When Abstract Expressionism burst onto the scene in the post-WWII years, it was touted as the first truly American style of visual art. Like jazz – the other polyglot art form everyone thinks of as all-American – Abstract Expressionism was as much an outgrowth of Asian and European traditions as jazz was of musical ideas that originated in Africa and Europe.
Gold Standard: Nine Asian-American Modernist Artists explores this notion of historical melding. It mixes works by Asian-American artists (both foreign and native-born), to demonstrate how Zen, calligraphy and Automatism, as advocated by the Surrealists, combined to form one of the most influential movements of the 20th century.
Some of the work is exceptional and occasionally revelatory, and for many it will be an introduction to a group of Bay Area modernists from the post-war years whose names, for the most part, are not household words. Part of the reason they are not is that they were stymied by the war and its aftermath of racial prejudice which didn’t really begin to abate until the 1980s when multiculturalism helped end the most overt forms of institutional discrimination. Yet even at that, the nine artists brought together here by critic and curator DeWitt Cheng, have enjoyed substantial career success.
Locally, the most prominent among them is Ruth Asawa, best known for her bulbous wire basket sculptures, last seen en masse at a 2006 de Young a retrospective. A student of Joseph Albers who learned to weave wire in Toluca, Mexico, she is represented by a series of Japanese watercolor and woodcut-influenced lithographs and drawings that show some of the thinking behind the allusions to liquidity found in her sculpture. Had some of her 3-D work been present, we’d have a stronger idea of how she adapted Asian forms to Modernist ends.
What the show does make clear, over and over, is that an artist’s birthplace doesn’t necessarily dictate the degree to which Modernist ideas were assimilated or the degree to which classical forms from an artist’s homeland were retained. Take George Miyasaki. He was born in 1935 in Hawaii and arrived on the mainland knowing nothing about art – Asian, European or American. After graduating from the California College of Arts and Crafts, he quickly assumed an internationalist stance to avoid being pigeonholed as an “Asian artist”.
Two oil paintings from the late ‘50s show him operating in the Bay Area Figurative mode, melding the influences of Richard Diebenkorn and Nathan Oliveira, two of his instructors. One is a landscape; the other is a figure study. Both are dominated by thick grounds of green ochre punctuated by colors that are brighter, but equally mutes, as was typical of the period. Later, he abandoned this style in favor of the geometric abstractions he makes today – lithographs that owe more Cubism and traditional forms of Japanese calligraphy than to Bay Area influences.
Carlos Villa, a Filipino-American artist born in San Francisco, actively cultivated his ethnic roots, and went even further afield, diving deep into Oceanic art and incorporating into his work feathers, bones, blood, teeth, hair and shells. Here, his three paintings on paper from 1979-81 feature swirling, dancing, gestural forms painted in brilliant hues, with cloth-wrapped pieces of bone attached to the surfaces.
Fetishistic, ritualistic and talismanic, these jubilant paintings generate their own electrical force fields. So, too, does the vibrating, calligraphy-influenced painting, For a Drum, by Gary Woo, a Chinese immigrant who came to San Francisco from Gaungzhou as a teenager. In contrast, C.C. Wang, who fled China in 1949, and John Way, a native of Shanghai, make calligraphic paintings and drawings with few modernist embellishments. Their spare, elegant, tradition-bound works, when set against those of others who use calligraphic marking more expansively, show just how deeply Chinese writing influenced Abstract Expressionism in the Bay Area, New York, Paris and beyond.
Leo Valledor (1936-1989), a San Francisco native (who also happened to be Carlos Villa’s cousin), is the show’s sole color-field painter. Though better known as a hard-edge abstractionist, he’s represented here by a circular, white-painted canvas and an orange field painting interrupted by two small apertures. Both works, from the early ‘70s, are compelling examples of how the Zen notion of the void appeared as a reoccurring motif throughout Ab Ex painting in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The most contemporary and most revelatory work in the show comes from Arthur Okamura (1932 -2009). Green Twigs with Yellow Dots (1996), built around single line, writhes like a box of snakes. Anchored by four yellow points that float on the surface, the painting feels like a twisting geometric maze or an elastic weaving in which the artist was both a master and a prisoner. It prefigures by a decade work that Ed Moses would show at MOCA in 1987. Splattering Red Flower (1996) looks like it was made by a different artist. Parts of it appear to be liquefied, as if Matisse had tried his hand at symbolist painting. With its crosshatched vase and tendril-like drips that shoot out from the flowers to the edges of the picture, it, too, points to future developments, most notably the work of Laura Owens. Paired with two erotic etchings of flower-like shapes, Core and Slice, this small sampling of Okamura gives us a glimpse into his versatility and the distance he traveled as an artist.
Asian-American modernists traveled many paths in the post-war years, and the diversity of their efforts can only be hinted at in a gallery setting. If this show were transported whole to a museum and enlarged to include these and other artists’ current works, that would be an historic event.
On the other hand, one can’t argue too much with a show as handsome and as well-chosen as this. While its core concept may seem elemental to the cognoscenti, it’s worth repeating, just as it’s worth repeating on these shores that the blues didn’t begin with the British Invasion. Curators, should they choose to follow Cheng’s lead, have their work cut out for them.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Gold Standard: Nine Asian-American Modernist Artists @ Togonon Gallery through July 10, 2010.
This show also included works by Constance Chang.
Cover Detail: Gary Woo, For a Drum, 1967, oil on canvas, 54” x 43.5”