© 2008 Artists Rights Society, New York City/ADAGP, ParisPierre Bonnard's Young Women in the Garden (Renée Monchaty and Marthe Bonnard), painted circa 1921–23

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.

“The Third Mind” succeeds in showing that Asian culture influenced American culture profoundly. But did it exert greater influence in America than in Europe? I’d say that the influence was broader here than across the Atlantic. Asia was an influence on American art mostly because Asian culture was an influence on American culture; European Modernism might not have existed if not for Asian art, but the influence was specifically pictorial and had little to do with Zen, Vedanta or other religious or philosophical systems. By the end of the nineteenth century, artists had begun to suspect that representation as it had developed in the West was becoming a dead letter; the discovery of Japanese prints opened their eyes to other ways of organizing an image.

Pierre Bonnard, who was born in 1867 in a southwestern suburb of Paris and died in 1947 in Le Cannet, near the Riviera, was one of the first of these artists, and one of the most extreme; to his friend the writer Félix Fénéon he became “Bonnard, très Japonard.” Today we forget the urgency with which the painters of the fin de siècle and the early twentieth century sought to reject the tradition of which they now seem an essential part. We forget, for instance, Matisse’s disdain for “those wrongly termed Renaissance masters…of more physical than spiritual value.” If there was an ideology connected with this pictorial revolt–so different from the well-mannered japonisme of 1890s Boston–it was anarchism; society, too, had to be organized along entirely different lines. Fénéon was tried as a bomb thrower, and although he was acquitted, his most recent biographer suspects that he was not innocent. Munroe, in her introduction to the catalog of “The Third Mind,” gestures dismissively toward japonisme as “a well-documented practice of formal appropriation”–anything to do with form must be in bad odor these days, as we all know–but it’s not clear that those mere “flat colors, simple forms, and bold outlines” had less artistic power than all the philosophies in the world. The prints that inspired the Modernists were a “low” and popular art form, and they led to the rise of commercial graphics as a serious art in the early work of Bonnard and then, in his wake, of Toulouse-Lautrec and others.

Textbooks trap Bonnard in the fin de siècle, though it’s always been obvious to those who have looked deeper that his best work came later, in the last quarter-century of his life, the period gloriously on view in “Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 19. While the symphonies of blurs and dabs that are his late paintings seem worlds away from his hard-edged graphic style of the 1890s, they have something in common: the overturning of naturalistic space. Early and late, Bonnard pieces space together like a puzzle whose solution is always different: each piece of the puzzle is equally present, equally elusive. He remained très japonard. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who admired the painter and photographed him in the 1940s, saw his self-effacement as “in keeping with Buddhism. Bonnard had something of the bonze in him.” We glimpse this monastic figure in the painter’s late self-portraits, a couple of which are included here despite their hardly being still lifes or interiors.

Looking at these paintings, in which attention is so effectively diffused and the figure, while rarely quite absent, is usually tangential, one is tempted to see the work of a formalist. But, of course, there is some subject matter in them–domestic life, let’s say. And precisely because the subject matter is so limited, there is also another temptation, opposite to the formalist one: to read the paintings as a diary of the painter’s feelings about his home and about the woman with whom he lived for nearly fifty years, Marthe de Méligny, the recurrent figure in the paintings.

Bonnard and Marthe lived a strange life together. She was a recluse and something of a hypochondriac; her weakness was her power in the relationship. The painter’s power, by contrast, was his ability to pass unnoticed, to be present without seeming to be present, to look without seeming to look. In a few moments he could hastily make a notational sketch from which he would later derive a grand painting that might take years to finish–one in which everything seems to be seen out of the corner of his eye as he’s turning his head. “Unencumbered by the artist’s usual paraphernalia,” as Dita Amory writes in the exhibition catalog, “Bonnard could easily squeeze into the tightest spots…pencil and daybook in hand, and make himself virtually one with a room.” His method was a highly disciplined quietism. As David Sylvester once said, “One cannot imagine him arranging a still life on a table in order to make a picture of it; he would have painted the still life that happened to be there, rearranging it on the canvas, perhaps, but not interfering with the actual things.” Likewise for the nude, Sylvester continued, Bonnard’s attitude “demanded that she should not notice him.” Not only are the figures in the painting easy to overlook; so is the figure whose viewpoint the paintings represent.

Bonnard’s paintings are about his life, but in a curiously furtive and equivocal sense. Look at the great White Interior of 1932. You’ll see a door, a radiator, a table, a chair…and only very gradually will you see a figure, presumably Marthe leaning over behind the table, busy with a cat. Bonnard painted people in such a summary, often doll-like fashion that it is sometimes difficult to positively identify them. Seeing Marthe, or not, is a trick of the eye. She is the painting’s secret. The nineteenth-century American painter Abbott Handerson Thayer, a pioneer of military camouflage, wrote to his patron Charles Lang Freer praising the Japanese manner: “Instead of a tiger painted against a contrasting background as our so-called painters give us, in an oriental tiger picture…one finds the tiger, subtly comprised in the decoration.” What Bonnard does is not unrelated–but the emphasis is more on the shock of recognition than on the subtlety of comprising. Thayer’s imaginary tiger is toothless; Bonnard’s indolent women can wound. Bonnard once explained, “I’m trying to do what I have never done, give the impression one has on entering a room: one sees everything and at the same time nothing.” This seeing everything and at the same time seeing nothing is not simply an optical state; it is a social and psychological one, like that of the eponymous protagonist of What Maisie Knew. Often referred to as a Proustian painter because he painted from memory rather than from life, Bonnard is even more a Jamesian one. In what sense did Bonnard and Marthe know each other, this couple we can only picture slipping past each other in silence for half a century? Bonnard only learned late in life, for instance, that Marthe’s very name had been an invention. Bonnard teaches lessons in unknowing.

There is nothing disinterested or neutral about these paintings, which is why the temptation to see Bonnard as a formalist must be resisted even more strongly than the temptation to see the paintings as a diary of the painter’s life–which the paintings never really tell you anything about. There is deep emotion here, but it’s all caught up in the paint, despite not being about the paint. Everything smolders. Color is overheated, even lurid. The deepest shadows seem to have a fire burning within them. The glow of these paintings is that of iron in the forge, each ingot ready to be bent or hammered on the anvil. For all the apparent softness of things, their blurred and smudged edges, they have been fitted together with a will, worked patiently and hard so as to be pressed into the pictorial grid. The paintings are disquieting and enraptured all at once, but they never want to tell you why.

Only once, really, does Bonnard give more than a glimpse of what his art is about, but then it’s heartbreaking. Young Women in the Garden was begun around 1921, when Bonnard–who had been living with Marthe for nearly thirty years–fell in love with a young woman named Renée Monchaty. She is the central figure in the picture. Bonnard was ready to marry her, but Marthe got wind of it and broke up the affair; she was the one who married the painter, finally, in 1925, whereupon Renée killed herself. At Marthe’s insistence, Bonnard destroyed most of the paintings he’d made of Renée, but he saved this one, still unfinished. Marthe died in 1942; a few years later he began working on the painting again, adding Marthe’s face at the edge of the canvas, as though she, rather than he, was quietly, almost unnoticeably observing Renée. His reluctance to paint Marthe straight-on marks the depth of his identification with her. Has bad conscience ever been so strangely transmuted into beauty?n