Asian American artists’ hidden history (and my claim to almost-fame)

Asian Americans are finally showing up in American pop culture at large, but Asian American fine artists are still mostly invisible. Only a few have had notable — or rather, noted — careers in the art world.

When I was an art student, I didn’t think much of my heritage. You might say it was my “Banana Period.” As an artist, I didn’t appreciate my ethnicity, even when I was included in a group show of Japanese artists and my painting was bought by a famous playwright (keep reading below).

I simply didn’t identify myself as an Asian American artist. I was simply an artist, and the art I made was informed by my 8th grade art teacher, Julie Maiolo, my high school art teacher, Jay Filson, and all my professors (especially color theorist Mary Buckley), as well as the art history teachers and books I soaked up. Which meant my awareness of art was all Euro-centric.

In all of that art history and theory, what I knew of Asia in art was that calligraphy was beautiful, ink painting was hard but similar in process to watercolor, and that Japanese woodblocks inspired the French Impressionists that I loved so much.

So it’s understandable that I assumed any artist with an Asian name was Asian, not Asian American. For instance, for years I thought the sculptor Isamu Noguchi was Japanese, even though he was born in Los Angeles.

But now, the hidden history of Asian American artists is finally getting a jump start, thanks to two projects.

First is the first extensive exhibition of Asian American artists, “Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900–1970,” curated by the de Young Museum, part of the San Francisco Fine Art Museum (there’s a companion book available). The exhibit opened in October, and runs through late January. Then the work moves to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City near New York.

Second is the publication of “Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970,” by Stanford University Press.

The book is a somewhat academic collection of essays by scholars and historians that looks at various aspects of Asian American art, compiled by senior editor Gordon Chang, principal editor Mark Dean Johnson and consulting editor Paul J. Karlstrom.

The essays cover both broad topics including “Uncovering Asian American Art in San Francisco, 1850-1940” by Johnson, “The Wind Came from the East: Asian American Photography, 1850-1965” by Chang and “Chinese Artists in the United States: A Chinese Perspective” by Mayching Kao, but also more specific topics such as “Hidden in Plain Sight: Little Tokyo Between the Wars” by Karin Higa (the senior curator of art at the Japanese American National Museum in LA), “Deployments, Engagements, Obliterations: Asian American Artists and World War II” by Chang and “Art and Social Consciousness: Asian American and Pacific Islander Artists in San Francisco, 1065-1980” by Margo Machida.

The book also includes a section of more than 150 biographies of Asian American artists, plus an interesting timeline of art milestones juxtaposed against the backdrop of historical events (the passing of immigration laws, wars, the internment of JAs during WWII, the civil rights era). The list of artists covered is impressive, and includes not just people like Noguchi but painters, sculptors and photographers of other ethnic backgrounds (although, given the period covered by the book, the majority are of Japanese and Chinese ancestry) and many artistic styles. The cover image, shown above is by one of my favorite JA artists, Chiura Obata, who was interned during WWII.

If there’s one quibble I have with the book, it’s that it doesn’t cover the most recent contemporary art by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The book stops at 1970 (although the essays do go into the late ’70s and even mention artists work into the ’80s), around the rise of “Yellow Power” and Asian studies programs. But that’s only because expanding the coverage would make for a whole ‘nother project, with books and exhibitions to cover newer work, conceptual art, multimedia, and work by artists from many other AAPI communities. Given its scope, this book does a top-notch job of helping to restore Asian American artists to their place in art history.

Many of the writers in the book make reference to its limited scope, so they’re aware of the gaps. It’s a terrific start, and historic for what it does finally chronicle. I’m glad the books available, and Stanford (and Gordon Chang) are to be commended for the effort. I can hardly wait to read the followups now that the door has been pushed open.

I find it exciting to read about the influence of Asian Americans on the art movements of their time, and see these artists given their due within the context of the art establishment.

This stuff is admittedly not for everyone — if you have a casual interest in this topic, I bet the book representing the de Young Museum’s exhibit is a dandy coffeetable tome with more and larger pictures.

But for me, reading these essays is like a time machine trip back to my college years, because I got BFA in painting from an art school in New York, Pratt Institute, and I used to write heady, heavy stuff like this, only without the emphasis on Asian Americans. The language of art babble is as familiar to me as the language of rock criticism, which I also dabbled in for a couple of decades.

The book didn’t just take me back; it also brought back some long-forgotten memories.

I brushed up against fame during my sophomore year at Pratt, and who knows … I might have turned out to be a noted Asian American artist. I was contacted that year by the Japanese Artists Association of New York — I think one of the artists’ partners, a European American artist, was teaching at Pratt, and may have recommended me to the group.

My memory’s hazy, probably because I was more interested in learning guitar and listening to music and being on the campus radio station than being serious about my art.

But I recall attending several JAA meetings in Manhattan lofts or apartments, and feeling uncomfortable because 1) I didn’t know nearly as much about art as the other members, who were “working” artists and not students, and 2) most of the members were Japanese nationals, not Japanese American, and though I could piece together what they said in Japanese, I couldn’t really hold a conversation with many of them. I remember talking to Saul a lot. I felt like a pretender.

My art at the time was oil on canvas and was, well, pretty. I had just started messing around with this style. It was abstract, and explored the relationship of colors to each other with shapes of one color floating in and out of a fog of a main color, edges all blurred so sometimes you couldn’t tell if the shapes were in front of the color, or blurred images deeper within the fog. It’s hard to explain. Maybe I’ll dredge up an old slide and scan a print to post here someday.

But suffice it to say, I thought the resulting paintings were pretty, even if my thinking behind them was kind of shallow.

The JAA rented a space in SoHo, and sponsored a membership exhibit. This was pretty cool, because SoHo at the time was the very hippest of hip art districts in New York. And I was included in the show. I chose one of my smaller paintings, probably no bigger than 24 inches tall and 36 inches wide, mostly blue with orange shapes floating through it. I don’t remember what pretentious title I put on it.

I do remember I priced it at $250, and one of the other artists asked me why it was so low. I shrugged and said I didn’t think it was worth more. He got angry with me, and explained that having such a low price brought down the value of other work in the show. I looked around and the other pieces were all more than $1,000. I couldn’t imagine charging that much for my artwork, so I didn’t change the price.

The show opened on a Friday night and I had fun, but it was like the usual JAA meetings — I hung with Saul and understood a fraction of the conversations around me.

On Sunday morning, the phone rang in my dorm room, and I groggily stumbled to answer it.

“Hello, is this Gilbert Asakawa?”

“Huh, yes.” I was relieved that it wasn’t my parents, who had a habit of calling early on weekend mornings from back in Colorado.

“Hi, my name is Edward Albee, and I was interested in talking to you about your painting at the Japanese Artists Association show in SoHo.”

“Edward Albee, like the playwright? Yeah, right.” I was beginning to think this was a prank call by one of my friends, who were all jealous because I was in a show in SoHo.

“Uh… well, yes. I am the playwright. I would like to purchase your painting and I wondered if you have more work like this for me to look at.”

Holy shit. It was really the playwright. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Zoo Story,” “The Sandbox.” Plays I was forced to read in high school. Wasn’t he old? Wasn’t he dead? Aren’t all famous playwrights dead? I fumbled through the rest of the conversation, and made the fatal error that probably killed my potential career as a famous Asian American artist.

“Uh, oh, hi, Mr. Albee. Uh, thanks. Uh, no, I just started doing these paintings so there isn’t like, a ‘body of work’ like it.” Damn.

In the art world, having a body of work is really important because it shows you’re seriously exploring some artistic theme through variations of the theme in a bunch of paintings. Like Monet didn’t just do one impressionist painting, he perfected his vision over a zillion paintings. Picasso cranked out millions of cubist doodles. Even Norman Rockwell painted tons and tons of corny middle American family scenes. That’s what art collectors (and museums) want — a body of work that illustrates the evolution of a vision, which can be collected, bought and sold. One-of-a-kind fluky works aren’t that important because it shows the artist wasn’t serious about that style or format. You can’t “collect-them-all” if there’s only one of them.

“Well, that’s a shame. But if you ever do more like these, I’d be interested in seeing them.”

That was it. Edward Albee did indeed buy my painting for $250, and I never did contact him with more paintings like the one he bought. I did a few more, but I wasn’t serious about it, and ended up dabbling in several more styles before graduating — with honors, thank you very much — with my BFA. I drifted away from the JAA, maybe because I felt like a phony hanging out with such serious artists.

And once I left New York to return to Colorado, I stopped making art for a long time, and even gave up my real love as an artist, photography, for many years.

But sometimes I think about that painting, and whether it’s hanging on the wall somewhere in Edward Albee’s home. It’s my one claim to almost-fame as an artist.

I would never dare to put myself on the level of the artists included in “Asian American Art.” But it’s kinda cool to think that for one brief moment, my path crossed with the dedication and vision that these true artists pursued, for so many years without acknowledgment or serious consideration by the art world’s non-Asian power brokers.

This book and the exhibition are a great start towards giving the recognition these artists have always deserved, but never received.


The Stanford News Service has posted a story about the book which features an interview with Gordon Chang on the book’s attention to history.

Here’s a two-hour video from a panel held on the October 25 opening of the de Young Museum’s exhibit, “Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900–1970,” which runs through Jan. 18, 2009. The exhibit moves cross-country to the Noguchi Museum in New York (Long Island City) on Feb. 25, 2009. The video is decidedly wonky, but if you’re an art-geek or a student of visual arts, as well as someone interested in Asian American culture, it’s worth sitting through.

Tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *