Installation view of “Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West” at the Honolulu Museum of Art, 2017–18. Courtesy the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West

Honolulu Museum of Art

Tucked away at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA) in Hawai‘i, a new revisionist discourse on Abstract Expressionism is brewing. Art critic Clement Greenberg’s revered beliefs from the 1950s, which heralded the post-war modernists from the New York School for their Eurocentric proclivity, are being reexamined. In the quietly understated but powerful exhibition “Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West,” curated by HoMA deputy director of art and programs Theresa Papanikolas, the long disregarded influence of Zen Buddhism and calligraphy on the Abstract Expressionists was reinstated.  

PHILIP GUSTON, Ceremony, 1957, oil on board, 92.7 × 64.5 × 4.4 cm. Courtesy the Estate of Philip Guston and Honolulu Museum of Art.

Culled from the museum’s own collection, with borrowed works from collectors and other institutions, the exhibition comprised of 49 paintings, drawings and sculptures, showcasing works by major American artists—such as Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock—alongside their Asian compatriots like Saburo Hasegawa, Isami Doi and Tadashi Sato. Many of these ethnically Asian artists grew up in Hawai‘i, but studied, lived and exhibited in New York during the 1950s and ’60s. This relatively unexamined aspect of their practice leaves open the possibility of a dialogue about the impact of Asian traditions on Western art movements, as well as the connections between these artists’ individual modes of expression.

In the catalog essay for the exhibition, Papanikolas methodically formulates the alliance between Western abstraction and Eastern practices. Contrary to Greenberg’s emphasis on the significance of European modernism and dismissal of any Asian influence on the American abstractionists, early correspondence between Hasegawa and Franz Kline establishes their mutual interest in each other’s artistic pursuits. While Kline openly expressed the incorporation of calligraphy in his work and shared these ancient styles with his colleagues, Hasegawa was taken by the free-flowing forms of Western abstraction and introduced works by Kline, Motherwell and other abstractionists to artists in Japan. More importantly, we learn about Hasegawa’s lectures on the plausibility of Western abstraction to refresh Japanese calligraphy that were delivered at The Club—a gathering place for artists founded in New York by Philip Guston. It is at this watering hole on the Lower East side, frequented by many master painters from the New York School, including Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt and Adolph Gottlieb, where Zen Buddhism found its post-war appeal in North America. The artists were drawn to the Zen principles of self-discovery and focus on pure experience as an alternative to Western reliance on reason and objectivity.

GEORGE MIYASAKI, Green Landscape, 1957, oil on canvas, 92.7 × 118.4 cm. Courtesy the Estate of George Miyasaki and Honolulu Museum of Art.

SABURO HASEGAWA, Abstract Calligraphy, c. 1955–57, ink on paper, 130.2 × 57.8 cm. Photo by Don Ross. Courtesy the Estate of Saburo Hasegawa and Honolulu Museum of Art.

In this context, Papanikolas deftly juxtaposed paintings by a group of artists whose methodology and interest in experiential subjectivity was inspired by Zen Buddhism, and the Japanese-Americans whose heritage propelled them toward seeking the sublime. The power of the exhibition lay in the way various works were grouped together in separate alcoves yet coalesced to tell a cohesive tale. In the front anteroom, for instance, Philip Guston’s early painting Ceremony (1957)—consisting of thick, buoyant, blob-like shapes in red, green, blue, pink and white paint that offer a festive spectacle—correspond with George Miyasaki’s flowing brushstrokes in Green Landscape, which was painted in the same year. Although Miyasaki’s similar choice of colors is more subdued, and the Hawai‘ian-born artist moved to California to develop his career, the same sense of spontaneity that achieves aesthetically appealing abstract forms is apparent in both paintings.

For many of the artists, calligraphic structures released from their traditional Japanese applications took on experimental forms. Hasegawa’s Abstract Calligraphy (1955–57), a black-and-white ink painting, combined shapes of Japanese calligraphy with the ease of action painting that can also be seen in Motherwell’s large black-and-white untitled canvas from 1963 that captures intense emotion. Although Motherwell was instrumental in introducing automatic drawing and European Surrealism to his compatriots in the 1940s, he became inspired by the spiritual tenets of Zen in the 1960s. The underlying Buddhist ideology of portraying the essence of one’s feelings can be traced through the bold uncontrived black curve that appears to rise freely in the air, pitted against the void of a blank canvas.

Only steps away from Hasegawa and Motherwell’s works, Hawai‘ian-born Satoru Abe’s welded copper and bronze sculpture, The Idol (1958), which was made during the artist’s stay in New York in the 50s, reveals a raw skeletal form that speaks to the archetypal images depicted by Robert Gottlieb, and relates to the instinctively drawn, abstracted nude figure in David Smith’s Untitled (Green Linear Nude) (c. 1964), which was displayed nearby.

ROBERT MOTHERWELL, Untitled, 1963, oil on canvas, 223.5 × 170.2 cm. Courtesy the Dedalus Foundation, New York; and Honolulu Museum of Art. Licensed by VAGA Rights, New York.

SATORU ABE, The Idol, 1958, welded copper and bronze, 159.4 × 43.2 × 17.8 cm. Courtesy the artist and Honolulu Museum of Art.

ISAMU NOGUCHI, Victim, 1962, cast in 1984, bronze and black patina, 153.7 × 71.8 × 158.8 cm. Courtesy the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York; Artists Rights Society, New York; and Honolulu Museum of Art.

Throughout the exhibition, striking affiliations were evident between the Western abstractionists and the Asian artists who were their contemporaries in New York, though the latter were unacknowledged by art institutions for their contributions and were segregated by virtue of their ethnic origins. Los Angeles-born Isamu Noguchi is a case in point: the intersecting lines in his abstract bronze sculpture Victim(1962) strike an immediate connection with Franz Kline’s broad forceful strokes in Corinthian II (1961). Although Kline’s interest in calligraphy is known, Noguchi’s evocation of natural forms through his mastery of sleek, experimental techniques developed under the tutelage of Constantin Brancusi was sidelined. The uniqueness of Noguchi’s language is echoed in the works of other neglected artists, like Tadashi Sato, whose translucent oil paintings reveal an uncanny tie with nature, much like Sam Francis’s painting Black and Red (1950–53), its blotches resembling a field of petals. In HoMA’s exhibition, it was amply perceptible that all of the artists whose work was on show—whether it was Ad Reinhardt, Richard Pousette-Dart, Isami Doi, Kenzo Okada or others—exhibited the Zen attitude of deep introspection that related to larger existential questions explored by post-war artists in the West.

FRANZ KLINE, Corinthian II, 1961, oil on canvas, 202.2 × 272.4 cm, Courtesy the Franz Kline Estate; Artists Rights Society, New York; and Honolulu Museum of Art.

Even without the large iconic works by Rothko, Newman and Pollock that one is used to seeing, this low-budget and somewhat modest exhibition made a strident claim to reposition a narrative that favored European influences and decidedly excluded everyone except a handful of male American artists based in New York. But if there’s any criticism one can offer, it is that the poor lighting in the galleries does much disservice to making the path shine on an otherwise untold story.

Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West” is on view at the Honolulu Museum of Art until January 21, 2018.

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TADASHI SATO, Surf and Water Reflections, 1969–1970, oil on canvas, 213.4 × 162.6 cm. Courtesy Jan Shimamura and the Honolulu Museum of Art.
TADASHI SATO, Surf and Water Reflections, 1969–1970, oil on canvas, 213.4 × 162.6 cm. Courtesy Jan Shimamura and the Honolulu Museum of Art.