Whose Modernism is it Anyway?by Edward M. Gómez
Memo to the keepers of modern art history’s canon, as it has been codified by Western art-establishment pooh-bahs: Both conceivably and in fact, the story of modern art’s evolution encompasses more than merely a linear progression of styles and movements, and a parade of artist-innovators, culminating in the apotheosis of postmodern “post-studio practice” and, finally, the disappearance of that pesky old bugaboo, the art object (see, for example, conceptualist Tino Sehgal’s empty-out-the-museum exercise at the Guggenheim last year).
That modern art’s textbook history has been dominated by white Western males is old news to revisionist historians who have spent the past several decades trying to make room in it for other significant contributors to that story. Today, thanks to the globalization of just about everything, the media are obliged to pay attention to art-makers from around the world, meaning beyond the U.S. and Europe. Still, they tend to follow market trends, and what sells well grabs the headlines (and, ultimately, critical, academic, and institutional attention). An obvious example: the increasing interest in recent years in contemporary art from Asia, especially China, which has been driven in part by dealers’ incessant quest for the Next Big Thing.
As a researcher who often has focused on Japanese modern art history, I’m excited by a recent gathering of critical mass in this particular field. Lately, certain Japanese modern art specialists, aiming their findings at audiences outside Japan, have proposed that, when looking back beyond modern art’s familiar Western centers of development—Paris, Berlin, London, New York—it must be noted that this new kind of art was also being made in different ways, derived from varied, indigenous sources, in other parts of the world, like Japan.
These historians also have proposed that modern art’s evolution should be viewed and tracked in more expansive, “transnational” terms. They point out that not only did its guiding ideas flow outward from its familiar centers, but also that, simultaneously, ideas that helped define what modern art could and would be flowed from “the peripheries” toward those centers.
This theme percolates through Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, an exhibition on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through September 28. Organized by Alexandra Munroe, the museum’s senior curator of Asian art and an expert in Japanese modern art, this show makes clear that Lee’s austere mixed-media works, which may appear “minimalist” to non-Japanese viewers, have little to do with Western minimalism as such (the movement or the style, which ultimately became just another decorating option). The art of this 74-year-old, Korean-born artist, who has long been based in Japan, is rooted in an Eastern appreciation of the nature of materials and also in modern European phenomenology, the branch of philosophy that focuses on individual consciousness and that influenced existentialism. Lee, the main theorist of the Mono-ha (“School of Things”) tendency in Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is more of a philosopher who expresses his ideas through art. Sometimes his art seems to give physical expression to the kind of sensibility that informed the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s classic treatise, The Poetics of Space (1958).
Mono-ha artists were interested in the confrontation of natural and artificial materials, as in Lee’s “Relatum” (1968), a work that was the result of a heavy stone landing on top of—and shattering—a sheet of glass. Munroe notes: “Lee Ufan has had an enormous influence on artists in East Asia.” The exhibition she has organized positions Lee not as an Asian artist per se but rather as a transnational artist whose ideas, she says, “go beyond the binaries of Eastern and Western aesthetics.” Munroe observes: “Lee’s art and writings partook of the radical global rethinking that transformed contemporary art in the 1960s and 1970s, when terms such as ‘system,’ ‘structure,’ and ‘process’ recast the object as a dynamic event occurring outside the studio confines, in everyday time and space.”
Reiko Tomii, a Japanese-born art historian-curator based in New York, has collaborated with Munroe in the past and is a co-founder of PoNJA-GenKon, a scholarly listserv about Japanese art of the post-World War II era. She told me: “People are genuinely interested in what the field of Japanese modern art has to offer. I’d like to see art history look at non-Western modern and contemporary art not as ‘addenda’ to European-American art, but as resonating phenomena arising from their own locally specific conditions.”
In her new book, Gutai: Decentering Modernism (University of Chicago Press, 2011), the Chinese-Canadian art historian Ming Tiampo takes this more expansive, center-periphery approach to analyzing the ideas and activities of one of postwar Japanese modern art’s most important movements. The Gutai Art Association, as it was formally known, was founded in 1954 by Jiro Yoshihara and a group of young, Osaka-area artists. Before disbanding in 1972, after Yoshihara died, they went on to create abstract paintings and sculptures, as well as prototypical performance-art events and mixed-media installations.
Tiampo, an associate professor of art history at Carleton University in Ottawa, is as interested in how Gutai artists reached out to European and American artists, critics, and media as she is in how Western art figures became aware of and responded to the movement. As early as 1955, through its Gutai journal, she notes, the group began, “to transform its distance from art world centers into new possibilities for expression.” Tiampo’s research will offer a foundation for a big Gutai exhibition she and Munroe will assemble for the Guggenheim; it will open in 2013. It will reconsider the common assumption that, as Tiampo writes, “modernism was a closed system, located in the West and relentlessly disseminated to its territories with no reciprocal exchange.”
In another new book, The Great Migrator: Robert Rauschenberg and the Global Rise of American Art (MIT Press, 2010), the Japanese, Yale-trained art historian Hiroko Ikegami gives one of Western modern art’s biggest canonical figures the transnational treatment. Ikegami’s study shows just how much of a cross-cultural give-and-take of aesthetic ideas informed Rauschenberg’s art-making, especially after he won the grand prize for painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale. She tracks his travels around the world during that milestone year of his career, with composer John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham’s dance company. In a climactic chapter, she recounts Rauschenberg’s late 1964 visit to Tokyo, where he met young Japanese artists who had been inspired by and were imitating the new American art they had seen in magazines. In particular, Ushio Shinohara, by copying the post-Duchampian appropriator Rauschenberg’s “Coca-Cola Plan” (1958), which had incorporated real Coke bottles, performed an unwitting exercise in postmodernist, authorship-questioning appropriation of the kind that became standard, theory-driven fare in the West a few decades later. (The now-familiar body of pomo thinking that would later become dominant internationally in contemporary art was still taking shape at the time.)
Ikegami, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Intercultural Studies at Kobe University, says: “My approach is post-revisionist in that I see the global rise of American art as a cross-cultural process rather than as a unilateral invasion.”
Lisa Panzera, the director of McCaffrey Fine Art, a Manhattan gallery whose founder, Fergus McCaffrey, studied art in Japan and is deeply interested in Japanese modern art, notes: “The success of Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, and other Japanese artists of their generation has made some collectors want to know: What’s the historical background for such art from Japan?” McCaffrey has shown abstract paintings by the Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga, who painted, hanging from a rope suspended over a canvas on the floor, with his feet, and works by the conceptualists Hitoshi Nomura and Jiro Takamatsu.
Also in New York, Paula Cooper Gallery has shown the work of Atsuko Tanaka and Akira Kanayama (like Shiraga, founding members of Gutai), and Andrea Rosen Gallery has shown the art of Tetsumi Kudo, the maker of some of postwar Japan’s most bizarre works, which critiqued consumerism and technology. His “post-nuclear,” mixed-media art seemed to find beauty in decay.
Tiampo points out that, in Europe, the Tate Modern and the Pompidou Center (Paris) “have long taken a transnational approach to modern-art history,” and that in Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art “has made a commitment to integrating postwar Japanese art into the larger art-historical narrative.” In Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center boasts a gallery filled with emblematic Gutai works.
Finally, although the Museum of Modern Art in New York has not yet announced it, Doryun Chong, a MoMA associate curator who was formerly at the Walker, is preparing an exhibition focusing on art made in Tokyo from 1955 through 1970. Opening date: late next year. Tiampo senses that “people are hungry for more information and visual resources” about Japanese modern art. If MoMA, the world’s most authoritative—and conservative—preserver of modern art’s familiar canon, can help provide them and follow the Guggenheim’s lead, that would be one of the most significant developments yet in this still-emerging field.
ContributorEdward M. Gómez
Journalist, critic, and independent scholar EDWARD M. GÓMEZ wrote about post-World War II Japanese modern art in Le dictionnaire de la civilsation japonaise (Paris: Éditions Hazan, 1994) and contributed to Yes: Yoko Ono (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000).