Monday, March 23rd, 2009

The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

January 30-April 19, 2009
1071 5th Avenue,  at 89th Street
New York City, 212 423 3618

James Lee Byars The Death of James Lee Byars 1994. installation, gold leaf.
James Lee Byars, The Death of James Lee Byars 1994. installation, gold leaf.

By 1860, commerce developed between the United States and Asia. This trade affected the visual arts. Thanks to Ernest Fenellosa and his successors, we assembled great collections of Chinese and Japanese painting and sculpture . And our artists were influenced by their Asian peers. Mary Cassatt, John La Farge and James Whistler painted in ways that mimicked this exotic art. And some painters, Morris Graves is an example, did Asian subjects. But these were limited influences. “Not one of the original” Abstract Expressionists, Clement Greenberg remarked long ago, “has felt more than a cursory interest in Oriental art. The sources of their art lie entirely in the West.” I recalled his statement seeing the abstractions by Frank Kline, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock in this show. Sam Francis worked in Japan and Yoko Ono was born there; John Cage was much taken by Americanized Zen Buddhism; and John McLaughlin lived in Japan. But they too really belong to an international tradition.  So too do Agnes Martin and Nam June Paik. I cannot see any connection between Asian art and Robert Irwin’s disc painting in the show. Nor do I understand why Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, or Adrian Piper, or the video by Bill Viola, which presents Western mysticism belong here. Ann Hamilton has provided an entertaining installation mounted on the balustrade. As carriages descend, Tibetan hand cymbals ring, nicely animating the museum. But apart from the cymbals, there is nothing  specifically Asian about this construction.

The problems inherent with the curatorial premise become clearer as we get near to the present. Asia is involved with the aesthetics of emptiness, as in Japanese Zen Gardens; but also with crowded multiplicity and obsessive repetition. Asians meditate and make patterns, as do Westerners.  In short, Asians are as varied as Americans.  And so, when we contemplate them, we see ourselves. James Lee Byers loved Japan, but to understand what he made of that experience you need to place him within 1980s American visual culture. Like some earlier Guggenheim exhibitions, Mark Rosenthal’s 1996  splendid, mindless history of abstraction and the more recent survey Russia! are two examples, The Third Mind presents much great art without a convincing visual premise. Contemporary Asian visual culture has no essence. Edward Said’s Orientalism killed that way of thinking about cultural relationships. Today there is no such thing as Asian-ness or American-ness because our ambitious artists all are hybrids.