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The artistic influence of the East

by Donald Richie

This large and lavish volume is the catalog of an important art exhibition at the New York Guggenheim Museum that ran from Jan. 20 to April 19 this year. Since the show itself is not traveling to other venues, this excellent account of its purposes and content is now all that remains of one of the most thoughtful and rewarding art shows of the year.

THE THIRD MIND: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, by Alexandra Munroe with appendices by Ikuyo Nakagawa and essays by Richard King, Harry Harootunian, Vivien Greene, Kathleen Pyne, D. Scott Atkins, J. Thomas Rimer, Burt Winther-Tamaki, David Patterson and Munroe. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2009, 440 pp., 355 illustrations, $28 (cloth).

It documents how American art from the 1860s to the 1980s sometimes evolved through an integration of various Asian sources, tapped through the processes of appropriation and integration.

As voiced by Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim who, in addition to writing the catalog, conceived and oversaw the show itself, the aim was to identify, explain and celebrate those many American artists “whose minds were changed by what they read, saw and imagined Asia to be.”

The focus of the exhibition was on the visual arts, but materials on modern poetry and prose and on music and dance were included. If architecture, design, ceramics and fashion were not, this is because the Asian influences on these forms is more widely accepted.

And full as this collection is, it has to be, by its nature, partial. This, Munroe and her colleagues well know. “To those hundreds of artists we missed we hope that future scholars . . . pursue its many potential directions of discovery.”

The catalog is organized chronologically and thematically, as the exhibition was, into a number of sections. Opening is a consideration of the “cult of the Orient,” aestheticism and Japan, and the beginning of Japonisme through the shift from flat colors, simple forms and bold outlines to a “considered examination of the advanced systems of metaphysics, philosophy and aesthetics spanning the five millennia of Asian civilization” and including the work of such artists as James Whistler and Mary Cassatt.

This is followed by “Landscapes of the Mind,” a section that discovers “new conceptions of nature” and includes such artists as Wassily Kandinsky, Morris Graves, Edward Steichen, Georgia O’Keefe and Mark Tobey. After this comes a section on modern poetry, dance and drama, including Ezra Pound, Isamu Noguchi and Martha Graham, accompanied by an excellent essay by J. Thomas Rimer.

The Asian dimensions of postwar American abstract is next considered through works by Jackson Pollack, David Smith, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. After this comes the so-called Beat Zen movement and the works of John Cage, Robert Rauschenburg, Allen Ginsberg and even Jack Kerouac (a rejected manuscript shown in the exhibition and featured in the book).

The title of both the show and catalog, “The Third Mind,” comes from one of the Beat “cut up” works of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, a source that proposes a third mind (or narrator) assembled from the choices and accidents of the two authors.

This Beat take on Zen has been criticized. Alan Watts wrote that they used their ideas to “rationalize sheer caprice in art, literature and life.” Nonetheless, no matter the direction it takes, influence is influence and so here is a kind of Asia.

Though music cannot be heard in a catalog, the influence of Asia on contemporary American music is a fact and David Pattern contributes an important essay on such composers as Charles Griffes, Henry Eichheim and Colin McPhee, as well as such practitioners of an Asian ethos as Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

Ad Reinhardt, Anne Truitt and James Turrell are among those artists illustrating the “Art of Perceptual Experience,” and the final section of the book is devoted to performance art and “the experimental present.”

Munroe, appointed to her post in 2006, is the ideal curator for a show such as this. She spent much of her childhood in Asia, particularly in Japan, and from 1977 to 1980 she was a lay disciple at the Rinzai Zen monastery of Daitoku-ji in Kyoto.

In 1994 Munroe was chosen to curate one of the most interesting exhibitions of the decade, “Japanese Art after 1945: Scream Against the Sky.” It opened at the Yokohama Museum of Art and then traveled to the Guggenheim Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — its catalog was published by Abrams.

In the present exhibition she, again, created a wide, full, historical show, one that abounds with instructive parallels. Here she conceived the powerful idea of American artists looking at Asian art and being both inspired and motivated.

For example, Sengai Gibon’s famous Edo Period “Circle, Triangle, and Square” (now in Tokyo’s Idemitsu Museum) is put up for comparison with Walter de Maria’s 1972 copy, “Triangle, Circle, Square,” made of brushed stainless steel. The forms are the same; the differences are amazing; the inspiration is apparent.

Since most of us over here missed this marvelous show, we can now, at least, read the book.