Tuesday, July 3, 2018

AAAC recently rediscovered an unpublished article written by late art historian Thomas McEvilley (1939-2013). McEvilley was an esteemed art history professor at Rice University, a contributing editor for Artforum and a senior advisor for Trans. He also contributed to the catalogue accompanying Contemporary Art in Asia: Tradition/Tensions. Another of McEvilley's articles, "Negotiating Modernisms: Contemporary Asian Art and the West" from the 1996 issue of ArtSpiral, is available on our website.

"Asian American Art: The Transitional Generation" was written on the occasion of AAAC's 2000 exhibition "Milieu III: Color," featuring the work of Natvar Bhavsar, Venancio C. Igarta, James Kuo, Ted Kurahara, and Seong Moy. McEvilley discusses an earlier variation of this lineup, in which Yun Gee and Miyoko Ito were included instead of Kuo and Moy (Ito could not be exhibited due to issues with shipping). "Milieu III" was the third in a series of exhibitions, "Asian Americans and Their Milieu 1945-65," curated by Robert Lee. Due to lack of funding, the "Milieu III" catalogue, with McEvilley's accompanying essay, was never published. We present the essay in its entirety here, along with several images of relevant artwork.

Natvar Bhavsar, Akshyaa, 1992. Photo courtesy of Asian American Arts Centre

Thomas McEvilley 


The theme of this exhibition, “Color,” refers directly to the confrontation of Asian artists, who often come from a black-and-white emphasizing visual tradition, with the emphasis in western Late Modernism--from Fauvism to Color Field painting--on expanses of bright saturated color.  It refers indirectly to the racial theme underlying the situation these artists have lived in most their adult lives.  

The artists in this exhibition--all in various ways “artists of color”--came to the United States during the period of Modernism, and their works are being exhibited here now in the period of post-Modernism. This situation is very different from that of artists who arrived in this country in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, and again from that of younger artists who have arrived since the revision of immigration laws in 1966 shifted preference away from Europe. Before the founding of the League of Nations at the end of World War I there was little opportunity for a non-western immigrant to enter the activity and discourse of Modernism, which was seen as a specifically western phenomenon not necessarily susceptible to being transplanted elsewhere.  The nineteenth century linkage of blood and soil meant that it could not be appropriate to an immigrant population either.  

In that era the Hegelian view of culture and history still held sway; each nation was said to have a national character which determined, and was revealed in its art and culture as well as in its politics and social structure.  Both national character and cultural tendency were regarded as linked to ethnicity, so each artist was regarded as irremediably fixed in his tradition; any move to get outside it would seem like a kind of betrayal of himself as well as of his national compeers.  As Sartre said in his introduction to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, a member of a colonized culture who took a position sympathetic to the colonizers had nothing left, neither the identity he was born and raised with nor the identity he sought to acquire through imitation.  Neither will have him, and he enters a kind of no-man’s land.  This was the hard fact: a member of a colonized culture could enter Modernism only through an act of betraying himself, his family, and his inherited community values.  The idea of a national identity which should be puristically maintained collaborated with the closely associated quality of race to create unbridgeable gaps between the world cultures and peoples.  A Chinese artist might come to America and begin making art there, but it would have to be his traditional or inherited artistic direction that he followed. Virtually no non-white people were recognized as validly entering and practicing Modernism. 

This situation changed in the early twentieth century.  The League of Nations was one reason and the breakdown of intercultural barriers by the foundational discoveries of modern physics--such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, which unfolded from 1905 to 1915--was another.  Both these developments promoted a sense of the universality of the human situation rather than its separation into parochial enclaves. At the same time the period of “primitivism” was occurring, when Picasso, Braque, Klee and other prominent western artists awakened to the aesthetic presence of non-western art in their midst and received its imprint. As African, Oceanic and Asian art demonstrably influenced European artistic Modernism, the sense of the universality of human selfhood increasingly took the place of the old insistence on national character and identity. 

James Kuo, Composition #1, 1993. Photo courtesy of AAAC.
From that time until the end of colonialism in the generation after World War II, it was possible for persons of other cultures to enter Modernism and take on the supposedly universalized identity of the Modernist westerner--but the cost was high. One might not bear the stigmata of a betrayer, but still a certain abandonment, even a tacit renunciation, of one’s inherited cultural identity seemed involved.  One would have to turn ones back on one’s own education and begin all over again, learning the art history and the discourse and values surrounding it, and attempting to generate enthusiasm for them as one’s own.  In this period the great examples are the Bombay Progressives, who in 1947 renounced the Indian heritage in favor of adopting European Modernist approaches to art making, on the assumption that such approaches were not ethnocentrically European but were somehow universal, like the western science that applied in the same way everywhere and the western capitalism which, in the immediate post-war era, seemed about to do the same. The individual artist was still supposed to be puristic in his cultural makeup, but now it was an alien or adopted purism.  As the Indian or Chinese artist had been supposed to be puristically Indian or Chinese, so now, becoming a westerner, he was to be puristically western. 

Hiddenly, such an artist must have perceived himself to be a hybrid, aware of an almost secret level of earlier conditioning lying beneath the surface veneer of westernization. Only recently did this hybridity come out of hiding and announce itself as a new approach to the idea of an inclusive and universal society.  With the end of colonialism in the years between 1947 and 1976 it was no longer possible for the West to pretend that it was the only cultural presence in a world of strangely silent aliens.   Indeed, as post-colonialism produced its inevitable byproduct of postmodernist multiculturalism, the situation of hybridity became elevated to a new idea of the cosmopolitan; only he who has nomadically made his way from culture to culture, acquiring layers that were not hidden but indexed on the surface, could claim to be, as Diogenes called himself, a Citizen of the World. Hybridism, nomadism, decentering, and pastiche became the ideals of a new age of humanity.  Now it was possible for the artist to merge the styles of various cultures retaining the one into which he or she was born as the foundation on which the nomadic superstructure of a variety of relativized points of view was erected.

In many parts of the world which have not yet entered Modernism this program may seem out-of-synch. As W.J.T. Mitchell has remarked, the western postmodernist might be advocating decentering to one who is still seeking a center, offering postmodernism to one who still longs for the charisma of Modernism.  For those of a generation that remembers the truth of yesterday, the Modernist benediction may still seem meaningful.  

Hegel declared both Africa and Asia ahistorical; they had not yet entered history, it seemed to him, because history meant progress and progress meant a conscious use of one’s life to work toward the shared human goal of a universal civilization. Since Africans and Asians, in his view, did not contribute to the constructive work of progress, they did not share in the creation of the meaning of history--which was virtually the same as not even existing at all.  Like the birds and animals, none of whom participated in the historical work of Progress, they were a part of that pointless and endless cyclicity of sameness that Hegel called Madness.  Like the insane in general, they had no legitimate self or identity.  

V. C. Igarta, Title Unknown, 1983. Photo courtesy of AAAC.

The artists in “Color” came to the United States in the second phase--after the League of Nations but before the end of colonialism. For immigrants of their generation the acquisition of Modernism as a new foundation for self-expression was a matter of pride; it not only offered economic success but also success as a person--entry into a community dedicated to the project of history and supposedly in tune with it. Each underwent a series of reshapings and redirectings in making the adjustment, and selected the elements of the contemporary western tradition that seemed most useful in terms of his or her past conditioning and the need to modify it. 

The oldest artist in the group, Yun Gee (1906 1963), exhibited between 1925 and 1939. He overlapped the pre-Modern and the Modernist phases, and enthusiastically and affirmatively plunged himself and his work into the Modern. His works from the 1920s and 30s show a precise and accurate sense of the aesthetic underlying the Modernism of his time.   Hints of Cubism share the surface with the perspectival illusion of deep space. Though the paints “holds the surface” it still is supple enough to open deep graceful holes into the space behind. In Park Bench II (1927) the dark thicket in the background is distanced by the bright and happy glitter of the yellow roadway; the fractalized or cubized bodies of the figures blend into and stand out from the interlocking paint meshes. The ages of Cezanne, Robert Delaunay, Leger and Picasso are blended with smoothness and sweetness. The pictorial surface is resplendent with difference--in tonality and distance--while clinging together as tightly as the skin of a peach.  In Street Scene (1926) humans carry on their daily activities beneath a sublime chaos of sky that seems almost El Greco-like in its implication of an unknown presence hanging over human life.  Though Yun Gee learned watercolor in China as a child, there is not much of Chinese tradition to be seen here. He has magically put off one selfhood like a robe and put on another to wear it with supreme comfort.  

Filipino by birth, V.C. Igarta began to exhibit his Magic Realist paintings in New York in 1938. Featuring moody young women--either white- or dark-skinned--seeming to concentrate their selfhood before a backdrop of natural forms, they verged on sentimental evocation of the non-western world as both lower than culture--that is, natural--and higher than it--that is, transcendent.  The non-western woman as a symbol of nature and the unconscious rightness of things is a Modernist cliche. Igarta’s later work evolved into geometric abstraction of high quality, though it appeared after the moment when geometric abstraction seemed brought about by an inner necessity of art history.  The paintings combine push-pull effects that gesture toward Hans Hoffman’s influence with a subtle look of color-mixing after the style of Joseph Albers in the semi-transparent overlays.  The planes are centered round the area where they interlock, pulling apart yet held together, with a balance of gentle but strong forces. 

Ted Kurahara, Triple Light Blue, 1984. Photo courtesy of AAAC                                                                
Ted Kurahara most directly addresses the theme of color which is a unifying subtext of the exhibition. Coming from a culture where economy of color-means was valued as one of the signs of artistic maturity, Kurahara, of all these artists, yields himself most fully to the late Modernist sense of the transcendent unity of saturated monochrome color.  The most successful works in these terms are the triptychs combining abstract expressionist thematics with those of Color Field and Minimalism, and based in their elegant edge -framing on Jo Baer’s work of the early 1970s.  Triple Mars Black (1982-83) and Triple Light Blue (1984-85) combine Baer’s elegant minimalism with suggestions of Barnett Newman’s hieratic iconicity of color. Like such African American artists as Joe Overstreet, Sam Gilliam and Frank Bowling, Kurahara continues making abstractions with an inner drift toward the monochrome after the mainstream of white western art history has left it as a milestone marking a turning of art’s path. The triptychs, with their threeness in oneness, gesture theologically toward the western idea of the Trinity, and toward such Modernist landmarks as Yves Klein’s Louisiana Museum triptych representing the trinity in Rosicrucian blue, red and gold.

Miyoko Ito (1918-1983) might be described as luxuriating in a restrained sense of color.  Her compositions, mostly based on the still life, have a powerful sense of illustration or design, as if she wanted to reveal her sense of the underlying harmony of things.  Like other artists of Asian extraction in her age group she was attracted to Cubism for the way it fitted everything together like facets of complex jewels, to Hoffman for the same quality as well as for his lack of fear of bright saturated colors, and to such soft Impressionist avatars as Dufy and Bonnard, for the intimate serenity of their view of life.  The prepared ground seems to exude the forms upon it, and to hold them together as a substrate lying beneath and unifying them. Her works achieved a high resolution in the mid-1950s in paintings such as Act II in the Dusk (1955) and several Untitleds in which gouache-thickened grey-greens and browns mesh like pieces of collage in an homage to the richness of evening’s muted colors.

Natvar Bhavsar (b. 1936) began exhibiting his work in the mid-1960s, when post-Modernism was just beginning in this country or just about to begin.  His work is rooted in late Modernism, especially in the poured Color Field paintings of Morris Louis.  Nevertheless, perhaps because of the beginning of multiculturalism in the United States with the Beat Zen movement of the late 1950s and the counterculture of the early 1960s, he also incorporated references to his Indian heritage, as a postmodernist nomadic artist might do.  Straining powdered pigment through a screen onto a canvas heavily soaked with binder, he creates what Irving Sandler has called “cloud like . . . continuums of color in which there are no recognizable subjects or discrete forms.”  The technique refers on the one hand to Indian cult practices involving the application of pure powdered pigment to various natural surfaces and on the other to the western Modernist worship of pure color as a vehicle of transcendent feeling.  Yves Klein--whose influence from Japanese artists such as the Gutai Group in the mid-1950s may have positioned him as a sympathetic figure to Asian sensibilities--had pioneered the practice in the late 1950s. More recently, Indian-born Anish Kapoor and American Lita Albuquerque have applied unmodulated powdered pigment to sculptural forms that suggest an organic sublime.  But closest in spirit to Bhavsar’s practice is the remark attributed to the Color Field painter Jules Olitski that what he sought in his paintings was an effect as of powdered pigment flung into the air and filling the space evenly yet airily before it began to float downward. Chinese and Japanese ideas of the Void and the Indefinite seem to create a link with the transcendentalism of Modernist abstraction.

Seong Moy, The Little "500", 1958. Color woodcut. Photo courtesy of AAAC

The Chinese, Japanese, and Indian traditions have all produced magnificent schools of abstraction, both hard-edged and painterly, yet it is not their own traditions that these artists rooted themselves in for their drive toward the universal. Western abstraction had its own claim to universality, which had two foundations. One was the theosophical tradition of the mystical value of “pure color” which supposedly addressed only “higher” faculties.  This view underlay much of the formalist criticism of Greenberg, Fried and others, but was brought most glaringly into the open by Sheldon Nodelman. For artists whose early conditioning was Asian, this transcendentalism merged with elements of Taoism, Hinduism, and Eastern Buddhism. In addition, the point of abstraction, in terms of Modernist thinking about particularity and universality, was that one supposedly could not identify an artist’s ethnicity or gender by contemplating his or her abstract painting.  The abstractness of the work pointed toward the fundamental building blocks of nature which--like Plato’s “five regular solids” in the Timaeus--are prior to ethnic identity.  So universalistic abstraction functioned as a medium of exchange and recombination through which Modernism sought to go beyond ethnicity into an idealized or dreamed-up realm of superpersons who transcended particularity.  These superpersons were blank in terms of the differentia of culture and the body--but in being blank they were also closer to being white people than anything else.  In projecting outward its idea of universality, the West had projected outward its idea of itself, only slightly hidden. 

This was why Modernist idealism had an enormously dangerous potential that does not even need to be specified--it underlies many of the disasters of our century.  Still it possessed a certain nobility in its desire to go beyond difference.  The problem is that this desire was unclear, so its nobility went astray.  Even logic might show this. The path beyond difference might more fruitfully be sought in the pastiche of different traditions than in the elevation of one to the status of a universal blank. This proposed elevation was to be a form of the Hegelian miracle of Aufhebung or sublation, whereby something incorporates its opposite yet manages to become thereby even more purely itself.

Young Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, who now lives in New York, once put a volume of western art history and a volume of Chinese art history in a washing machine; through the little window they could be observed coming apart and mixing and finally blending into a kind of pasty grey matter; now it all looked the same, though nothing had been removed or denied on either side. In this simple exemplum, the project of attaining a position beyond ethnic differences is not pursued by directly denying them.  First they are affirmed, then confronted with one another in an intercourse which in time blends them.   Nothing became more purely itself, because nothing else was denied its selfhood. This blending of particular differentia is a down-to-earth or nominalist approach as compared with the transcendentalist positing of a blankness that is not inwardly defiled by a admixture.  The transcendent blank of a mystical white canvas (“one white as one god,” as Rauschenberg said of his white paintings in 1951) is based on a denial of difference and an exclusion of it, whereas the indistinguishable mass of things blended together is based on the affirmation of difference--which it includes in an embrace so ample as to include its opposite too.  

Notes  ----------------------------
1. G.W.F. Hegel. The Philosophy of History, English translation by J. Sibree (Buffalo, New–York: Prometheus Books, 1991), passim.

2. Jean Paul Sartre, Preface, in Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, English translation by Constance Farrington Harmondsworth, England, and New York: Penguin, 1967).

3. See William Rubin, ed., Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, 2 vols. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984) and see also letters sections, Artforum magazine, November 1984, February and May 1985.

4. See Thomas McEvilley, The Postmodern Transformation of Art, in Michael Kelly, ed., Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19), 4 vols. 1, pp. 433-439.

5. W.J.T. Mitchell, Postcolonial culture, Post-Imperial Criticism. In Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, ed., The Post Colonial Studies Reader  (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 477

6. Irving Sandler, Natvar Bhavsar: Painting and the Reality of Color (Sydney: Craftsmen House in association with G + B Arts International, 1998), p.8.

7. See Thomas McEvilley, Seeking the Absolute through Paint: The Monochrome Icon, in The Exiles return: Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post Modern Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 9-56.  
Different Themes
Written by Lovely

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