry Sugimoto (the latter traveled to Mexico before being interned during World War II).

Highlights of the exhibition for this reviewer include Chiura Obata’s powerful meldings of Japanese-style brushwork and West Coast transcendentalism. A beloved teacher at UC Berkeley, Obata’s unprotested internship during the war remains a blight on that university’s reputation. Shigemi Uyeda’s Reflections on the Oil Ditch (ca. 1924) is part of a group of works by Japanese photographers from the 1920s and early 1930s notable for their abstraction. László Moholy-Nagy included Uyeda’s photograph in the 1938 edition of his book, The New Vision: Fundamentals of Design Painting Sculpture Architecture (New York: W.W. Norton, 1938; the caption on page 47 reads: “Massing. Drops of petroleum on water”). Uyeda was interned in Poston, Arizona; after the war he returned to California and farming. Another stunner is Seattle-based Paul Horiuchi’s Abstract Screen (1961), a six-panel screen collaged with large pieces of torn Japanese paper dyed with earth-tone colors. Horiuchi, the catalogue states, was inspired by peeling layers of printed paper on billboards in Seattle’s Chinatown after the war—not unlike Raymond Haines and Jacques de la Villeglé in Paris at the same time. Horiuchi’s 1954 collage, Weathered, in the collection of the Tacoma Art Museum, shows this inspiration quite clearly; but Weathered, which was the frontispiece to the 1997 Rutgers catalogue, is not included in the de Young show.

This brings me to some quibbles with Asian/American/Modern related to Higa’s concern that the show’s “commitment to surveying a broad range of artistic practice from a seventy-year period creates an exhibition of such diversity that its organizing framework . . . can hardly contain it” (17). For example, the exhibition has a number of works by a few of the artists, including four paintings but none of the more interesting mixed media works by Ossorio. Cornell defends the decision to represent Gee, Noguchi, and Ossorio “by multiple works because of their prominence, influence, diverse ethnicities, and artistic range” (32). Yet, for Ossorio not much artistic range is represented, while one of the most influential painters in the show, Saburo Hasegawa, is like Horiuchi represented by only a single ink “painting” (it appears to be actually a monoprint).

A similar problem with understanding artists’ development results from the separation of works by the same artist into different sections of the exhibition. Moreover, the criteria for placement can be elusive. Why, for example, is Gee’s wonderful painting, Butterflies: Dream of Chuang-Tze (ca. 1930), whose subject is a Taoist sage’s meditation on the nature of consciousness, in the section “Looking Both Ways” and not “Philosophy and Religion”? Correspondingly, what is Nam June Paik’s video installation, TV Clock (1963/89), doing in “Philosophy and Religion”? (Being about space and time, this terrifically global piece might be better placed in “Looking Both Ways.”) At least, that’s where it appears in the catalogue, for—as installed at the de Young—the Paik is in a different part of the museum altogether, as is Yoko Ono’s Sky TV (1966/2008). It is easy for visitors to the exhibition to miss them completely. One byproduct is that the work of Yayoi Kusama, the only other 1960s avant-garde artist in the show, feels stranded—particularly her bristling, phallic Chair of 1962, which is placed in a lineup with far more suave works in the section, “Nature and Sexuality as Abstraction.” An additional section focusing on avant-garde work of the 1960s might have provided a more comprehensible context for Kusama, Paik, and Ono.

Other pieces seem to have mysteriously migrated into sections where they make no sense, like Leo Valledor’s geometric-shaped canvas, Red Wing (1965), collected in the catalogue’s “Nature and Sexuality” section, but hovering over “Philosophy and Religion” in the show; or Noguchi’s powerful Walking Void #2 (1970), which seems to have ambled from “Philosophy and Religion” into “Urban Life and Community.” More space was clearly needed for the exhibition, and the bottom line appears to be that the de Young scheduled it into too few galleries—not just to realize its potential, but to accommodate its actual scope. The exhibition has only half the space in the de Young’s downstairs exhibition galleries allotted to the preceding show of Dale Chihuly glass. The visitor finds herself or himself emerging from Asian/American/Modern directly into the last gallery of a large but sparsely installed show of recent work by Maya Lin. Despite its limitations, Asian/American/Modern Art is a groundbreaking, thought-provoking exhibition. Let’s hope the Noguchi Museum does better by it.

[Update: The Noguchi Museum has canceled the exhibition Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900–1970 due to unanticipated delays in the museum’s renovation. (12/24/08)]

Jacquelynn Baas
Director Emeritus, University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.