Of Three Minds

John Haber
in New York City

The Third Mind: America Contemplates Asia

At the very start of "The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia," the Guggenheim offers three visions of silence and excess. Only which is which, and do any of these visions derive from Asia? I am myself of two minds—or is it three?

The question dogs an ingenious, exhausting, and sprawling mess of a show. It has seven separate themes, more than a hundred artists, and two hundred and fifty works. It includes art and documentation from artists, writers, two dancers, at least two classical musicians, and a pop singer. It includes Americans who hardly knew Asia and, every so often, an Asian artist with loose ties to America. It asks to assimilate American modernists to Asian thought. It also tries to assimilate many minor artists, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, to the mainstream. Morris Graves's Time of Change (Morris Graves Foundation, 1943)

It sees Asia through western eyes, and only rarely does it criticize the image. It has a vague, squishy, and shifting ideal of the East, but also a narrowly apolitical one. It insists instead that one turn to eastern religions, surrender to silence, and go with the flow. And surprise—just when one does, one hears a lot of noise. At that point, way too late, the show may actually start to cohere.

Melting ice and ambient sound

The first work lies off to the side of the lobby, half ignored by crowds looking for friends and tickets. Standing microphones face a block of ice, which even by midday has split in two and half melted away. Paul Kos meant to capture the Sound of Ice Melting. For all the work's apparent emptiness, the half circle of microphones presses in like reporters and photographers at a crime scene. Yet a busy museum easily drowns it out.

Leaning into one of the flanking loudspeakers, I heard not hisses and cracks, but other people and other art. Was it a demand for greater awareness or a Bush news conference? Was it a lesson in silence or a lesson in noise? Much of the noise comes from the second work, commissioned for this show and a direct response to its setting.

Ann Hamilton's small, winged metal tram swoops downward, along what John Updike called the "continuous spiral, around an overweening core of empty vertical space." As it passes joints in the track, it pings. A counterweight of books, shorn of their binding, looks more like Lego. Somehow, it ends up in the rotunda's empty pond. I imagined a miracle of Asian technology, an automated machine completing its circuit every hour on the hour. Instead an assistant, her hair cropped like the artist's, hoists the device back up and lets it fall when she will.

That leaves more than enough moments of silence and ambient noise, much as for Louise Despont in Bali. Does the work have anything to do with Asia, other than associations of paper with Japanese prints, even in the fine hands of Zarina Hashmi? Its sheathing of the ramp could as easily belong with the "relational esthetics" exhibited a month before—or elsewhere with Tomás Saraceno. And what about Kos, back in 1970? His 2003 retrospective never once mentioned Asian religion, although it stressed his Christianity, and here everything blends together. Upstairs at the Guggenheim, an empty cell by Bill Viola claims a debt to Buddhism, Sufism, Christian mysticism, and whatever else crosses his mind.

The casual assimilation of one culture to another could be the point, or maybe not. It sure comes to mind with the third big opening installation. James Lee Byars once lay on that gold block, where crystals now rest all but invisibly, in anticipation of his death. However, all that gold leaf, peeling off the walls, makes the room a tribute to the artist and to excess. Edward Said had a term, orientalism, not unlike primitivism, for the western idea of its "other"—an idealized but condescending image of splendor and cruelty. Where Byars lay still, Said must be turning over in his grave.

When one thinks of Asia, one might think of art, from floating mountains to sexually active gods, features that not even Marc Riboud with Magnum Photos overlooked. One might think of political trauma—including world war, Vietnam for Danh Vo, and the Cultural Revolution. One might think of economic trauma at home, too often linked to immigration or competition from abroad. One might think of elaborate settings, from the Great Silk Road to Marina Abramovic in her walk the length of the Great Wall. The curator, Alexandra Munroe, has no time for social and political details, and she thinks instead of calligraphy and religion. Shall I blame the limitation on the show or Modernism in America?

Slipping into Modernism

The question is explicit in the first section, on "The Cult of the Orient." There especially, the ambiguity may well define American art. What other country could both turn its back on Europe and call itself the heir to the West? What other country could see itself as both a melting pot and leader of the world? The first of seven sections places Americans abroad, but within European traditions.

Mary Cassatt closely follows Japanese woodcuts, but also Edouard Manet. The room includes American Impressionism, but few would call her an American Impressionist. It also includes Nocturne: Blue and Gold by James McNeil Whistler. He associates Japanese art with transience, as he scatters a shimmer of gold across the late evening sky. He depicts a boat passing under Battersea Bridge with strokes like pen on paper. Yet the thick, dark oils also convey the grime of London's Industrial Revolution, the solidity of a hundred-year-old bridge, and the endurance of a great city.

In each case, one can see a decorative artist or a painter of modern life. One can see ancient wisdom or the cutting edge. Whistler painted in the early 1870s. Hiroshige created his print of bamboo yards by Kyobashi Bridge barely fifteen years before, in 1857. This room displays him and other Asian models, but Asian art drops out of the picture after that. For the next six sections, Americans will have to create their own connections.

The second section, in the same tower gallery, slips without a break into early Modernism. That makes sense for Americans as reluctant modernists. I must take the show's word that Morgan Russell, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and Arthur Dove all cared about Asian art as much as Cubism. The third section belongs in the catalog, if anywhere. It contains Ezra Pound manuscripts, photos of a play by William Butler Yeats with a Japanese dancer, and a film of Martha Graham. Should one care that Pound wanted to sum up all of civilization, starting with Greek and Old English—or that Yeats was Irish?

Next comes Abstract Expressionism, with more hedges and ambiguities. Having enough trouble deciding whether America "stole the idea of the avant-garde" or started over? Worried how Cubism, the myth of the American West, and assorted other demons collide in Jackson Pollock? Instead, judge whether Franz Kline was lying when he said that his huge calligraphy makes no reference to Asian art. Judge, too, when Mark Tobey's interest in Eastern religion counts as an excuse to include his peers—or when American religious practices, whatever their origins, remain specifically Asian.

The fifth section uses the odd term Neo-Avant-Garde to link Zen, the Beats, Black Mountain, and goodness knows what else. It again has too much literary memorabilia. It also has Robert Rauschenberg, who could improvise a combine painting using a Japanese screen, but only because he could improvise using anything. It has a beautiful cross-hatch painting by Jasper Johns, with reference to Tantric Buddhism, but without the skulls in other versions or the regrets. It has Instructions for Painting by Yoko Ono—first written in Japanese, but conceptual art all the same. It proves that John Cage created lovely visual art even apart from his scores, while Jack Kerouac did not.

The cult of the artist

By this point, chronology erodes. In part, the show's themes have grown too dictatorial, although they do wonders to organize so huge a show. In part, too, postwar American art contains multitudes. Already the section on Abstract Expressionism includes Brice Marden from 1990, to preserve the theme of Marden's calligraphy. Conversely, it skips some obvious candidates for Asian-American art as perhaps too literal (and never reaches such intriguing cases as Cui Fei and Paul Glabicki). While David Smith has two works, Isamu Noguchi has only one. His ideal of a garden museum or SculptureCenter's pebbled garden by Maya Lin will have to await a trip to Queens.

A large selection of Nam June Paik shuns his TV Buddha. Maybe he makes too much fun of piety for a show devoted to mystic truths. The sixth section finds those truths everywhere in "Pure Abstraction and Ecstatic Minimalism." It puts a religious cast on eclectic, secular, and industrial artifact from Dan Flavin and Robert Irwin. It also twists a quotation from Ad Reinhardt, which pays tribute to the East for excluding anything from art but art, especially religious thought. Implicitly, the Guggenheim repeats the mistake of a recent biography, conflating Reinhardt's beliefs with those of a close friend and religious writer, Thomas Merton.

By this point, too, the show has been arguing for artists from the West Coast or Asia itself, such as Lee Mullican and Natvar Bhavsar. They provide shimmering colors and a whole wall of empty Sierra Nevada bottles, like two kinds of tribute to getting high. I could have skipped pretty much all this, although not a seascape by Hiroshi Sugimoto. He learned from childhood in Tokyo, a Catholic education, the study of economics in Minnesota, existentialism, and Robert Smithson. Once again, as with the postwar avant-garde in Tokyo, does East genuinely meet West? Or have they lost sight of each other's particulars?

At first, the final section looks the most Asian of all. The top tier of the ramp presents a series of gray, textured slabs. It could be the Japanese garden or Eastern shrine that one missed all along. But no, the exhibition space has taken over from the exhibition. The art lies behind those walls, in bays devoted to installations. In almost every case, that means performance art.

Here Kim Jones places two schematic references to his service in Vietnam amid three walls of bland scrawls. They almost scream how much reality the exhibition omits. Videos and new media, however, do gain from each bay's scale. Linda Montana—her eyes brutalized by makeup, film, and despair—utters a lamentation that one cannot quite hear. Mark Thompson stands shirtless and motionless, while amplified bees swarm around him and finally land on his shoulders. For both, the manipulation of sound comports with the manipulation of scale.

Here, too, though, one has to wonder how much Asia and America have met. The stillness, immediacy, and impersonality of contemplation have given way to danger, loss, and personal confession. Something of the same happens when Tehching Hsieh punches a time clock once an hour for a full year, like Kate Gilmore trapped in Sheetrock but without smiling. Here, too, Viola has his Room for Saint John of the Cross. A century after "the cult of the orient," art is left with the cult of the artist. And it is rarely the Asian artist.

After the Asian miracle

"The Third Mind" tells a story about Modernism, as two kinds of estheticism. It begins with a love of transience and sudden illumination. It ends with meditations on death and magic, befitting the Guggenheim—to quote Updike again, a museum on "the plan of a recently dead American wizard." It also ends in 1989, just as American art was about to shift from Postmodernism into chaos and Japan from an economic "miracle" into its lost decade. Cultural influences did not yet mean wide-eyed girls, cartoon explosions, and Takashi Murakami. Still, even meditation lets in personalities, excess, and noise.

The exhibition has some wonderful discoveries. Arthur Wesley Dow could easily have painted his 1904 August Moon half a century later. Milton Avery would have envied its simple shapes and saturated red and blue. Red and black overlays scar a 1943 bird by Morris Graves, the Seattle-area painter, but also bring to life its skeletal form and its claws like table forks. Here Pollock really does mimic calligraphy much like many a Chinese American artist today, and it takes him in the opposite direction from his thin, black tracery. Thick red drips from a loaded brush seem almost readable and almost human, and enamel shades just one of seven canvases like a dark cloud.

Mostly, though, the show's story lies in the noise. La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela douse their 1962 Dream House—which has migrated uptown from Tribeca for the duration—in a very loud hum, like a car alarm for art. James Turrell programs LEDs so that their brightness responds to one's movements. I thought that the shadow moved regularly from left to right and back, until a friend and I tried going at the same time in opposite directions. It followed each of us. I did not want to meditate on time and eternity, but to download the program.

The noise says something about the show's themes, but also about American art. If Edward Said is turning over in his grave, the show would probably call it a Zen awakening. The show would be wrong. Silence and noise define much of the art, but something else as well—open highways and city nights. They add up to a portrait of America. So does the habit of borrowing without caring about more than the mind's eye.

Also by the entrance, Sengai Gibon's Circle, Triangle, and Square supplies an emblem. The Edo-period scroll reads from right to left, where small characters stream down the margin. The triangle slightly overlaps the circle, and the paler square—really a rectangle—has an open corner, like a Hebrew letter. For all the appearance of formalism in this class, neatness does not count. For all its iconic stature, too, the image never appears again in the exhibition, until almost the end. Even then, the familiar shiny metal floor sculpture by Walter de Maria gets the order wrong, and I cannot say for sure that he once cared for his predecessor, rather than for Minimalist geometry.

American has a way of impinging on the world—even on what MoMA labels "Tokyo: The New Avant-Garde." As I write, its economic mess has messed up Asian economies, the National Museum in Iraq remains closed to Iraqis, and bombing in Pakistan has increased. The impacts of other nations and cultures on America are just as real, but harder to see up close. If anyone can see them, though, I suppose it will be artists. If anyone can disturb and critique the stale images of East and West, it will be artists, too. Said's turning over in his grave may yet become a performance piece.

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"The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989" ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through April 19, 2009.


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