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Ann Hamilton, human carriage

What an extraordinary day spent in Manhattan at the Guggenheim and the Met. I’ll parse the joy one show at a time.

“The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia: 1860-1989” is curator Alexandra Munroe’s brave revision of the influences that affected the complexity and richness of the American art tradition. Raised in Japan, Munroe has a center of gravity that has a non-canonical lean. She has assembled 250 works by 110 artists in a sprawling exploration of how profoundly (and yet previously under acknowledged) major American art movements were driven by an interest in Asian traditions, philosophies and metaphysics.

As I made that slow saunter up the Wrightian coil of the Guggenheim, I felt like I was in a terrain that felt completely familiar. So many of the artists whose works have informed my own—Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, Robert Irwin, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, John Cage, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenburg, Bill Viola, Richard Tuttle, Ann Hamilton, Mark Tobey—were included in this rich tapestry of diverse works that share an elemental common source. One that I share as well.

Munroe’s overview of the exhibit puts this in perspective:

This exhibition traces how Asian art, literature, and philosophy were transmitted and transformed within American cultural and intellectual currents, influencing the articulation of new visual and conceptual languages. It explores how American art evolved through a process of appropriation and integration of Asian sources that developed from the 1860s through the 1980s, when globalization came to eclipse earlier, more deliberate modes of cultural transmission and reception. While Europe has long been recognized as the font of mainstream American art movements, the exhibition explores an alternative lineage of creative culture that is aligned with America’s Pacific vista—Asia.

Vanguard artists consistently looked toward “the East” to forge an independent artistic identity that would define the modern age—and the modern mind—through a new understanding of existence, nature, and consciousness. They drew ideas from Eastern religions, primarily Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, as well as classical Asian art forms and performance traditions. Opening with the late nineteenth-century Aesthetic movement and the ideas promulgated in transcendentalist circles, The Third Mind illuminates the Asian influences shaping such major movements as abstract art, Conceptual art, Minimalism, and the neo-avant-garde as they unfolded in New York and on the West Coast.

Who knew how many artists studied these non-Western traditions? Many were in the military during World War II and came home with an altered aesthetic sense. Some studied Zen and Buddhism in the States, making pilgrimages to Asia after being exposed to this alternative view of the world. Others were exposed indirectly, a healthier version of the effects of second hand smoke.

I was particularly appreciative of how Munroe describes the various ways in which this non-Western point of view made its way into the American artistic psyche. It wasn’t a straight line hand off from guru to student as is often found in Asia. That approach seems so alien to the American sensibilities that favor a fiercely defended independence. Instead Munroe explores…

the eclectic yet purposeful method by which American artists often appropriated material from Asia to create new forms, structures, and meanings in their work. Misreadings, mediations, denials, and imaginary projections emerge as important iterations of this creative process. Some artists identified with non-Western art and thought precisely to subvert and critique what they saw as the spiritually bankrupt capitalist West. Others culled alternative, East-West identities from transcendentalism, Theosophy, Carl Jung’s formulations of the collective unconscious, and New Age movements preaching the perennial vitality of Asia’s spiritual psychology in a global age. Still others simply extracted and freely enlisted what served their particular artistic impulses. Grounded in documentary evidence of the artists’ encounters with Asia, this exhibition shows how artists working in America adapted Eastern ideas and art forms to create not only new styles of art, but more importantly, a new theoretical definition of the contemplative experience and self-transformative role of art itself.

“Misreadings, mediations, denials and imaginary projections.” These are valid methods of influence but ones that are often dismissed in the academic clamor for a historical narrative that can provide evidence and a logical thread. How often we are moved by secondary influences, by an interpretation rather than the thing itself? Like Greil Marcus’ groundbreaking exploration of punk rock, Lipstick Traces, the sourcing for major cultural movements is often furtive, hard to track and sometimes missed altogether. Munroe has given the “Asian influence on art” meme a foothold in the canonical account. And along with that revelation, this show gives a well-deserved emphasis on the importance of artists and art movements that originated on the West Coast. As a Californian who expatriated to the East Coast many years ago, I have long been been keenly aware of a New York-centric skewing of the historical narrative. Munroe’s show has done a lot to even out that proclivity.

While the Guggenheim’s galleries and viewing coil were chock full of extraordinary pieces, Ann Hamilton’s site specific installation in the central vortex of the museum brought a sense of unity to a show that was highly diverse and multi-faceted. Hamilton is ingenious and yet never manipulative. Her work honors the viewer’s intelligence, and I find her installations provocative on so many levels. Her shards of book pages, bound and then slowly moved from the top of the museum to a pile on the lobby floor encompasses so many of the metaphors that were expressed in the show. Hamilton finds a way to make the mechanical feel metaphysical, to move a simple action into a Zen-like space of significance by virtue of its insignificance. Over time, those small insignificances do make a difference. The concepts of time, intention, the void and oneness—she captured them all with such simplicity.

More to come on this and the Bonnard show at the Met.

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