How Asian-American Artists Made a Mark on Abstract Expressionism
The vast region traditionally referred to in the West as “the East,” which includes countries like Japan and China, has a long history as a source of fascination for Western artists, from James Whistler to John Cage. Looking East for inspiration becomes an insidious form of Orientalism when the practice results in denigration or in the sense of an exclusive claim to cultural superiority for the West. Such is the subject of Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Curated by Theresa Papanikolas, the exhibition offers a critical examination of mid-20th-century American abstraction and its East Asian influences, including East Asian and Pacific Islander practitioners that are often left out of the established Western canon.
Ruth Asawa, one of the few Asian women associated with AbEx, is given a sensational central role in the exhibition. Her sculpture “Untitled (S. 540, Hanging, Seven-Lobed, Interlocking Continuous Form within a Form)” (c. 1958), with its translucent undulating curves achieved through entwined wire, evokes a feminine figure when placed across from Wilem de Kooning’s female muse “Woman as Landscape” (1954–5). Although critics often highlight Black Mountain College as a critical moment in Asawa’s artistic development, her placement in this exhibition, adjacent to other Japanese artists, compares her aesthetic sensibility to other Japanese-American contemporaries. For example, Asawa is placed in conversation with Hawai’ian-born Japanese-American artist Toshiko Takaezu’s voluptuous stoneware, which is glazed with a dynamic velocity similar to the paint strokes of Jackson Pollock or Robert Motherwell. Like many Abstract Expressionists, Takaezu studied Zen Buddhism and visited Japan to learn from traditional Japanese potters and ceramicists. Meanwhile, Tadashi Sato’s paintings also feature overlapping, effervescent ovoids that evoke the clear water of his homeland, Hawai’i.
The low visibility of Asian abstractionists until recently is due to the discrimination they faced during a moment when the craze for Asian concepts and aesthetics ironically crescendoed in the United States. Anti-Japanese sentiment rose during World War II, when Japanese-Americans such as Asawa and her family were ordered into internment camps between 1942–46. Not long afterward, from 1949 to 1955, a group of predominantly white male artists in New York called The Club met several nights a week at a community space on Eighth Street to discuss important concepts such as Zen. Artists, including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Philip Guston, and John Cage, took a liking to the many lectures on Zen’s principles: its embrace of emptiness, chance, and oneness with nature. It was not until 1988 that the United States offered a formal apology and reparations for interned Japanese-Americans through the Civil Liberties Act.
Franz Kline’s “Corinthian II” (1961) features grandiose black brushstrokes on white background, with obvious visual affinity to Morita Shirū’s graphic lacquered folding screen “Dragon Knows Dragon (Ryu wa ryū o shiru)” (1964). Their quick yet decisive brushwork arouses the sensuousness of blank surfaces and marking upon them. The large scale at which they work allows us to marvel at the visibility of the artist’s hand, where micro becomes micro: breaks where bristles do not quite touch, or small splatters of ink that signify the ferocity at which they leapt. In fact, both Kline and Shirū entered into correspondence in the 1950s to share their love for Japanese calligraphy. Klein also wrote directly to another featured artist, Saburo Hasegawa, about his love for older painters of Japan and China.
Art critic Clement Greenberg opposed the perceptible link between Abstract Expressionism and Asian discourse, writing in 1955 that, “[N]ot one of the original ‘abstract expressionists’ — least of all Kline — has felt more than a cursory interest in Oriental art. The sources of their art lie entirely in the West.” Not only was this xenophobic statement untrue, it also served to erase Asian-American Abstract Expressionist artists who were drawing from their own cultural roots while relegating them to be perpetual foreigners in the United States.
While some have claimed that Philip Guston’s paintings reinvent the sublime, the fact that he drew upon Zen and Chinese painting’s dissolution of form into nothingness often goes uncredited. On view together are Guston’s “Ceremony” (1957) and George Miyasaki’s “Green Landscape.” Made the same year, both feature ghostly shapes of sea foam green and dusty red swim against each other as if lost in fog. While Mark Rothko is revered for his studies of vibrant color as a locus for meditative contemplation, this was also explored by artists such as Tseng Yu-ho, Isami Doi, and Bumpei Akaji.
The presentation of these parallel histories broadens current understandings of Abstract Expressionism beyond its well-celebrated New York-based artists. Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West is a long overdue expansion upon well-founded perceptions of American abstraction. Perhaps, though Clement Greenberg was incorrect in denying any “Oriental” influence in Abstract Expressionism, his suggestion that it was a uniquely American movement still holds. The critic’s nationalistic desire for an aesthetic attributed to the United States must simply accept that non-white cultural production can be authentically American too. As we continue to unravel the ancient empires built upon small boys clubs, I yearn for even more narratives beyond those that uphold white creativity as the historical measure of greatness and propositions that Asians or other minorities can also meet this bar.