Disquieting and Enraptured: On Pierre Bonnard
© 2008 Artists Rights Society, New York City/ADAGP, Paris
Christopher Columbus, as I learned in third grade, arrived in the Americas thinking he'd reached the Indies. That would be the first time the two distant realms were mistaken for each other, but hardly the last. Maybe some of those mistakes have concealed a truth. If Malcolm Cowley is to be believed, Walt Whitman reinvented aspects of Indian thought, including the doctrines of karma and the transmigration of souls, out of his own untutored experience. It was only after the publication of the first version of Leaves of Grass in 1855 that Thoreau clued Whitman in to the connection; soon, words like "maya" and "sudra" began to turn up in Whitman's writing.
More than a century later, a very different yet equally salient figure of American culture also embodied, in his own way, Asian wisdom without knowing it. According to the poet John Giorno, who worked closely with Andy Warhol, "Andy in a sense was a Buddhist and he understood intuitively, at least in the years I knew him in the 1960s, the nature of emptiness. He just came from it." If Whitman and Warhol came unknowingly to ideas of Asian origin, the same is not true of many other American artists, writers and musicians: they have deliberately pursued an idea of Asia, if not always wisely or accurately. Theorists and critics of contemporary art may find their inspiration in French theory or the Frankfurt school, but the people whose work they write about are often more involved in yoga or Buddhism.
Because American culture has for so long and so persistently found in Asia a mirror of its aspirations, it's surprising that there has never been until now an exhibition like "The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989," curated by AlexandraMunroe, which is at the Guggenheim Museum through April 19. Perhaps an exhibition wasn't the best way to approach this theme; not everything in art can be "shown." With a subject this big and elusive, the great question is always not what to leave in but what can possibly be left out. In one respect this question can be nothing more than a futile name game. Maybe it's more substantial when it concerns what, rather than who, gets included or eliminated. In this exhibition the presentation of visual arts has been usefully supplemented with glances at literature (Ezra Pound's translations from the Chinese and the Beats' turn toward India), dance (Michio Ito, who introduced Asian dance, first to Europe and then to the United States; and the collaboration between Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi) and music (one room has been converted into Dream House, the composer La Monte Young's sound-and-light installation in collaboration with his wife, Marian Zazeela). The curator's decision not to touch upon architecture is surprising. Frank Lloyd Wright was a central figure in the assimilation of Asian thought to American culture; he could have been a central figure in this exhibition, and one might have thought institutional vanity alone would have been sufficient incentive for the Guggenheim to shine a light on its own architect.
By contrast, one might question the presence here of the great New York Abstract Expressionists. Their inclusion is based, unsurprisingly, on the resemblance between the use of free gesture in their work and in some Asian calligraphy. This is backed up by occasional statements like Jackson Pollock's "I paint on the floor and this isn't unusual--the Orientals did that." But in truth, the connection may seem superficial. For one thing, the comparison ignores the fundamentally urban and secular turbulence and clamor that inhabit the paintings of Pollock or Franz Kline. After all, the key word in this exhibition's title is really the verb in its subtitle: contemplate. What emerges again and again here is the notion that what American artists sought in the art, and even more in the philosophies of Asia, is a contemplative space that would allow them not necessarily to escape but certainly to take a critical distance from the raucous commercial culture and utilitarian values around them.
Actually, sometimes what they sought does seem like an evasion. The genteel aestheticism of the late-nineteenth- century American painters who seized on japonisme seems a shallow sort of artificial paradise in the face of the depredations of the Gilded Age. James McNeill Whistler is a fascinating painter, as is the less familiar figure Thomas Wilmer Dewing, with his oh-so-refined ladies cast adrift amid monochromatic fields that seem to anticipate the early paintings of Brice Marden. But a truly vital culture was never going to emerge from such quarters.
It is only with the postwar era that Asian thought helps American art expand to become something that begins to resemble what Whitman had called for, with magnificent disdain for syntax, nearly a century before: an art in which "the performance disdaining the trivial unapproached in the tremendous audacity of its crowds and groupings and the push of its perspective spreads with crampless and flowing breadth and showers its prolific and splendid extravagance." It's entirely justified that some two-thirds of "The Third Mind" is devoted to the postwar years. And maybe, on second thought, it's right that Abstract Expressionists are prominently featured, for although their relation to Asian culture was tangential, only with them did their generation of American visual artists become true children of Whitman. Like his, perhaps, their Asian dimension came entirely from within themselves. And in response to them, or perhaps from negotiating the conflicts and similarities between their art and the profoundly Zen- and Tao-influenced thought of John Cage, came Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and after them the artists of the movements of the '60s and '70s such as Fluxus and certain strands of performance art, as well as of what Munroe calls "ecstatic minimalism." Indeed, the postwar portions of the exhibition might almost be a straightforward survey of the American art of the time, but in this context one sees it all a little differently. If that means seeing more of the earnestly New Age side of our culture, as represented, for instance, by the video art of Bill Viola, or by its jokey Zen dumbness, as in much Fluxus, then so be it.
At the same time, works that might have been left out of the kind of straightforward survey of postwar American art that much of "The Third Mind" resembles provide some of the exhibition's most vivid moments. For me, the most notable will remain the presentation of Tehching Hsieh's One Year Performance, 1980-81, also known as Punching the Time Clock on the Hour, One Year Performance. It really is that: Hsieh--a Taiwan-born artist who, like Willem de Kooning before him, arrived on these shores by illegally jumping ship--punched a time clock hourly for a year, meaning, among other things, that he never slept more than one uninterrupted hour at a time. The work's presentation in the museum includes all the timecards as well as the photographs with which Hsieh documented each action. In the series of photographs, one sees the artist's hair growing longer as time passes, and he begins to look more ragged and worn out. That's all pretty conventional as documentation of conceptual and performative art projects goes--though Hsieh engages so deeply with feelings about time, work, commitment, subjection and the body that most other art (and much of the art in "The Third Mind") can only seem trivial by comparison. (The Death of James Lee Byars, 1982/94, a room covered in gold leaf, is pretentiously crass.) But what" takes this piece beyond documentation is the film that has been made by stringing together the still images of Hsieh punching his time clock. Something completely unexpected happens. Because Hsieh does not occupy quite the same position from frame to frame, he appears to be jerkily moving around, back and forth, as if buffeted by an intense blustery wind that he miraculously resists, caught in a storm of progress he neither submits to nor escapes.