Asian Traditions/Modern

Expressions: Asian American Artists and Abstraction, 1945-1970

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through November 2

Joy Rosenthal: Chromoskedasic Timescapes

at ARC Gallery, through October 25

By Fred Camper

It isn’t often that one comes across an exhibit of mostly unknown artists in which as much as a third of the work is simply superb, but so it is with the “Asian Traditions/Modern Expressions” show at the Chicago Cultural Center, one of the finest exhibitions of the year. Though much of the work by these 56 artists superficially resembles abstract expressionism–the leading style of the period covered–the pieces by these artists of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean extraction, some emigres and some born in the United States, are ultimately very different from the work of Pollock and Rothko. Ranging from semirepresentational, bright landscapes to austere ink drawings, these 106 diverse works, mostly paintings or drawings, also evidence a cohesive ethos and mood. Though several commentators, notably art historian Dore Ashton, point out in the excellent catalog that many of the abstract expressionists were inspired by Asian art, I experienced the work mostly as coming from a very different world (the catalog and exhibition booklet also point out many of these differences).

Pollock’s lines, Rothko’s luminous rectangles, and Barnett Newman’s stripes all press against each other and against the edges of the canvas to create a compositions that seem to have a single perceptual focus even though they may not have a single vanishing point. Ralph Iwamoto’s painting Centurion (1957), by contrast, looks unified: many of its simple geometrical figures, colored mostly in restrained blues and grays, are filled with almost tactile textures. And though many of the shapes are disrupted by others placed in front of them, the effect is not so much tension as provisionality: no particular shape is more “true” than any other. The areas of texture, which vary from weblike lines to cloud shapes, can also look like windows onto other, deeper fields. Western abstractionists from Malevich to LeWitt, of which the abstract expressionists were only one group, see certain fundamental shapes as representing truths about reality or consciousness. But the gentle, almost discursive organization of Centurion allows the viewer to wander with pleasure from one surface–or window–to the next.

The ink drawings of Sabro Hasegawa are even clearer examples of “wandering” compositions. Though he lived most of his life in Japan–he was arrested there during World War II for refusing to make propaganda art–he gave lectures in the United States on the relationship of calligraphy to abstract painting that were attended by painters such as Kline and de Kooning. In two untitled works from 1956, he combines widely varying lines in designs full of life but also, to Western eyes, oddly accidental, as if randomness were not excluded by these expressive, controlled brush strokes.

Two untitled 1957 paintings by Tadashi Sato are among the show’s most austere–and most luminous. A Hawaiian native inspired in part by tides and tidal pools and also a student of Zen, Sato paints broad fields of cream and off-white punctuated by a few lines, a silent, meditative world that engages the eyes and mind in a kind of dance in which contrasts at once assert themselves and dissolve: the small variations of color both create profound shifts in mood and seem profoundly unimportant.

The differences between these works and those of Pollock, Rothko, Newman, et al doubtless stem from differences not only in personality but in cultural views of the relationship between the individual and the world. The ab-exers were famously macho, loud, hard drinking, and assertive, as many American painters have been since; each painted works with a unique look, whose size and forcefulness were proudly self-declaring, even if on a deeper level the art was self-abnegating. Not all of them had studied art extensively, or even knew how to draw all that well.

Many of the Asian-Americans, by contrast, were accomplished scholars trained in art history; Hasegawa, for example, wrote his dissertation on the great 15th-century Japanese painter Sesshu. The Chinese have a centuries-old tradition of artist-scholars whose art comments on past art and who thus see themselves as part of a continuum. These and other cultural differences produced appealingly modest artists: curator Jeffrey Wechsler quotes Satoru Abe, pleased that his work was to be included, as saying, “You can show my work….You don’t have to write about me.” Such modesty may indeed have limited the recognition many have achieved; it also accounts, Wechsler argues, for their surprising lack of bitterness about it.

Two artists who make specific references to Western forms further illuminate the character of Asian-American art. Chuang Che, a native of China who took delight in the “public calligraphic art”–graffiti–he saw on a visit to New York, includes some spray-can lines in Astronomer (1967). But whereas graffiti art began on New York subway cars as loud and proud announcements of the artists’ names, here the sprayed lines are merely one element among many. An untitled 1957 painting by Po Kim bears a superficial resemblance to Kline’s paintings, with their broad swaths of pigment cutting across the empty canvas. But when Kim first saw Kline’s work, he felt it had a “very poor brush stroke” with “no life in it.” In fact Kline’s broad bands, mostly straight lines, are built up with many brush strokes, and his compositions are based on sketches. Wechsler writes that Kim’s view reflects the “uncorrected, single-go Eastern method,” in which gestural or spontaneous brush movements are highly conditioned by years of experience and practice. Kim’s lines reveal a greater variety than Kline’s, and the end of a brush stroke can’t be predicted from its beginning: Kim’s curving, sometimes zigzagging strokes create shifting relationships with the empty space around them, suggesting the multifarious forms of nature. Kline, by contrast, was inspired in part by the shadows cast by New York’s old Third Avenue el, and his lines seem to slice across space with the force of wagons rolling across the prairie.

In East Asian art, abstraction and nature have always been linked: calligraphy, the basis of Chinese and Japanese art, began as pictorial representation. One section of this show, “Abstraction and Nature,” confirms this connection. Bernice Bing’s Burney Falls (1965) is not a picture of a waterfall but a representation of its essence or spirit using thin watercolors and lots of white space. Her bluish lines descending from a horizontal bar of green suggest energy and movement more simply and powerfully than a photograph ever could. Sueko Kimura’s splendidly transparent Lost Garden (1964), whose luminous depths resemble the complex spatial effects in more abstract works in the show, calls to mind mist and the way light can be seen through leaves. James Leong’s powerful Erosions on a Timeless Face (1959) uses paint dripping in an otherwise dark and solidly massive mountain as a metaphor for the erosion of rock. Here, as elsewhere in East Asian art, the painter finds that his own processes mirror nature’s actions. The catalog quotes Leong as appreciating in traditional Chinese landscapes the “untouchable” quality of “mountains that can’t be scaled,” and indeed part of the power of his painting comes from the massive, forbidding quality of his landforms, which seem to dwarf the human presence.

The ab-ex painters also dwarfed the viewer with their huge, gestural, or intensely colored canvases, not so much by the size of their works as by the power of their forms. Where Leong’s mountain has a wandering ridgeline whose ups and downs reflect nature’s variations, the ab-exers were determined to shape their lines to their will. Leong’s picture, like most in this show, requires a different, more active viewer willing to take time with each new painting. The same might be said of Tseng Yuho’s exquisite collages. An art history professor in Honolulu and a scholar of Chinese art, Tseng created the collage Embodiment (1964) out of gold and platinum leaf. A grid of gray lines underlies gold bands and silver ovals, the gold often yielding to corroded-looking brown patches. As in Hasegawa’s drawings, there is no “picture” or diagrammable composition, no central focus. Wandering, the viewer begins to see previously unimagined dramas in the tiny details of the multifarious surface. Embodiment engages the viewer in the process of learning, or relearning, to see.

Another strong and complex artist is Matsumi Kanemitsu, a U.S. native of Japanese parentage who enlisted in the army in 1941, then was “relocated” to a series of wartime detention camps; later he lived in New York, where he studied with Ad Reinhardt and hung out with abstract expressionist painters at the legendary Cedar Bar. And The Hunter (1960), with its monumental black ovals separated by thin lines of color, at first seems to have some of the forcefulness of their work. But the ovals are less assertive than they appear: made up of different shades of black, they seem at once solid objects in front of the color bands, which can be read as light shining from behind, and shifting, incorporeal shadows. Finally realizing that they’re not objects, the viewer sees that the painting is partly about consciousness itself changing while one moves through the work, almost as time flows through the mind. As in most of these pieces, the painter is not asserting himself; there’s no “I” there.

Joy Rosenthal’s 26 manipulated photographs at ARC may seem to have little to do with the Asian-American art at the Cultural Center, and in fact she says she has no special interest in Asian art. But what interested me most about her work was its dynamic, very Western contrast with the Asian-American show.

Rosenthal, 31, studied photography as an undergraduate, then later was impressed by a 1992 Scientific American article that described how color can be added to black-and-white photographs by pouring chemicals onto the exposed but undeveloped paper, then exposing it to light. Rosenthal also pours her developer directly onto the paper, thus “painting” her image through poured chemicals in a manner similar to the Asian pouring of ink or paint onto paper or canvas. As a result the image develops unevenly, an effect she first used, she told me, following the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia: “I had some friends from Bosnia, and I wanted to find a way to express some sense of their loss.” The 16-by-20 and 20-by-24 prints in this show are mostly of mundane subjects: a nude in the fetal position on a bed, an older woman holding a chicken, a little girl with a dog. The smears and fuzzy blotches of color covering them enhance the time-bound nature of a photograph–an instant of reality now forever in the past. Rosenthal’s alterations increase the distance we feel from her subjects and underline the inevitability of their death.

In some works, such as Almost Protected, the smears seem to cover the subject and background almost equally; in others, such as Maja, the girl and dog inhabit a protected oval of relative clarity surrounded by near chaos. Though Rosenthal is hardly the only photographer to “decay” her images, her combination of mechanically precise photographic lines, engulfing smears and colors, and subjects related to loss is affecting. The empty chair in Gone seems about to be engulfed by the smears that rob photography of its precision and become metaphors for the natural processes that will return us all to dust in the end.

The difference between Rosenthal’s approach and the Asian-American artists’ is instructive. Rosenthal separates “reality”–her subjects–from what she does to the photos, which is her “meaning.” She sees art and nature, inner and outer reality, present and past, life and decay as dynamic opposites, locked not in a dance but in conflict. In traditional Asian art, however, the idea that an artist should express the spirit present in nature, rather than merely copy the visible or express himself, has dominated for more than a millennium. This is why Asian-American paintings have no “I”: the artist does not see herself as separate from the world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Centurion” by Ralph Iwamoto; “Almost Protected” by Joy Rosenthal.