Thursday, April 9, 2009

America’s Masters Look Eastward, and Attention Must Be Paid

If you are big on boundaries and separation, then stay home and lock your door. But if you defy them and embrace discovery and fluidity in all forms, then repair immediately to the Guggenheim where, for the next week at least, you will see borders melt and continents merge in the amazing show called “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia.” American masters from Whistler to Warhol and just about everyone in between, are represented in this show, with a sincerity that goes far beyond the assemblage of art. The show depicts not Asia itself, but the myriad reflections on Asia as manifest by the brush, the pen, the canvas, the camera, or the carving tools of America’s greats. A walk through this show makes viewers richer with each step, each glance, each ponderance that bathes us in Asian influence interpreted variously and vehemently. Each canvas bears attention and study. Those artists, let’s call them the usual suspects, are anything but usual here because they managed to escape from the grid into a rapturous free float of color and texture. And some places will beckon the audience longer, with larger-than-life schema like the James Lee Byars extravaganza entitled “The Death of James Lee Byars.” (He did actually die—in 1997—but this work has the effect of negating that fact…as surely Byars can be imagined floating over his masterwork with his colleagues in concert.

The interesting phenomenon is that this show is really as much an exhibition of philosophy as it is of art. The subtle and not-so-subtle nuance of Asia that imbues every work says something about the melting away of ethnocentrism that is the often the hallmark of an emerging artist. Once emerged, and fully formed, true artists move outside themselves and begin to explore their world and become undefinable as one ethnicity or race, but rather become spiritual in the deepest sense. Could there be a more apt description of a true artist? That exploration transforms into a psychic growth spurt that punctuates every artistic enunciation with something beyond the ordinary. To find out what that something is, get to the Guggenheim, set aside several hours, and at the end, you will have the equivalent of a university level course that might be entitled “Asia Imbues America 101.”

There are seven sections in the exhibit, that take viewers through modern abstract art, minimalism, conceptualism, and abstract expressionism. The pieces, viewed individually, may appear as non-sequiturs, but retrospectively they flow. Each corner brings delight as one familiar name after another is in evidence, and one color after another merges under the Asian influence. Every medium is used, including melting ice….The sound icebergs melting to be exact…that complements the rest of the show as much as the beautiful, whimsical site-installation by Ann Hamilton "Human Carriage," which informs the entire show with an insouciant gaiety and a musical accompaniment. Hamilton’s piece is one that really cannot be described; it must be seen…and even then, it can’t be described…it must be stored away in memory and taken out when days weigh too heavily.

More than just art, this show is an experience--an unprecedented experience in bringing art and artists together in a unified theme, and then highlighting what makes them splendidly similar, yet elegantly unique.

If you only see one show this year, make it this one.