Leo Amino with Jacob Lawrence (far left), Josef and Anni Albers (far right) and faculty, Black Mountain College, 1946
The Visible and the Invisible
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David Zwirner is pleased to present The Visible and the Invisible, an exhibition of work by the Japanese American sculptor Leo Amino (1911–1989) curated by Genji Amino, director of the Leo Amino Estate. On view at the 537 West 20th Street location in New York, the exhibition will feature a range of the artist’s work from the 1940s to the 1980s, including previously unseen sculptures and works on paper from the artist’s estate.
Born in Taiwan under the auspices of Japanese colonial rule and educated in Tokyo, Amino immigrated to the United States as a young man in 1929. During the second Sino-Japanese and World Wars, Amino became disillusioned with both Japanese and American nationalist traditions, seeing the provincialism and conformity they encouraged as anathema to the spirit of modernity. Amino shared a resolutely anti-conformist and anti-traditionalist philosophy with the exiles and refugees of the Bauhaus. Like fellow experimentalists of his generation Josef Albers and Ad Reinhardt, Amino was initially recognized by the cooperative Artists’s Gallery, where he received his first solo exhibition in 1940.
After several one-man shows in New York, Amino was invited by Albers to join the faculty of Black Mountain College in the summer of 1946, two years after the college’s integration, where he taught alongside the Albserses, Jacob Lawrence, and Walter Gropius, and informed the education of students Ruth Asawa, Kenneth Noland, and Harry Seidler, among others. The college’s experimental approach to media, embodied in Anni Albers’s notion of “work with material,” spoke to Amino’s vision for a modern sculpture in which aesthetic and technical experiments were inseparable. He is one of three faculty of color to teach at Black Mountain during the history of the Summer Arts Sessions.
Image: Leo Amino at the opening for his 1971 exhibition Leo Amino: “Refractional” Plastic Sculpture 1945-1970, Sculpture Center, New York (detail)
Amino is the first artist in the United States to use plastics as a principal medium for experiment. He is responsible for the innovation of cast plastics in the history of modern sculpture. Inspired in part by the Plexiglas experiments of the Russian Constructivists as well as Bauhaus sensibilities, his embrace of light and color as primary elements of sculptural construction anticipated the work of avant-garde American artists in the 1960s, some of whom had been his students.
One of the most featured artists in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annuals (the precursor to the Whitney Biennial) following the second World War, Amino is one of very few Asian American artists to have gained this level of national and international exposure in the first half of the 20th Century.
Leo Amino in his Perry Street apartment studio, 1946
Anti-fascist declaration by Japanese American artists in New York City, 1941
Born in Taiwan and educated in Tokyo, Amino immigrated to the West Coast as a young man in 1929, where he worked in the homes and fruit farms of California until anti-Japanese sentiment moved him to cross the country to New York.
During the second Sino-Japanese and World Wars, he felt himself an outsider to both Japanese and American nationalisms. In 1941, he signed an anti-fascist declaration by Japanese American artists in New York City alongside painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi and others. He never returned to Japan.
The New Decade; 35 American Painters and Sculptors, published by The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1955
“Sculpture in plastics is as modern as the atomic age....It is therefore, truly a new medium. It has no precedents. It opens new vistas for artistic expression....Leo Amino pioneered in delving into the possibilities of this new medium. The fruits of his investigation now on view testify to his ingenuity as an experimenter as well as to his creative skill as a seasoned artist.”
—Sahl Swarz, Sculpture in Plastics, catalog for Amino's solo exhibition, Sculpture Center, 1946
Read more about Amino’s experiments in the new medium in “Plastics, a 20th-Century Phenomenon” (1947).
“Of the younger American sculptors possibly none is of more arresting interest than Leo Amino. ... His record up to the present has been one of tireless experiment, made possible only by ownership of an acutely inventive visual imagination and a rare technical facility that comprises effortless mastery over materials as disparate as mahogany and vinyl acetate.” —David Loshak, Critique, 1946.
Leo Amino accepts Josef Albers’s faculty invitation in April 1946. He proposes “experimental work in new materials for sculpture.”
Leo Amino’s course in sculpture at Black Mountain College, Summer 1946. Photo by Bacia Stepner. Courtesy Western Regional Archives
American Sculpture 1951, published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1951
Amino's work featured in Esquire Magazine, 1954
Amino’s experiments went beyond the use of a new material. While his adoption of plastic had been prompted by the difficulty of incorporating color into traditional sculptural media such as wood or bronze (a question minimalist artists were to take up again in the 1960s), Amino found that the new medium presented a unique opportunity for inquiry into the sensible.
Amino used transparency as a tool to investigate the dynamics of perception, articulating space, light, and color through geometric and biomorphic sculptural form.
He dedicated the second half of his career to a series of “refractional” compositions, deploying transparency in order to pose the question of the interdependency of subject and object through an optics of encounter, interpenetration, and absorption.
“The over-all form looks solid, holding the viewer away from it, while the inside is elusive and tempts the viewer in. Seen from one direction, there is an agglomeration of color, while, seen from another, the color almost disappears; the viewer enters it unconsciously.”
—Vito Acconci, ARTnews, 1970
Amino featured in Life magazine, 1954
Recent Work by Leo Amino, published Sculpture Center, New York, 1952
Leo Amino, Black Mountain College, 1946