Articles / Essays

Stand Still a Moment

by Alexandra_Munroe on June 10, 2011

Originally published in Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity. © 2011 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Used by permission.

In the midst of beings as a whole an open place comes to presence. There is a clearing.
—Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”[1]

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Alexandra_MunroeStand Still a Moment

Zodiac sculptures display jailed Chinese artist’s vision

by Alexandra_Munroe on June 2, 2011

By Alexandra Munroe, Special to CNN
Originally published on

(CNN) — The “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” sculpture exhibit features 12 spectacular bronze heads, each 10 feet high, installed in a semicircle at New York’s Grand Army Plaza.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s “Zodiac Heads” are enlarged versions of those designed in the 18th century by European Jesuits for the Manchu emperor Qianlong as part of his garden palace, the Yuanming Yuan, outside the Qing-era capital, Beijing.

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Alexandra_MunroeZodiac sculptures display jailed Chinese artist’s vision

Liu Xiaodong: Evidence

by Alexandra_Munroe on November 3, 2010

Originally published in Liu Xiaodong: Hometown Boy. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

Liu Xiaodong: Evidence
by Alexandra Munroe

Earlier this year, the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote a lengthy article challenging the “appalling narrowness of vision” evident in the exclusively post-minimal art shows dominating New York museums. Her controversial article urged curators to think more independently and look at work outside the reigning fashion for conceptual art. As I read her article, I found myself agreeing with Smith’s critique of the tyranny of taste that dictates what’s in or out of the hallowed halls of western contemporary art museums. A great case in point is Liu Xiaodong. Putting the newspaper down, I imagined standing to defend his painting, his mind, and his historical importance to my colleagues in New York. This essay is that defense.

Smith’s article, titled “Post-Minimal to the Max,” is worth quoting at length:

The goal in organizing museum exhibitions, as in collecting, running a gallery and—to cite the most obvious example—being an artist, should be individuation and difference, finding a voice of your own. Instead we’re getting example after example of squeaky-clean, well-made, intellectually decorous takes on that unruly early ‘70s mix of Conceptual, Process, Performance, installation and language-based art that is most associated with the label Post-Minimalism… But regardless of what you think about these artists individually, their shows share a visual austerity and coolness of temperature that are dispiritingly one-note. After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand… You’d never know from looking at museums that figurative painting, running the gamut from realist to quasi-expressionist, is on the rise.[1]

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Alexandra_MunroeLiu Xiaodong: Evidence

Buddhism and the Neo-Avant-Garde: Cage Zen, Beat Zen, and Zen

by Alexandra_Munroe on June 2, 2009

Originally published in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989. © 2009 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Used by permission.

In 1958, Alan Watts, the popular philosopher and interpreter of Zen Buddhism, published an essay on Zen and contemporary American culture titled “Square Zen, Beat Zen, Zen.”[1] Watts’s books The Spirit of Zen and The Way of Zen were cult classics among artists and intellectuals from Greenwich Village to North Beach, and together with his weekly KPFA radio talks in San Francisco, contributed to what he now observed was all the “hullabaloo about Zen” among “Bohemian” artists, the Beat writers, and “snobbish” East Asian academics, each of whom he proceeds to decry for their particular distortions.

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Alexandra_MunroeBuddhism and the Neo-Avant-Garde: Cage Zen, Beat Zen, and Zen

Art of Perceptual Experience: Pure Abstraction and Ecstatic Minimalism

by Alexandra_Munroe on April 4, 2009

Originally published in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989. © 2009 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Used by permission.

From 1961 until his death in 1967, Ad Reinhardt exclusively painted black square canvases measuring five by five feet, each with subtle attenuations of dark tones and a vaguely discernable cross structure trisecting the powdery-dry, matte surface into nine symmetrical squares (Abstract Painting, plate 127). This series coincided with his 1961 trip to Syria, Jordan, and Turkey to study Islamic architecture and decoration, whose repetitive, geometric, symmetrical, and aniconic sacred forms (“imageless icons”) held intense interest for him. In 1962, he wrote to his friend, the Trappist monk and interfaith theologian Thomas Merton, that he had become a “white Muslim,” able to “find [himself] among anti-imagists, anti-idolatrists, pro-iconoclasts, and nonobjectivists.”[1] Reinhardt based his repetitive, prescribed craft, which culminated in his black paintings, on the ritualized and diagrammatic approach to object-making in Islamic as well as Asian cultures. In language that echoes his reverent descriptions of Buddhist sculptures, Tantric mandalas, and Chinese landscape paintings, Reinhardt declared his black paintings to be “pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting … object[s] that [are] self-conscious (no unconsciousness), ideal, transcendent, aware of nothing but Art (absolutely no anti-art).”[2] For the 1966 retrospective of his work at the Jewish Museum, he wrote that these works are “a logical development of personal art history and the historic traditions of Eastern and Western pure painting.”[3]

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Alexandra_MunroeArt of Perceptual Experience: Pure Abstraction and Ecstatic Minimalism