The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989

January 30 - April 19, 2009


Exhibition Sections


The exhibition is organized chronologically and thematically into seven sections:


Aestheticism and Japan: The Cult of the Orient

American artists' fascination with the East began in the late 1850s and developed from intellectual circles radiating from Boston, especially the interlocking communities of Harvard University, the Unitarians, and the transcendentalists. This opening section explores an interconnected group of artists who, in the wake of Commodore Matthew Perry's opening of Japan in 1853-54, turned to the philosophies and artistic practices of "the Orient" and especially Japan as an alternative to European sources of cultural identity and creative inspiration. Artists associated with the Aesthetic movement and Tonalism developed specific techniques, compositional devices, and an appreciation of numinous form derived from their studies of Asian art and texts. This section features important paintings by John La Farge which he made in Japan, such as The Great Statue of Amida Buddha at Kamakura (ca. 1997, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco) and by James McNeill Whistler, including Nocturne: Blue and Gold-Old Battersea Bridge (ca. 1872-75, Tate, London). Both artists deployed Asian techniques in their work and were key in fostering interest in Asian art among their peers, as was Mary Cassatt, whose 1890-91 suite of ten color drypoint etchings, manipulates conventions and themes drawn from Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Abbott Handerson Thayer, artists who were championed by the great Asian art collector Charles Lang Freer, are also included. A key piece in this section is a plaster cast of American Renaissance sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens's famous memorial sculpture of Henry Adams's wife, "Clover" Marion Hooper Adams. This work was conceived and styled as a nondenominational evocation of the "White-Robed" Buddhist bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. (left: Mary Cassatt, The Letter, 1890-91, Drypoint and aquatint on cream laid paper, 34.4 x 21.1 cm. S.P. Avery Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations )


Landscapes of the Mind: New Conceptions of Nature

This section features leading artists of the early to mid-twentieth century who championed modern and abstract art in America while invoking Asian aesthetics and philosophies that conceived of nature as a unity of matter and spirit. Informed by syncretic spiritualist discourses such as transcendentalism and Theosophy, they appropriated from Asian art forms an aesthetic of transparency, weightlessness, dematerialization, silence, and rhythmic form. Eschewing traditional Western schemes of landscape as monumental and eternal, they took from the East the notion of landscape as ephemeral form and dynamic process. They appropriated techniques like ink brushwork and compositional devices like multiple viewpoints in Chinese landscape painting to achieve a dynamism that suggested something numinous and wondrous beyond external form. Opening with the influential teacher and Japanese-art specialist Arthur Wesley Dow, this section features paintings, woodblock prints, and photographs by Georgia O'Keeffe, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Arthur Dove; by the Photo-Secessionists Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz; and the Synaesthesia painters Marsden Hartley and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. This development culminates with the Northwest school of painters that coalesced in the 1930s around Mark Tobey and included Kenneth Callahan, Paul Horiuchi, and Morris Graves. Increased Asian immigration inspired many artists to study Buddhism and East Asian calligraphy. These influences can be seen in Graves's masterwork, Time of Change (1943), which demonstrates his desire "to move toward Eastern art's basis of metaphorical an outflowing of religious experience." Highlights include Steichen's The Pond-Moonrise (1904), O'Keeffe's Abstraction (1917), and Dove's Fog Horns (1929). (right: Arthur Wesley Dow, August Moon, ca. 1905, Woodcut print, 13.5 x 18.5 cm. Collection of Edgar Smith, New York)


Ezra Pound, Modern Poetry, and Dance Theater

This section explores American translations of classical Asian literature and dance-theater spanning World War I and the interwar period. Both art forms were well known among visual artists and inspired experimentation with Asian thought-forms. Featured are rare first-edition books by such influential writers as Ezra Pound and Lafcadio Hearn, as well as manuscript pages from T. S. Eliot's masterwork, The Waste Land (1922). Pound's seminal translations of classical Chinese poetry (Cathay, 1915) revolutionized modern Anglo-American literature with their terse, powerful, and imagist language and free-form verse. Pound also introduced classical Japanese No dance-theater to American modernists, and this section features documentary photographs of the charismatic Japanese dancer Ito Michio performing William Butler Yeats's No-inspired play, At The Hawks Well (ca. 1916). These metaphoric literary and dance-theater aesthetics influenced Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi, represented by a video documentary of their seminal collaboration in the dance performance Frontier (1935).


Abstract Art, Calligraphy, and Metaphysics

This section explores the calligraphic brushstroke, which was an approach to abstract painting that focused on the spontaneous gesture of the artist's hand and was informed by the East Asian art of calligraphy as well as popular writings on Zen and its ethics of direct action. Paintings, ink paintings, and sculpture by such towering artists as Franz Kline, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Isamu Noguchi, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and Mark Tobey reveal how this cross-cultural discourse inspired the creative culture of postwar America. The traditions of metaphysical speculation in Hinduism, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism provided artists with a conceptual basis for the understanding and representation of the visionary, spiritual, and universal potential of abstract art. Rare and important paintings by Natvar Bhavsar, Georgia O'Keeffe, Okada Kenzo, Gordon Onslow-Ford, and Lee Mullican reinterpreted Asian cultural theory and artistic practices to enhance the meaning and value of abstraction during a period when it was considered the most significant and progressive form of modern art. A centerpiece of this section is Brice Marden's breakthrough series of calligraphic ink-on-paper works based on Chinese calligraphy, Cold Mountain Studies 1-35 (1988-90). Other works on view include Pollock's Untitled [Red Painting 1-7] (ca. 1950) and Kline's Mahoning (1956).


Buddhism and the Neo-Avant-Garde

This section follows three interconnected collectives of artists and writers whose sustained if eclectic connections to Zen and other forms of Mahayana Buddhism emerge as critical methodological and philosophical influences in the American postwar neo-avant-garde. These collectives are "Cage Zen," linking the activities of neo-Dada, Fluxus, and Happenings through the mediation of John Cage; "Beat Zen," revealing how the spontaneous writings and modes of subjectivity forged by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and others in the Beat movement appropriated Buddhism; and Bay Area conceptualism, which stemmed from both Cagean and post-Beat approaches to Zen as method. Zen rhetoric gave these artists and writers the conceptual framework to abandon artistic intention and compositional structure. It corresponded with the manifestos of Cage's silent music, Kerouac's spontaneous prose, George Maciunas's anti-art, and Tom Marioni's situation art-all of which disposed of orthodox modernism in favor of the sheer immediacy and authenticity of everyday life. This section features sixteen scores, prints, drawings, and watercolors by Cage dating from 1952 to 1992, which will be installed using Cage's chance operation method. Other key works are a live projection of Nam June Paik's Zen for Film (1964); Yoko Ono's twenty-two Instructions for Paintings (1961-62); Robert Rauschenberg's Gold Standard (1964), which he made in Tokyo using a Japanese folding-screen; and Jasper Johns's Dancers on a Plane (1980-81), which is inspired by a Tantric Buddhist painting. An original manuscript of Kerouac's Dharma Bums (1957), his best-selling novel that recounts his experiences as a mountaineering Zen Buddhist, is featured together with important publications, photographs, and paintings by the Beat writers Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure, and an abstract film by Harry Smith (Abstract Film No. 11: Mirror Animations, ca. 1957). Four panels from Arakawa and Madeline Gins's seminal Conceptual artwork, The Mechanism of Meaning (1963-71) will be on view, while William Anastasi and Marioni will each reenact historic works for the exhibition. In addition, Paul Kos's Sound of Ice Melting (1970) will be installed in the rotunda. (right: Jack Kerouac, Face of the Buddha, 1958?, Pencil on paper, 16.5 x 20.9 cm. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. © John Sampas, Legal Rep., Estate of Stella Kerouac 2009)


Art of Perceptual Experience: Pure Abstraction and Ecstatic Minimalism

This section traces the development of a new iteration of Asian rhetoric in American art of the 1960s that recasts the art object as a specific focus of contemplation and perceptual experience aimed at the transformation of consciousness. Ad Reinhardt's radical conclusion that art is a perceptual experience with the specific power to purify consciousness through concentrated contemplation was constructed from his close readings of Asian art and religious thought. The "pure abstraction" and reductive forms of Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, Anne Truitt, Dan Flavin, and Robert Irwin shifted the conception of seeing from an optical event to a phenomenological process, and made durational time (spent looking at the object) a medium of ontological awareness. In addition to sculpture associated with Minimalism, such as Flavin's icon IV (the pure land) (to David John Flavin 1933-1962) (1962/1969), and Irwin's Untitled (1969), this section features the experimental cinema of Jordan Belson, and the site-specific sound and light environment, Dream House ([1962-present]), by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. During the course of the exhibition live performances of Young's innovations in North Indian classical raga will be presented by Young and Zazeela with The Just Alap Raga Ensemble.


Experiential Performance Art: The Aesthetics of Time

The final exhibition section presents video, installation, and live performance art of the 1970s through 1989. This period reflects the growing popularity of Asian wisdom traditions in American culture, and the gradual breakdown of the long-entrenched "East-West" constructs and worldviews in a postmodern, global era. Several of the artists in this section, such as James Lee Byars, Linda Montano, Adrian Piper, Bill Viola, and Kim Jones are advanced practitioners of an Asian contemplative discipline and meditation technique, have spent an extended period of time in Asian countries, or served in the Vietnam War. As part of their practice, they explore endurance and extreme duration to achieve self-awareness. Highlights include Viola's Room for St. John of the Cross (1983), Adrian Piper's Hypothesis Situation #4 (1968), and Hsieh's Punching the Time Clock on the Hour, One Year Performance, 11 April 1980-11 April 1981. Performances by Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, and Robert Wilson will be presented in the rotunda and the Peter B. Lewis Theater as an integral part of this section.

In addition to the two site-specific installations by James Lee Byars and Young and Zazeela included in the exhibition, Ann Hamilton responds to the exhibition thesis with human carriage (2009), a new work created especially for the Guggenheim's rotunda. Focusing on themes of transmission and transformation-specifically on the artist's act and use of reading Asian source texts and how that process can change an artist's conceptual approach to art-making-Hamilton devises a mechanism that traverses the entire Guggenheim balustrade, taking the form of a white silk "bell carriage" with Tibetan bells attached inside. As the cage spirals down along the balustrade, the purifying bells ring, awakening viewers. The mechanism is hoisted back up to a post at the uppermost Rotunda Level 6, where an attendant exchanges weights composed of thousands of cut-up books that counter the pulley system that propels the mechanism itself. According to Hamilton, the elements of human carriage compose a visual metaphor for the processes of "reading which leaves no material trace but which might forever change you." 


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