“This Show is a Historic Event”: Celebrating “Invisible” Asian American Performers | Art

A groundbreaking new exhibition in New York City features the work of three under-recognized Asian-American sculptors who worked and taught in the city in the 1960s and 1970s.

Exhibited at the Tina Kim Gallery in Chelsea, The Unseen Professors highlights the modern sculptures of Leo Amino (1911-1989), Minoru Niizuma (1930-1998) and John Pai (born 1937), three pioneering artists of Asian origin. who immigrated to America, eventually worked in major exhibitions and collections, and influenced young artists through their education but remains little known today.

“This kind of exhibition is so eagerly awaited,” says Tina Kim, a gallery owner who approached poet and critic John Yau a few years ago to find out more about Asian American artists in the 1980s and 1990s. Yau, who hosted the show, suggested going back even further, “to the first generation of artists who came along,” Kim said. “They struggled so much but had a huge impact on the New York art scene. Now is the time for their work to receive the proper attention and for us to investigate their contributions. “

“This show is a historic event,” admits Genji Amino, grandson of sculptor Leo Amino. “I don’t know when the last time, if ever, three Asian American artists of my grandfather’s generation or later were shown together in New York City.” In July 2020, Genji Amino hosted an exhibition of Leo Amino’s work at David Zwirner. Before that, they say, “I doubt I can cite solo exhibitions in New York for previous generations of Asian American artists, except for the only two Asian sculptors to have achieved some recognition.” national and international sustainability: Ruth Asawa and Isamu Noguchi. . And this, despite the incredible activity of American artists of Asian origin around the Second World War. “

The installation of invisible teachers at the Tina Kim gallery. Photography: Dario Lasagni

The stories of Asian American art on the West Coast, although still woefully neglected in a national context, have been much better recorded thanks to the efforts of a larger and older Asian American community and to a story of activism, exposure and scholarship. On the east coast, the file is much less complete. “It was a revelation that a Japanese-American artist of my grandfather’s generation lived in Greenwich Village alongside the Abstract Expressionists and taught at Black Mountain College, exhibiting at the Whitney almost every year in the 1940s and 1950s. , and developing the new medium of plastics two decades before it was recognized in the work of a young generation of artists in Los Angeles, ”explains Genji Amino.

This is the first major exhibition of Minoru Niizuma’s work in nearly 25 years, although “he has helped shape the genre of stone carving in a way that very few have done,” explains Arata Niizuma, his son. “In my mind, my father created a vast array of stone carving works that are matched only by Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi. “

The three artists were from different generations and worked in different mediums, using different processes. Indeed, the exhibit recognizes that they have little in common other than the region where they were born and the fact that they were never affiliated with a dominant movement or style. . “There are many art worlds in New York, and sometimes they overlap, but sometimes they are completely separate from each other,” Yau says, adding that even the now famous Yayoi Kusama and Noguchi stood out from the world of traditional art.

Genji Amino notes that the diversity of origins and practices “reflects both the multiplicity and the inherent contradictions implied by the concept of ‘Asian’”. “I think Leo would have been proud to show his work alongside other artists who turned out to be strangers to the white avant-garde of their respective generations, both in terms of the adversity they faced in as Asians in America and in terms of alternative decor. concerns that motivated their unorthodox aesthetic practices, ”they added.

Leo Amino - Refractional # 21, 1967
Leo Amino – Refractional No. 21, 1967. Photograph: Kerry McFate / Courtesy of the Estate of Leo Amino and the David Zwirner Gallery

Artist John Pai recalls that when he first heard about the exhibit, “I felt like I was about to reunite with a long lost family,” he said. told the Guardian. “Although I never met any of the other artists, I knew all too well the forces that shaped them and the dreams of a new world that challenged their imaginations.” Pai was constrained by how each artist took on this challenge in different ways. “Imagine what kind of shape could emerge from a jackhammer, a test tube, and an oxy-acetylene torch? Calmly cohesive sculptures, it turns out.

Pai remembers fondly the fertile environment of the time covered by the show. “Today race, politics and power have become a great brew that reasonable people find it hard to believe how crippled we are. This show dates back to a time when people from all walks of life were striving to integrate all the arts into a dynamic and creative society. The depth and breadth of the creative energy was impressive. One can only wonder if this will ever happen again? “

Despite their accomplishments, many Asian-American artists of this period risk getting lost in history: perhaps an artist had an exhibition, but it probably has not been seen again (in part due to the dearth of color reviews at the time) and if there was a catalog it may be out of print or hard to find. Organizing the exhibit was difficult given the lack of documentation, Kim notes. “These stories will be forgotten unless we document them now,” she said. “There is so much research to be done. My show only opens the door to so many conversations we should be having with institutions and academics.

Genji Amino aspires for the show to go beyond mere visibility and assimilate these little-known artists to the canon of art history. Instead, they hope this is the first step towards new stories and ways of seeing, ushering in a more transformative engagement with communities and issues outside of the art world, especially at a time when de many artistic institutions and the public are reconsidering what and to whom art history is intended. . “Art stories that would claim these artists of color have more to gain from the experiences and provocations represented by their lives in art than the artists themselves have to gain from any gesture of inclusion,” say -they. “We want to allow the power of this work of art to radically redefine the parameters of the history of art, not simply to bring in a few new figures. “

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