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'The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia: 1860-1989' at the Guggenheim

Exhibition focuses on Japan's influence on American artists.

February 01, 2009|Scarlet Cheng

NEW YORK — The history of American art has missed the mark, says curator Alexandra Munroe. It has overlooked the profound and pervasive contribution of Asian philosophy and culture to the caldron, and the exhibition she has spent five years organizing, "The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia: 1860-1989," is going to prove her point.

Vast and ambitious, the just-opened exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum encompasses some 250 works from 110 artists, writers and performers, both those well known for their Asian affinities and others whose connections may seem obscure. All have been influenced by Asian art, books and philosophy, says Munroe, influence that was reflected in their artistic output, sometimes stylistically, sometimes conceptually, and sometimes both. They embraced, at least for a time, "a spiritual philosophy which is essentially a new concept of self. That concept saw a unity, a oneness with cosmic nature."

The exhibition features paintings, watercolors and drawings by John La Farge, James McNeill Whistler and Georgia O'Keeffe as well as contemporary artists Mark Tobey, Robert Motherwell and Agnes Martin. There are sculptures by Isamu Noguchi, Nam June Paik and Robert Irwin; and room installations by James Lee Byars and La Monte Young. There will also be live performances by Meredith Monk, a choreographer who is a practicing Buddhist, and Laurie Anderson, presenting a one-woman program about her involvement with Tibetan Buddhism and other Asian influences. The voluminous rotunda will be used for an installation by Ann Hamilton, "human carriage," an audible and visible metaphor for the transmission of culture. A set of hand cymbals will descend and ascend the spiraling space, as bundles of books are pushed off the upper level.

"The premise of the show is rich and compelling," says Carol Eliel, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "And, of course, to see it in a building by Frank Lloyd Wright (who himself was so influenced by Japanese art) will be particularly appropriate."

On the day after Christmas, Munroe has come into the emptied halls of the Guggenheim's downtown offices to catch up on work -- and to walk a visitor through the show on a scale model. She's been thinking about the topic for a long time, and the words come briskly. The show's overall purpose, she says, "is to compose a lineage -- an intellectual and cultural lineage -- that grounds these artists' engagement with the East going back to the mid-19th century." That was when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with his gunboats in Japan to force that country to open up to trade, a trade that eventually included the export of Japanese culture in objects and ideas. Over time, Chinese and Indian culture came to the United States as well, a process mediated by educators, translators, collectors and curators.

"I also want to point out the importance of the West Coast in this new narrative of American art history," Munroe continues. "Traditionally, modern and contemporary and avant garde art have always been discussed in their relationship to Europe. The natural bias has been New York and East Coast. In this new reading the West Coast plays a central role in the dissemination of these ideas."

The subject is a natural for Munroe, who grew up partly in Japan and spent three years living at Daitokuji Temple, the ground zero of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. "Asia is a central part of my own biography," she admits. She has managed to express her "third-mindedness" through her writing and curatorial work. In 1994 she curated an important exhibition of Japanese contemporary art, "Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky," at the Guggenheim SoHo. Later she served as director of the Japan Society Gallery in New York before landing at the Guggenheim as senior curator of Asian art. "The Third Mind" is divided into seven sections that follow a general chronology. A lot of the early transmission was through reproductions and translations, but Munroe values the cross-cultural understandings and the misunderstandings. "We want to show how these ideas interpreted, misinterpreted, reinvented, and why that re-invention and misreading are OK," she says. In fact, the exhibition's title comes from a "cut-ups" work by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, a work in which they put together random texts and images to make something that was beyond the both of them combined.

Eventually, artists had opportunities to meet Asian mystics, artists and philoso- phers as well as to travel to Asia. Some, like Adrian Piper and Bill Viola, became practitioners of Asian meditation and disciplines. Munroe sees that the expansion of definitions of art made possible happenings, conceptual art and performance art. The show's timeline ends in 1989, she says, because that marked the beginning of a new globalism and paradigm in cross-cultural exchange.

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A few highlights:

Mary Cassatt

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