Artists have a way of filling their work spaces with images and artifacts that have talismanic power, and Cai Guo-Qiang is no exception. A Chinese stone lion guards the entrance way to his large, garden studio in Manhattan’s East Village. A full-page newspaper advertisement reproducing a majestic El Greco painting is taped to a door, and a multipanel gunpowder drawing of an eagle with wings fully spread – Cai’s Man, Eagle, and Eye in the Sky: The Age of the Eagle (2004, fig. 80) – occupies a place of honor, watching over and blessing the studio’s activities. The most unexpected and arresting icon, however, is a poster depicting a UFO hovering in the sky above a bucolic landscape printed over with the words “I Want To Believe.”
Originally published inTriple X: Extended, Exploded, Extracted, Naoto Nakagawa, 1965–1975. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Nakagawa told me once that he used to eat live insects when he was a child growing up in the mountainous suburbs of Kōbe. I wondered naively if this was customary, or rather an effect of the dire poverty of the immediate postwar period. No, Nakagawa remarked, I ate them because I loved them.
As an adult, too, Nakagawa, who is one of the great recent practitioners of nature morte, devours nature. This urge to overtake his subjects, to visualize and execute his chosen forms with sensational intensity, marks his paintings as both extremely primal and extremely cerebral.
Originally published in The Art of Mu Xin: Landscape Paintings and Prison Notes. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Palimpsest: Nearby Mu Xin
By Alexandra Munroe
The single imperative of modern Asian artists is to define a space that absorbs the cultures of traditional Asia, the classical West, and of modernity. Few artists are able to arrive at an authentic synthesis. Fewer still are able to create a genuinely original art that goes beyond a mere integration of artistic forms and styles to achieve an intelligence that transcends the boundaries of, yet resonates with, all three cultures. The artist and writer Mu Xin does this with uncommon grace, so that one feels not that a pastiche has been made, but that a self-evident wholeness has been discovered.
A child of privilege, educated in the Chinese literati tradition and a profound student of Western art and literature, Mu Xin responded to modern China’s catastrophes and the deprivations of imprisonment by practicing his faith in art as the ultimate human touchstone. From early on, he sought to “take from the spirit of Chinese tradition” but aspire toward “a high level of freedom necessary to create international art.” By necessity, he found that freedom in a state of absolute mental reclusion. The will to nurture the “ivory tower” of his creative and intellectual life while sentenced, both literally and figuratively, to a “prison tower” of horrifying desolation lends to his work a rare depth of moral austerity and imaginative power.
Originally published in Asian Traditions/Modern Expressions: Asian American Artists and Abstraction, 1945–1970. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
With the Suddenness of Creation: Trends in Abstract Painting in Japan and China, 1945–1970
By Alexandra Munroe
“Whenever he [Wang Xia] wanted to paint a picture, he would first drink wine, and when he was sufficiently drunk, he spattered the ink onto the painting surface. Then, laughing and singing all the while, he would stamp on it with his feet and smear it with his hands, besides swashing and sweeping it with the brush… Responding to the movements of his hand and following his whims, he would bring forth clouds and mists, wash in wind and rain—all with the suddenness of creation.”[i]
—Tang dynasty scholar Zhu Jingxuan on the paintings of Wang Xia (active eighth century)
In 1947 art critic Clement Greenberg heralded America’s artistic “coming of age” when he identified Jackson Pollock as the “most powerful painter “in the United States.[ii] By rating the work of a contemporary American artist above modern European masters—many of whom had fled persecution and immigrated to the United States—his sentiments reflected America’s will to assert cultural leadership of the “free world” in the postwar era. As champion of Pollock and the burgeoning New York School, Greenberg further argued that “American-type painting” was superior to the more common terms, “abstract expressionism,” which alluded to its modern European roots, or “action painting,” which conjured its source in the gestural abstraction of East Asian calligraphy and ink painting. His refutation of the latter was absolute: