A photo of Leo Amino at the opening for his 1971 exhibition Leo Amino: "Refractional" Plastic Sculpture 1945-1970, at Sculpture Center, New York.

audience / distant relative

Japanese-American sculptor Leo Amino, remembered here by his grandchild.

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Here, the complicated Japanese-American sculptor Leo Amino is remembered by his grandchild, Genji Amino. Leo Amino: The Visible and the Invisible is on view through July 31 at 537 West 20th Street, New York.


you are the audience
you are my distant audience
i address you
as i would a distant relative
as if a distant relative
seen only heard only through someone else’s description
—Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

The dead, of course, live among us. In varying modalities of description, visible or invisible, with or without subject or object, authorship or addressee, they speak or hold space or silence. Art is one name for a way in which this occurs, or for one way we attend to this ongoingness in life and death. For artists of color, there are peculiar constraints and determinants of these afterlives that serve both to discipline the parameters of appearance and to present a chance for their reconstruction. The archive of art history, as one imaginary for this afterlife, confronts these artists as both a technology of enclosure and an invaluable repository of the very ingenious practices of deviance, resistance and reserve that such a technology would attempt to police within its terms of visibility. This archive is at once a hagiography and an autopsy, a pantheon and an underground. The question is not so much how to place our ancestors in this history but how to allow them to place history in a new light, to illuminate those practices which refuse, escape, reconfigure or disarticulate that history into something worth telling. As writer Saidiya Hartman reminds us, novel grammars may be required for the description of ongoing refusal that does not register for the prevailing optics of recognition as heroic agency or transformative action. And as critic Heather Love cautions, we may be mistaken to imagine that figures of the past have more to gain from our attention than we have to gain from theirs. Rather than toward the recovery of a figure, then, I would like to move here in the recollection of some ground already walked on, that it be covered again in memory. 

attempt to recall by design                       
traces of object
fielding thaw
free address increases this place
romance of the unseen
romance of the unspoken
romance of phantom sense
there is no nearness

I feel that my grandfather’s investigations into the mutual implication of mind, eye and body proceeded from questions about what other worlds could be revealed to exist already in this one. I believe he found something to think with in his readings in phenomenology, which provided him with a companion for his intuition that often what appears to be most near to perception may actually be what is most far, and vice versa. That some limber attunement of critical and sensuous attention is called for to disaggregate and re-member appearances toward the revision of prevailing terms of relation: subject and object, figure and ground, interior and environment. I believe my grandfather remained convinced of and committed to an incontrovertible intimacy between these terms, understanding that what we know of ourselves remains grounded in what we know of our every encounter with something else, understanding that the question of interiority is not an accomplishment of human exception but a matter of perceptual entanglement in which our senses prove to be theoreticians in their own right. He would often repeat a favorite, somewhat refracted phrase of Heidegger’s—“Thrown in the world!”—and I think that more than the heroic existential drama, what interested him in this predicament was the problem of encounter, of the possible apprehension and description of existence. I think that for him this went beyond the question of relativity, meaning beyond the question of relation in the way it is usually conceived. To me his proposal of his work—as embodied as it is philosophical, as political as it is formal—has less to do with figure-ground relation than with the intuition of a radical indebtedness of the figure to its ground. Of that which is seen to that which is unseen. A conviction that our seeing is always ambivalently invested, rearticulated, even fundamentally displaced by the anticipation and return of a transformative potential inherent in the most basic unit of experience.

undredoubted to expose 
in this way necessitated
by proximity
having the excuse of
of composure
filled out 
by belatedness 

My mother tells stories about how during the summers the family spent in a cabin in Glen Gardner, New Jersey, Leo would often call her attention to the way that the eye could allow itself to be led astray, brought around, irrevocably moved by the contour of a branch, leaf or stone. In his manner of expression, “It will tell you.” I believe it is this openness to absorption, surrender, the structural as much as aleatory imposition of time and space, that renders even his most minimal and rigorously geometrical plastic works so rich in sensuous investigation and display. The relevance of such a novel industrial material to this bucolic setting and vocabulary may seem incongruous to some, but to Leo it was not. He had in fact little interest in the oppositions between man and nature, craft and industry, art and life which were so defining for many American artists at midcentury. At a time when the American avant-garde was preoccupied with the notion of authentic gesture or automatic revelation, Leo could not help but defer this notion of immediacy in favor of the radically mediated, a penchant for conceiving expression at perception’s formal and philosophical juncture, an impingement of the exterior so complete as to render the distinction between inside and outside a matter of attention. In a period during which American sculpture moved between statements of massive contour and its reversal into the negativity of open work in structure or gesture, Leo’s engagement with translucency opened onto a second sight. Not the self or the world, the subject or the object, but an interim between which holds our seeing.

reduced so 
loud as to appear
a fabulous resemblance 
cut up adhesion
being inclined
being neglect
flagging shut ocean

As one of only about 2,000 Japanese Americans in the New York metropolitan area prior to internment, and having likely been spared incarceration only by his recent move to the East Coast, his relative estrangement from Japan and his usefulness as a translator for the Office of War Information, Leo’s work was profoundly shaped by a certain knowledge of the outside. It was not only that the now notorious meetings of the Club were as white as their guestbooks freely reveal (the only exception to this rule being the participation by the painter Norman Lewis), or that, as my grandmother recounts Leo’s story, before Peggy Guggenheim offered him an artist’s stipend on the merit of the sculpture he had slung over his shoulder in a canvas bag, he had first to be mistaken for the laundryman. To put it succinctly, he refused. He was not taken with Kline’s engagement with Chinese and Japanese calligraphic gesture, and he had difficulty finding meaning in Pollack’s enthusiasm for a major scale—for him this calligraphy could not be an unmarked cypher for Abstraction, and there were more interesting questions to be asked about the minor, the miniature and their relation to the intimacy of address. Leo refused just as much the narratives that might have promised visibility or notoriety for a person of Asian descent living in the United States prior to the assertion “Asian-American.” Seeing the way an American public cast Isamu Noguchi as the harbinger of an exotic syncretism of the East and West, or Yasuo Kuniyoshi as the face of an assimilation and patriotism capable of countervailing a Yellow Peril, Leo preferred not to. Something like, “It will be fifty years before the man can understand what I was getting at.”

brightly lit
permanently shut
shiftless and latent
recuses to be into 

From one point of view, the history of Leo’s engagement with the shifting ground beneath sensuous and philosophical investigation casts a queer shadow against the backdrop of several decades of American sculpture across which one of the most robust imaginaries is reserved for the idea of the monument. I don’t believe Leo made his work to stand in or against history, at least not a history that had yet been imagined. I’m not sure how he would have liked the idea of the uprightness of his own posthumous standing, at least within the confines of this history, for much the same reason. Apart from which he would have been the first to see the limits of revising or repopulating a cannon, which artists of color have a way of falling into only to fall out—it is after all not built to conserve the possibility of their appearance, which in any case these artists will continue to exceed. I believe Leo would have wanted his memory to remain a blessing for those stories, those practices, those resistances and reservations that remain submerged. This is the way I remember him today.

Leo Amino: The Visible and the Invisible

Leo Amino: The Visible and the Invisible

Leo Amino: The Visible and the Invisible

Cover image: Leo Amino at the opening for his 1971 exhibition Leo Amino: “Refractional” Plastic Sculpture 1945-1970, Sculpture Center, New York (detail)

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