The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia

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From January 30 – April 19, 2009, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum will present The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989, an exhibition that considers the dynamic and complex impact of Asian art, literature, music, and philosophical concepts on American art.

The exhibition features approximately 270 works by more than 100 artists across a broad range of media, including painting, sculpture, video art, installations, works on paper, film, live performance, books and ephemera. The project received a $1 million Chairman’s Special Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and an additional NEH planning grant. These NEH grants have been augmented by significant funding from the Terra Foundation for American Art, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and The W.L.S. Spencer Foundation.

The exhibition was conceived and organized by Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator of Asian Art of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and a leading authority of Asian art. “The Third Mind promises to be revelatory exhibition,” Munroe commented. “Visitors will see 130 years of American creative culture through an entirely new lens and should appreciate the transformative influences of Asian art and ideas on the formal and conceptual achievements of American modern and avant-garde art.”

Thomas Krens, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, remarked: “This extraordinary survey of American art promises to be a paradigm-shifting exhibition at the highest level of innovation and aesthetic refinement.” Mr. Krens continued: “We at the Guggenheim are honored by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ recognition of the scholarly and educational merit of this exhibition.”

Exhibition Overview

The Third Mind proposes a new art historical construct, challenging the widely accepted view of the development of American modern art as a dialogue with Europe by alternatively focusing on artists’ prolonged engagement with forms and ideas aligned with Asia. The exhibition will illustrate how Asian art, literature, music, and philosophical concepts were incorporated, interpreted, and mediated to inspire new modes of experiential, contemplative, process-oriented, and interactive art. The exhibition ventures beyond standard accounts of the history of American modernism in which Asian influence is reduced to stylistic appropriations of Japanese forms among Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and artists involved in the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements. The project’s scope will include the impact of the classical arts of India, China, and Japan, and the systems of Hinduism, Taoism, Tantric Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism. The exhibition title refers to a “cut-ups” work by Beat writers William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind Untitled (“Rub Out the World”), ca. 1965, in which unrelated texts are combined and re-arranged to create a new narrative, evocative of the eclectic method by which American artists appropriated from Asia to create new forms, structures and meanings for their own art.

The Third Mind features over 100 artists and literary figures representing the activities of artistic communities in the United States, including New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and beyond. Selected for their demonstrable engagement with Asian art, thought, or forms of spiritual practice, the artists represented in the exhibition include: John La Farge, James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, Arthur Wesley Dow, Georgia O’Keeffe, Augustus Vincent Tack, Ezra Pound, Isamu Noguchi, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, David Smith, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Jordan Belson, Ad Reinhardt, Anne Truitt, Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin, Walter de Maria, Adrian Piper, Bill Viola, and Tehching Hsieh, among others.

The exhibition is organized chronologically and thematically into seven sections:

Aestheticism and Japan: The Cult of the “Orient”

American artists’ fascination with the East began in the late 1850s and developed from the intellectual circles radiating from Boston, especially the interlocking communities of Harvard University, the Unitarians, and the Transcendentalists. This opening section explores an interconnected group of artists who, in the wake of Commodore Matthew Perry’s opening of Japan in 1853–54, turned to the philosophies and artistic practices of “the Orient” and especially as an alternative to European sources of cultural identity and creative inspiration. Economic and political developments spurred their Eastward gaze, as America was rising as a Pacific power invested in expanding trade and diplomacy with China and Japan. Artists associated with the Aesthetic Movement and Tonalism developed specific techniques, compositional devices, and an appreciation of numinous forms derived from their studies of Asian art and texts.

Landscapes of the Mind: Early Modern Conceptions of Nature

This section features leading artists of the early to mid-twentieth century who championed modern and abstract art in while invoking Asian aesthetics and philosophies that conceived of nature as a unity of matter and spirit. Informed by syncretic spiritualist discourses such as Transcendentalism and Theosophy, they appropriated from Asian art forms an aesthetic of transparency, weightlessness, dematerialization, silence, and rhythmic form. Opening with teacher and Japanese-art specialist Arthur Wesley Dow, this section features paintings, woodblock prints, and photographs by Georgia O’Keeffe, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Arthur Dove; by the Photo-Secessionists Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz; the Synaesthesia painters Marsden Hartley and Stanton McDonald-Wright; and by the Northwest School artists Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, among others who were directly engaged with Asia. Increasing Asian immigration contributed to the dissemination of Buddhist centers along the West Coast, inspiring some artists to become students and practitioners of meditation techniques and East Asian calligraphy. These influences can be seen in Graves’s masterwork, Time of Change (1943), which demonstrates his desire “to move toward Eastern art’s basis of metaphorical perceptions … as an outflowing of religious experience.”

Ezra Pound, Modern Poetry, and Dance Theater: Transliterations

This section explores American translations of classical Asian literature and dance theater spanning World War I and the interwar period. Both were well-known among visual artists and inspired experimentation with Asian “thought-forms.” Featured are rare first-edition books by such influential writers as Ezra Pound and Lafcadio Hearn, as well as manuscript pages from T.S. Eliot’s masterwork, The Waste Land (1921). Pound’s seminal translations of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry revolutionized modern English literature with their terse, powerful, and imagist language. Pound also introduced classical Japanese No dance-theater to American modernists, and this section features documentary photographs of the charismatic Japanese dancer Michio Ito performing Yeats’ No-inspired play, At The Hawks Well (c. 1916). These metaphoric literary and dance-theater aesthetics influenced Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi, represented by a video documentary of their seminal collaboration of the dance performance, Frontier (1935).

Calligraphy and Metaphysics: The Asian Dimensions of Postwar Abstract Art

This section explores the transformative influences of calligraphic brushstroke and metaphysical speculation that were based on Asian traditions in postwar American abstract art. The calligraphic brushstroke was an approach to abstract painting that focused on the spontaneous gesture of the artist’s hand and was informed by the East Asian art of calligraphy and popular writings on Zen and its ethics of direct action. Paintings, ink paintings, and sculpture by such towering artists as Franz Kline, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and Mark Tobey reveal how this cross-cultural discourse inspired the creative culture of postwar America. The traditions of metaphysical speculation in Hinduism, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism provided artists with a conceptual basis for the understanding and representation of the spiritual and universal potential of abstract art. Natvar Bhavsar, Gordon Onslow Ford, Lee Mullican, and Isamu Noguchi reinterpreted Asian cultural theory and artistic practices to enhance the meaning and value of abstraction during a period when it was considered the most significant and progressive form of modern art.

Buddhism and the Neo-Avant-Garde: Cage Zen, Beat Zen, and Zen

This section follows three interconnected collectives of artists and writers whose sustained if eclectic connections to Zen and other forms of Mahayana Buddhism emerge as critical methodological and philosophical influences in the American postwar neo-avant-gardes. These collectives are “Cage Zen,” linking the activities of neo-Dada, Fluxus, and Happenings through the mediation of John Cage; Beat Zen, revealing how the spontaneous writings and modes of subjectivity forged by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and others in the Beat movement appropriated Buddhism; and Bay Area conceptualism, which stemmed from both Cagean and post-Beat approaches to Zen as method. Zen rhetoric gave these artists and writers the conceptual framework to abandon artistic intention and compositional structure. It corresponded with the manifestos of Cage’s “silent music,” Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose,” George Maciunas’s “anti-art,” and Tom Marioni’s “situation art”—all of which disposed of orthodox modernism in favor of the sheer immediacy and authenticity of everyday life.

Art of Perceptual Experience: Pure Abstraction and Alternative Minimalism

This section traces the development of a new iteration of Asian rhetoric in American art of the 1960s that recast the art object as a specific focus of contemplation and perceptual experience aimed at the transformation of consciousness. Ad Reinhardt’s radical conclusion of art as a perceptual experience with the specific power to purify consciousness through the act of concentrated contemplation was constructed from his close readings of Asian art and religious thought. The “pure abstraction” and reductive forms of Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, and Robert Irwin shifted the conception of seeing from an optical event to a phenomenological process, and made durational time (of looking at the object) a medium of ontological awareness. In addition to painting and sculpture associated with Minimalism, this section features the experimental cinema of James Whitney and Jordan Belson, and the site-specific sound and light environment, Dream House, by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. During the course of the exhibition live performances of Young’s innovations in North Indian Classical Raga will be presented by Young and Zazeela with The Just Alap Raga Ensemble.

Meditation, Performance Art, and Video: The Body in Time

The final exhibition section presents video, installation, and live performance art of the 1970s through 1989. Artists such as Linda Montano, Bill Viola, and Tehching Hsieh explore endurance and extreme duration as techniques of meditation and self-awareness. Performances by Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, will be presented in the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda and the Peter B. Lewis Theater as an integral part of this section. Several of the artists in this section are advanced practitioners of an Asian contemplative discipline and meditation technique; have spent extended period of time in Asian countries; or served in the Vietnam War. This period reflects the growing popularity of Asian wisdom traditions in American culture, and the gradual breakdown of the long-entrenched “East-West” constructs and worldviews in a postmodern, global era. --

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