Adja Yunkers: To Invent a Garden

at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, through March 31

Mu Xin: Landscape Paintings and Prison Notes

at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, through March 24

Modern art has frequently been enriched by cross-cultural influences, but Adja Yunkers’s inspirations were unusually diverse, including religious icons, Renaissance art, social realism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism. Born in Latvia in 1900, Yunkers ran off to Saint Petersburg to study art when he was 14 (encountering the abstract paintings of Kazimir Malevich), then worked as a commercial artist in Cuba in the 20s and as a fine artist in Sweden in the 30s and 40s. He also lived in Mexico City, Paris, and Berlin. In 1947 he moved to the United States–where he married his fifth wife, art critic Dore Ashton–and lived here until he died in 1983.

Yunkers’s life was dogged by tragedy: a brother and a daughter were killed in separate accidents, and much of his artwork was destroyed by fire in Sweden in 1947 and by floods in his New Mexico studio in the early 50s. In old age, he’s said to have become increasingly bitter about his lack of recognition by the art world. And from the evidence of the 57 works in the Block Museum’s superb retrospective (a traveling show originated by the University of Virginia’s Bayly Art Museum), he had reason to be annoyed: the best pieces here, the late abstractions, hold their own with the work of Rothko, Newman, and Reinhardt.

In his Swedish period, Yunkers concentrated on printmaking, borrowing from cubism, surrealism, and German expressionism. A 1946 review by Josephine Gibbs–quoted by Marek Bartelik in his excellent catalog essay–describes Yunkers’s prints as looking like “richly pigmented oils on paper, overlaid with glazes.” Indeed The Green Atelier (1944) is evocatively layered–and like most of Yunkers’s European prints, it’s almost cramped. His work shifted when he moved to America (Yunkers told an interviewer, “I don’t have any history. I just started here”), in part influenced by the vast space and clear light of New Mexico, where he initially lived in summer. Pieta d’Avignon (1951) is an abstracted version of a 15th-century painting of the same name: Yunkers opens up the space by reducing the heads of the three women surrounding Christ’s body to only a few lines. Though some lines and forms collide, flowing, lyrical curves and gentle tans predominate, giving the work an expansive look.

Living mostly in New York, Yunkers became friends with many of the major abstract expressionists, including Rothko, about whom Ashton was to write extensively. But he complained that they never wanted to talk politics or art, only about “their mistresses, their wives, their kids, their taxes, their villas.” The influence of abstract expressionism is apparent in Embroidered Halo (1958), a large oil painting centered around a powerful black form, but there are crucial differences too. The form’s lines and edges are not declarative or certain but tentative, contingent. The purplish background varies in hue, at times seeming casual and random. At right center, a group of vertical brush strokes curves off to the left, undercutting their boldness. Like all of Yunkers’s best works, Embroidered Halo seems divided, as if certainty were being diffused.

Yunkers remarked in 1968 that, while Americans speak in such unequivocal terms as “I like you, You don’t like me–Bang!,” Europeans will say, “On the one hand, on the other hand, maybe, and perhaps.” The bold solid colors of Homage to the Monks of Vietnam (1967)–four dark areas plus two of orange–may recall Clyfford Still, but while four patches are painted with acrylics, the two purple areas at the center are collaged of torn paper, with white ripped edges. The orange areas springing vertically from the purple ones refer to the self-immolations of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war, plunging us into politics, while the torn papers suggest broken bodies. Perhaps Yunkers’s contemporary references hurt his reputation among the famously apolitical ab-ex advocates (Rothko and Gottlieb jointly declared that an artist’s subjects must be “tragic and timeless”), but here the title and torn paper add to the work’s power, contrasting pure, solid colors with the randomness and complexity of actual life.

The square shapes of the 1978 Icon IX (mistakenly reproduced sideways in the catalog, as are several other late abstractions) in some ways resemble the work of Josef Albers: Yunkers sets a black square within a slightly larger gray square on a deep purple field. But the way the squares float and their mysteriously indistinct edges, testing the limits of perceptibility, place them leagues apart from Albers’s ethos. Reflecting the influence of Malevich and Rothko, this painting has an uncanny iconic power yet seems profoundly tentative, both self-assertive and evanescent. One can almost see the artist acknowledging his influences while thinking, “Yes, but on the other hand…”

Mu Xin’s life has been even more dramatic than Yunkers’s. Born in 1927 in China, he lived with the turmoil in that country until 1982, when he moved to New York (where he lives today). A writer as well as an artist who advocated opening China to Western influence, he later supported the Maoist movement but soon became disillusioned with it. Imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, he had most of his art and 20 of his book-length manuscripts destroyed. While imprisoned, he wrote another book-length work in tiny characters on paper he purloined from a supply intended for prisoners’ self-criticism, sewing it into his clothes to escape detection. Those notes are on display here with 33 gouache-and-ink landscape drawings that he made secretly while under house arrest between 1977 and 1979. With one additional drawing, also on view at the Smart Museum, these represent virtually his entire surviving visual oeuvre; since emigrating, he’s concentrated on writing and has published fiction, poetry, and essays.

Like Yunkers’s art, Mu Xin’s extraordinary drawings reveal a unique vision emerging from a rich tension between many influences, including Renaissance painting. They also recall the subjectivity of 19th-century romantic landscapes. Several essayists in the beautifully printed catalog point out how different his drawings are from traditional Chinese painting, which is based on a calligraphic use of line. While secretive about his techniques, Mu Xin apparently used decalcomania (also employed by the surrealists), transferring a gouache to another sheet of paper through pressure; he’s described his work in terms of “controlled coincidence,” suggesting some randomness. Scholars surmise that he underlined areas and added details in ink.

But for all his Western influences, Mu Xin’s drawings are deeply rooted in Chinese tradition. There’s no cameralike perspective “organizing” the scene for the viewer; instead every part of the composition–even “random” marks near the corners representing sky or land–seems as significant as every other. At Peace in Stone Cottage, whose verticality recalls ancient Chinese landscape painting, almost merges scattered houses with rocky cliffs whose rough surfaces verge on abstraction. The white houses and dark rock are beautifully balanced–not opposed as in Western landscape paintings, which tend to make human structures stand out.

A notion in traditional Chinese painting often translated as “spirit” seems visible here in the way Mu Xin’s surfaces are animated by an invisible energy. Waterfalls springing from darker land in Mountains Enclosing the Chu River seem a manifestation of the land’s life force. Ink congeals into the shapes of trees, which seem to grow before one’s eyes. Contrasting three perceptions of time, Mu Xin captures the immediacy of flowing water, the slow growth of trees, and the greater permanence of rock; his randomizing processes also suggest natural patterns of growth and decay.

In the catalog, Richard M. Barnhart notes that Mu Xin’s “accidental” techniques have a long history in Chinese art. He also connects the drawings with an elegiac tradition that tended to resurface during the chaotic transitions between dynasties, periods the Cultural Revolution arguably resembled. There is a memento mori quality to these contemplative, shadowy landscapes seemingly haunted by distance, as if everything were seen in memory. Many titles refer to events in Chinese history hundreds or thousands of years ago, as Barnhart points out. At the same time, every element is achingly alive. The dense forest in Cicadas’ Drone in Summer Trees is almost impenetrable, making the bright areas shine out dynamically, suggesting forest sounds or song.