Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970 is a groundbreaking volume that not only presents these artists’ important contributions to and influences on American art and culture, but also details the political and social conditions that have delayed the recognition of these achievements. It spans the period from the Gold Rush to the late 1960s, when a heightened civil rights and cultural consciousness began to emerge along with the emergence of Asian American Studies as a subject of academic study.
The volume is connected with a current exhibition at the de Young Museum, Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900-1970, which continues through Jan. 18, 2009 in San Francisco. The art showcased in the volume and the exhibit presents familiar places, people and experiences in unfamiliar ways, allowing us to see America with “new eyes.” Chiura Obata’s Setting Sun: Sacramento Valley and Chang Dai-chien’s vision of Yosemite, Autumn Mountains in Twilight, offer fresh perspectives on the American landscape.
On seeing the exhibit, I was particularly struck by--Yun Gee's Where is My Mother, an early, poignant work where the artist expresses his sorrow at leaving his mother behind in China in color prisms of yellow, ochre, and green. An Untitled (Winter Internment Scene), by George Matsusaburo Hibi, painted in 1943 when the artist was confined with thousands of other Japanese Americans at the internment camp in Topaz, Utah. This stark and spare painting is at once gripping with isolated and dark figures moving through thick snow past gray barracks. The cascading destruction depicted in Eitaro Ishigaki's Disaster by Atomic Bomb is striking. And, the Bauhaus inspired modernism of Ruth Asawa's hanging wire sculptures disassembles any stereoptypical ideas one might have about the "asianness" of American art.
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the volume's editors, Mark Johnson remarks, "I think the range and sophistication of expression and the complexity of references are going to take you aback," this show "expands our understanding of American cultural history. It isn't often that one gets to be a part of rewriting such an important chapter in our national cultural heritage."
The Stanford Asian American Art project, whose work resulted in this volume, found "over 1,000 professional artists working in California alone," said Gordon Chang (in an interview with the Stanford Report), adding that these were not Sunday afternoon artists but "professionals, who lived by their art." Over the years these artists' names disappeared from art history, said Chang (watch a video clip of the interview), leaving the project's researchers to "excavate knowledge, because the knowledge wasn't there." It was "an undercover, hidden history—a history hidden before my eyes. Most names were "erased," he said, as people who live on the margins of society often are. Hence, the researchers combed old newspapers, art school rosters and museum catalogs from a bygone era. They hunted down families and looked for artwork in "attics, basements, garages."
The volume covers several
of the most important centers of Asian American creative activity—from
New York to the West Coast cities of Seattle, San Francisco, and Los
Angeles, and exhumes the careers of more than two hundred artists—most
of whom are seen here for the first time in many decades, some in more
than a century. Profiled artists include painters, sculptors,
printmakers, photographers, textile artists, and ceramicists who were
active for a decade or more in the United States.
Also see a longer video of a panel discussion at the exhibit's opening at the de Young.