Chiura Obata’s 1925 painting of flaming sunset skies over the Sacramento Valley that graces the cover of “Asian American Art: A History 1850-1970” is a fitting choice to represent a unique survey of artists. Above a low-slung charcoal-colored landscape the sunset is rendered as furious crimson and gold flames in a fluid style that suggests his sumi-e training in Japan. It is an engaging piece that defies categorization in the Western canon of art. At first glance the painting looks like a watercolor, but it is actually a hanging silk scroll measuring 107-1/2 by 69 inches, painted with mineral pigments. It is a prime example of the fusion of an artist’s Asian (in this case, Japanese) art heritage with the artistic expressions of his American homeland.
Obata gained national exposure and a tenured professorial appointment at UC Berkeley. As with other Asian American artist luminaries, such as Dong Kingman and Isamu Noguchi, whose stories are also included in the book, Obata’s story is atypical of the experiences of most Asian American Artists active between 1850 and 1970, but his work is typical of the caliber of work these artists put forth. Art created by those generations had been largely lost, languished in storage or decommissioned. Asian American Art: A History 1850-1970 has pulled back from oblivion great artwork that stand as masterpieces worthy of study and inclusion in the lexicon of American art history.
Although the term “Asian American” was not coined until 1968, it is meant in this volume to represent those groups which experienced the heaviest immigration between 1850 and 1970—Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Korean.
The book teems with reproductions of hundreds of impressive works, most in color. They form the heart and soul of the book and are the primary reason why it cannot be ignored. The variety of expression and media is broad and deep. Some of the pieces are no longer extant. Only photographs give evidence to their existence. Two sections of the book—one of artist biographies meticulously compiled by researchers, the other an Asian American art chronology paired with a timeline of U.S. historical events—offer an opportunity to see more hidden gems and old photographs of the artists. Artists whose names had been lost or forgotten are rediscovered anew with greater appreciation for their lifework.
Informative essays with stories garnered from extensive research and interviews by their authors—experts in their fields—bring fresh insights to their subjects, relating the historical context that was the backdrop to the artists’ lives to their art. Additionally, these essays spur further research to uncover still hidden details of a particular period, group or individual in regards to Asian American artists, especially those of Filipino and Korean descent.
Mayching Kao’s essay, “Chinese Artists in the United States: A Chinese Perspective” beautifully bridges three distinct groups of Chinese artists who left China and produced art in the U.S.—the first pioneers who were sent out in the late 1800s during the fall of the Qing dynasty to bring back what they learned from the West, the Chinese Diaspora that resulted from the communism clampdown in 1949, and after 1965, those who left to “make a name for themselves in the international arena”—as all sharing a deep enduring bond to China, its cultural heritage and to one another across distance and time.
Kazuko Nakane’s “Facing the Pacific: Asian American Artists in Seattle, 1900-1970,” Karen Higa’s “Hidden in Plain sight: Little Tokyo Between the Wars” and Dennis Reed’s essay, “The Wind Came from the East: Asian American Photography, 1850-1965” spotlight the central role that photography played in Asian immigrant cultures, especially Japanese Americans in the 1930s, who were active participants in art photography, bringing to it their own modernist explorations. Edward Weston exhibited several times in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, finding it fertile ground for the exchange of ideas.
A common thread running through the essays is the negative critical reception Asian American artists encountered, due to the tunnel vision of the dominant Eurocentric art culture at the time. Where the work of those artists who incorporated their cultural heritage in the way of subject, media, or style were seen as decorative, exotic, or not authentically Oriental; the work of those who wholly adopted or were trained entirely in modern Western idioms of art and technique were seen as mere imitations, and not good enough by Western standards—a no-win situation. “…For Zao Wou-ki to be stimulated by Jackson Pollock showed how derivative he was; for Mark Tobey to be influenced by Chinese calligraphy showed how receptive he was.” (Michael Sullivan, The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art, second edition.)
Undaunted, Chinese and Japanese art and photography clubs sprouted in major cities with enclaves of Asian communities—San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Chicago—that worked to increase exposure of artists’ works with shows of their own. Also, many of the artists had international connections to European and European American patrons and colleagues who helped promote their art.
Editors, Gordon H. Chang, Mark Dean Johnson and Paul J. Karlstrom offer their thoughtful perspectives and insightful research in their own essays. Gordon Chang describes the determining effect World War II had on Asian American artists, especially Japanese Americans—from how the American government and media utilized their work for propaganda purposes, to how artists coped with the wartime disruption of their lives.
Johnson, in his survey of art by Asian American artists in San Francisco (“…no urban center in the United States could match the strength of San Francisco’s Asian American visual culture.”), examines the hybrid nature of the art that explored new ideas of expression using traditional techniques in Chinese and Japanese painting.
Karlstrom probes the identity tug-of-war experienced by Asian American modernists who dealt with dual heritages—the individualistic expression that is the tenet of modernism and their inescapable cultural inheritance.
Asian American Art: 1850-1970 fills great void in the catalog of American art—an historical period when Asian American artists flourished within the margins of American society, sometimes gaining national and international exposure. Today, “Asian American” encompasses an even greater variety of distinct Asian immigrant cultures, including Vietnamese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, Pacific Islander, and those of mixed races, who as their forbears had done, bring their unique visions in all types of media to the rich history of American art. These artists enjoy greater exposure, and admiration for their artwork, due in large part to the efforts of those who came before.