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The Third Mind—American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860 – 1989

Guggenheim Museum: January 30 – April 19, 2009

“What is the Sound of Two Blocks of Ice Melting?”

"One Year Performance 1980-1981" by Tehching Hsieh. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

The Third Mind, a sprawling exhibition, tackles the vastly neglected subject of how Asian thought, defined as the eastern religions of Hinduism, Tantric Buddhism, Chan/Zen Buddhism and Taoism, as well as classical Asian art forms and the living performance traditions of Japanese art and Zen Buddhism, has influenced many forms of American modernism for over a century. The exhibition can barely be viewed in one visit and for any serious viewer, particularly one intent on examining Asia’s earliest influences in the latter 19th and beginning 20th Centuries as astutely conceived by curator Vivien Green, it lays down the foundation for what should turn out to be decades of new perspectives in American art history.

Encompassing two-hundred and fifty works by one-hundred artists and literary figures from James McNeil Whistler to Tehching Hsieh and poets Ezra Pound and Allen Ginsberg, there are special commissions by Ann Hamilton and live performances by Alison Knowles, Gary Snyder, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, and Robert Wilson. The Sackler Education Center of the Guggenheim stepped up to the plate by piggybacking special programs with the Noguchi Museum, The Georgia O’Keefe Museum, the New Museum, and The John Cage Trust, throwing in workshops on Sumi ink painting for good measure. The premise of The Third Mind is that Eastern thought has been a viable and continuous stream in America’s artistic development, which for various geopolitical reasons has not come to the fore until now. Japanese thought and aesthetics are emphasized over those of India or China, since American’s political and economic involvement has been more complicit with Japan, especially after World War II. The methodology examines one-hundred artists over a span of one-hundred and twenty years as they either traveled to Asia, or reached out to Asian sources for inspiration. The premise is that these modern artists looked towards Asia to define both the modern world and consciousness itself. With such a bullet-proof team of curators and participating arts organizations and with its vast repertoire of artists, one is forced to confront the art works chosen and the reason for their various juxtapositions.

To its enormous credit, the show breaks new ground in American art history, so much so that the National Endowment for the Humanities poured a million dollars into the Guggenheim’s coffers via a Chairman’s Special Award, a commendable gesture and one that shall hopefully be recurrent as this big ramble of a show is, after all, just a beginning. Each ambitious subsection is worthy of a show unto itself, which is both The Third Mind’s strength, and ultimately its downfall. Senior Curator of Asian Art, Alexandra Munroe says the title of the exhibition comes from “cut ups” of the collaborations of the Beat writers William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, which re-imagine and combine texts to create startling new narratives. In 2007 an exhibition also named The Third Mind, curated by artist Ugo Rondinone, opened at Le Palais de Tokyo in Paris, featuring cut ups of said Beats. Instead of Andy Warhol’s memorable movie “Sleep” with John Giorno ensconced in the New York iteration, the Paris show featured Warhol’s screen tests with Giorno, Jack Smith, and even the venerable Marcel Duchamp. The Paris show also contained Bruce Conner’s photogram, “Sound of Two Hand Angel, which shares the stage in the Guggenheim version with Conner’s surprising 1966 watercolor “Mandala.” However, the Paris exhibition’s thesis was not focused on bridging the gap between East and West.

Until now Eastern influence and thought in the American art historical academy has been hidden like a rich man’s mistress in the shadow of the new world’s obedience to its European first wife. The Third Mind helps change this with an enormous catalog from Yale University Press with essays by distinguished scholars. This goes a long way towards dissecting some of the odd choices on display as well as giving them added intellectual heft. The later half of the 20th Century portion of the exhibit is Californication heavy, which turns out to be an odd, but refreshing choice.

The exhibition is arranged into seven sections and you need to read the liner notes to figure out what points each section is trying to make. Art from the 19th and early 20th Centuries seems the most well thought out and its themes and time frame are ripe for expansion into a full-blown exhibition of their own at a major museum in the Washington D.C. area. This would allow the budding scholarship of this sub-specialty to reach into the heart of our nation, not just the heart of the art world. It includes the work of Mary Cassatt, August St. Gaudens, John Whistler, Arthur Wesley Dow, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and Morris Graves among others. The curators have raised the critical question of the “receptive matrix.” Why did it take this long for Asian influences to be recognized by a major museum or institution as a second, vital stream in American art? Many of these early American artists did not go to Asia but traveled instead to France, where they were exposed to early examples of Japanese and Chinese aesthetics. Some stayed on home turf and visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The Museum’s astute curator of Oriental Art Ernest Fenollosa, lived in Japan, became a Buddhist and helped found both the Tokyo Fine Arts Academy and the Imperial Museum. It was his collection of art that was brought over from Asia to form the basis for the Boston Museum’s collection. Graves went straight to the source, journeying to Japan where the Japanese understanding of landscape, as reflection of a psychic state of mind and a metaphysical abstraction, changed his view of art forever.

The calligraphic brushstroke of the Asian “literati” inadvertently became involved in a “culture of denial” when Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline denied the Asian influence in their work a bit too vigorously. This is particularly irritating because while Kline was issuing rebuttals up the wazoo his artwork was being slathered all over the cover of Bokubi, a journal about new Japanese calligraphy published in Japan. In fact it was the sculptor Isamu Noguchi who, upon disembarking in Japan, handed pictures of Kline’s black and white work in a big brown envelope to Saburo Hasegawa, artist and editor of Bokubi. But that was pre-internet and no one checked up on facts, dare I say certainly not the critical literary lions of the New York School. Why did the big macho brush strokes of Kline become famous over the transparent, translucent white brush strokes of Mark Tobey? History now blames it on critics Thomas Hess and Clement Greenberg who accused Tobey of being too “minuscule.” Dore Ashton, to her credit, was the only critic who got it right, saying, of all the painters, Tobey understood the Orient the best.

The prejudice and intellectual arrogance of the West is revealed here in a very understated way. If you were a Westerner who actually practiced Zen or Tantra you got plucked out of art history, but if you were into “nature” or “spontaneity” then you got included. I was delighted to see the work of Charmion von Wiegand, influenced by Piet Modrain and theosophy. It’s not that she redefined her medium or was a major artist, but she was one of those individuals who act as the glue in a complex and difficult-to-prove theory. Maybe that explains one of The Third Mind’s most glaring omissions, the lack of any work or even a mention of the sculptor Ibram Lassaw who preceded David Smith in both abstraction and knowledge of Zen. Lassaw was also a student in D.T. Suzuki’s classes and one of the founders of “The Club” and that venerable institution’s exclusion, considering its status as a New York focal point for Zen inquiry during the 1950s, is troubling in terms of the wider art historical story.

A whole room of John Cage’s paintings as homage is nice, but his influence on painting in general is questionable. I would have preferred to have seen a clip of his performance on “I’ve Got A Secret,” freaking out the American public by hitting pots, pans, bathtubs, steam kettles and whatever else he used to really convey what he was about. Fortunately, Nam June Paik’s totally blank film “Zen for Film” is there to acquaint us with his spirit. There are two works by Rauschenberg, including “Tireprint,(1953) in which Cage (who referred to Rauschenberg as “Natural Zen”) drove a Model A Ford paint-soaked tire over a long paper scroll producing a legendary but rarely seen artwork.

Then there are really odd juxtapositions such as second generation Fluxus artist Larry Miller’s “Me Becoming Mother.” Miller, over the course of six hypnosis sessions, wanted to know what it would feel like to be his own mother. Art history proposes that he wanted to transcend his ego. Ok, so why was he placed near Vietnam veteran Kim Jones work replete with allusions to that country’s jungles? Did Miller go out and protest the Vietnam War after he became his mother? Though I think Miller is a provocative artist I don’t understand why Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, and George Maciunas, whom Miller would without hesitation acknowledge as first generation Fluxus artists, are marginalized on a corner wall. I located something of an answer in the catalog essay by Kristine Stiles, Performance Art and the Experiential Present, in which she ties together Adrian Piper’s involvement in yoga, philosophy and metaphysics with Ann Hamilton’s looking for new models of being and Alan Sonist’s affinity for the Chinese and Japanese aesthetic sense of nature. Miller is mentioned by Stiles as a “Beatnik looking for a new America.” Wait, I thought the Beats were the Beatniks looking for a new America as illustrated by Jack Kerouac drawings and Allen Ginsberg photos hanging side by side on a wall further down the Guggenheim’s ramp. So if the Beats are the Beats and Miller is Fluxus, why are the seminal figures given a small, unfocused wall to explain their impact and Miller, bless his and his mother’s heart, given his own enclosure? It just doesn’t make sense.

My simple understanding of Eastern thought is that any phenomenon experienced is a product of the mind only. The fact that things change is proof that they do not inherently exist. If pleasure truly existed it would never change into pain and you would always experience pleasure. That certainly is the premise for the most gutsy work in the entire exhibition, One Year Performance 1980-1981 by Tehching Hsieh, a Taiwanese artist who lived illegally in New York for 14 years and later received amnesty. It is shown in its entirety for the first time ever and I urge everyone who reads this review to run out, sprint to the top floor of the Guggenheim and see it before it vanishes. An instant classic, it is a cross between monastic asceticism and a prison sentence. In this performance, Hsieh lived in one room for an entire year, punching a time clock every hour. The Guggenheim walls are covered with those punched time cards from every hour on the hour for all 8,760 hours of that year. Hsieh missed punching in for only 133 hours. Next to each week’s worth of cards are photos, made with now-defunct Polaroid camera technology, featuring the artist in a grey jumpsuit. He also filmed himself with a 16 mm film camera on all 365 days of that year, compressed into just six minutes and four seconds. The clip starts with his shaved head and progresses, cartoon style as his hair sprouts like seeds on a Chia plant. I asked Hsieh how he felt now, 28 years later looking at a year of his life zip by in such a staccato fashion. “I don’t feel so different because I am the person to do it,” he answered. “It is my normal ordinary life only the audience does not normally see it.”

In 1983-1984 he also roped himself together with fellow artist Linda Montano for “Art/Life One Year Performance.” Her simple black and white film, “Mitchell’s Death, 1979,” about the accidental death of her ex-husband sent shivers up my spine. Montano’s face, riddled with grief and pierced by acupuncture needles chants in the style of the Heart Sutra in conjunction with details of Mitchell’s death. With its undeniable pathos it is a powerful reminder of the real mother of us all: impermanence.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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