Articles / Essays

Robert Hatfield Ellsworth (1929–2014): The Sensuous Immortal

by Alexandra_Munroe on March 10, 2015

Originally published March 2015 in ArtAsiaPacific

Hei Hung-Lu (left) and Robert H. Ellsworth (right) in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, hunting for ink paintings in 1981. Courtesy Andy Hei.

Hei Hung-Lu (left) and Robert H. Ellsworth (right) in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, hunting for ink paintings in 1981. Courtesy Andy Hei.

“Objects are your best teachers,” Robert Hatfield Ellsworth liked to say. But now that America’s greatest Asian art dealer is gone, many of us recall Bobby as our best teacher. Collector, connoisseur, world traveller, scholar, author, generous donor and cultural diplomat, Ellsworth was the preeminent force behind the growth of the market for Asian art in America from the mid-1960s until his recent death, on August 3, 2014, in New York City. And while he is best known for his pioneering passion for Chinese archaic jades, early Buddhist sculpture, calligraphic rubbings, Ming hardwood furniture, Qing monochrome porcelain, and modern Chinese painting and calligraphy, he was equally influential in stimulating the fields of Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian art. He also loved Japan: Among the first works of art that greeted us upon entry into his twenty-two room apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue was a superb Kamakura-period standing wood figure of the Jizō Bosatsu (Sanskrit: Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva). It was a likely mascot for a man remembered as a loyal friend and protector; a magnanimous being of grace.

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Alexandra_MunroeRobert Hatfield Ellsworth (1929–2014): The Sensuous Immortal

All the Landscapes: Gutai’s World

by Alexandra_Munroe on June 10, 2013

Originally published in Gutai: Splendid Playground. © 2013 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Used by permission.

We are following the path that will lead to an international common ground where the arts of the East and the West will influence each other. And this is the natural course of the history of art.
—Yoshihara Jirō, “A Statement by Jirō Yoshihara: Leader of the Gutai,” 1958[1]

 In politics, totalitarianism fails; in culture, that which is unfree and akin to totalitarianism must be purged…. If you believe that your art has a spiritual meaning and it helps you develop yourself, such art will truly be on the cutting edge of global culture.
—Shiraga Kazuo, “The Establishment of the Individual,” 1956[2]

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Alexandra_MunroeAll the Landscapes: Gutai’s World

Yoko Ono’s Bashō: A Conversation

by Alexandra_Munroe on April 14, 2013

Originally published in Yoko Ono: Half-a-Wind Show; A Retrospective. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

“What I did, I had knowledge of what happened before me and I created my own fate based on that.”
—Yoko Ono, 2012[1]

I recently sat down with Yoko Ono and asked her point-blank about her relationship to Asian aesthetics. I had worked with Ono for over twenty years and written about her art from various perspectives, including her role as a mediator of Zen ideas in the downtown art scene of 1960s’ New York. But writing on this assigned topic for the Frankfurt show somehow made us both balk. Art and biography are not a matter of cause and effect; her being born Japanese does not make her art forever “Japanese.” Artists make myriad choices about the world they feel compelled to mirror, examine, or reinvent; artists like Ono, working in the age of cosmopolitanism and globalism, segue among and between past and contemporary cultures from both near and faraway places, and still remain true to themselves. Does ascribing influences matter?

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Alexandra_MunroeYoko Ono’s Bashō: A Conversation

Take Away My Authority

by Alexandra_Munroe on May 15, 2012

Originally published in Model Home, A Proposition by Michael Lin. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

The aim of this show is to take away my authority and to bring in as many other people as possible…. A lot of things are being left open. not because of lack of time but because the material of the process is the subject.

Michael Lin[1]

In this kind of space, science turns into poetics. Architecture becomes the framework in which this can occur.
Yoshihara Tsukamoto[2]

In 1971, the Italian artist Alghiero e Boetti travelled to Afghanistan and set up an embroidery workshop at a hotel in Kabul. Working with local antiquities dealers, he gathered a group of craftswomen to produce a hand-embroidered map of the world. Following the artist’s directives, the Afghan embroiderers represented each country’s territory by the patterns and colors of its national flag. This relationship, subverting divisions between artist  and maker and giving concept, method and process equal significance in the final work of art, engaged Boetti until his death in 1994 and resulted in his bestknown series, Mappa. At first, Boetti was meticulous in laying out each new map, selecting the color thread for each diagram and checking errors as work progressed over months or years. But as the series continued, he became interested in the chance mistakes the anonymous, commonly illiterate Afghan women made, particularly in their choice of color for the ocean, whose nature they had never seen: the blue morphed into green, purple, and even pink. National flags changed, too, as new territorial divisions and political identities came into being in the wake of wars, revolutions and regime changes. Inscriptions in Farsi drafted by Boetti’s coordinators make up the borders of each Mappa, usually recounting the circumstances of the local production, quoting Sufi poetry, and dating works according to the Islamic Afghan calendar. After the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 by Russian troops, Boetti’s production moved to Peshawar in Pakistan, where the group of Afghans had taken refuge.

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Alexandra_MunroeTake Away My Authority

Reflections on The Third Mind

by Alexandra_Munroe on May 12, 2012

Originally published in East-West Interchanges in American Art: A Long and Tumultuous Relationship. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 was a large-scale exhibition accompanied by a scholarly book of the same name, a series of live performances, a website, audio guide, and public programs organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and presented there in winter 2009. Many years in the making, it explored a set of ideas around the vast, unruly, and often problematic concept of “Asian influence” on visual art of the United States. Europe has long been recognized as the font of mainstream American art movements, but the show explored an alternative lineage aligned with America’s Pacific aspect. Asia’s “influence” on such influential artists and writers as James McNeill Whistler, John La Farge, Arthur Wesley Dow, Ezra Pound, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, John Cage, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, and Adrian Piper has been well-documented and treated in previous studies. The Third Mind (Figures 1–3) made the case that this influence was not occasional or eccentric, but was rather a continuous and complex undercurrent that courses through the development of early modern to post-war to neo-avant-garde art. That the nature of artists’ work with these forces varied widely and that “Asia” meant different things to different artists at different periods should not discourage our critical and historical analyses of this profound lineage of ideas, events, and people, it concluded.

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Alexandra_MunroeReflections on The Third Mind