© 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.