Week 3: Asian American Modernism

So we’re up and running with the semester, and I look forward to reading your comments and responses to the posts on this blog!

This week, I’d like us to consider the category of “Asian American modernism” that Paul Karlstrom works through in his article “Postwar California” in Asian American Art: A History 1850-1970. Karlstrom begins his article by asking: “Is there an Asian American modernism that reflects–as in the multifaceted hall of mirrors to which modernism has been compared–shared experience? Or are we finally obliged to consider individuals in terms of their participation within the broader modernist concept?” (231). He then goes on to profile a handful of artists whose work variously incorporated, challenged, and/or disavowed influences from the Asia-Pacific— from the “inauthentic” Japanese identity played with in Isamu Noguchi’s work to the Zen Buddhist influences on Hodo Tabase and Shunryu Suzuki” (Karlstrom 236-7). Karlstrom spends a short moment of time discussing Carlos Villa and his practice of “community-directed modernism,” differentiating this from the other kinds of modernist aesthetics discussed earlier in the chapter (251).

Based on this article and what you have already seen of Carlos Villa’s visual art, do you find this categorization of Villa’s work as modernist to hold? By what standards do you evaluate his work as modernist– do you use the kinds of criteria that Susan Landauer or Thomas Albright (from week 2 readings) have for defining a work as a member of a movement or a school (such as the San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism)? How much does the outwards-directed model of action (what Karlstrom calls “community-directed modernism”)  impact your understanding of Villa’s work as modernist, versus other kinds of criteria?

Finally, do you agree that we need to have a different set of criteria for evaluating “Asian American” art, or do you think there should be a universal standard for evaluating a work’s merit? If universal, what factors should these judgments be based on? You should think about how this week’s readings by Johnson, Chang, and Karlstrom evaluate artists and categorize them into discernible movements/schools/traditions versus the readings from last week by Landauer and Albright.

Carlos Villa, "My Dad Seeing Market St. for the First Time" (1979), acrylic, beads, electrical wire, shells on unstretched canvas, 80 x 103 inches

Carlos Villa, “My Dad Seeing Market St. for the First Time” (1979), acrylic, beads, electrical wire, shells on unstretched canvas, 80 x 103 inches

Posting reminders: your response to this post should be a minimum of 2 paragraphs long (4-6 sentences per paragraph). Engage with the readings from this week and last week to support your response, citing properly using MLA or Chicago-style citations. Sign your name to the end of your post so you can receive credit for your writing.

3 thoughts on “Week 3: Asian American Modernism

  1. The categorization of Villa’s work as modernist holds but he crosses over into other categorizations as well such as Abstract Expressionism. The fact that Villa was community based and identified with the California School of Fine Arts makes a case for what Karlstrom calls “community-directed modernism.” I am torn between having a universal standard for evaluating a work’s merit and having a different set of criteria for evaluating “Asian American” art. For a universal standard I think art should be based on what the artists intentions are, did they achieve what they were going for, and how or what materials or colors, lines, and shapes the artist used to execute their vision. For evaluating “Asian American” art the criteria would be more along the lines if the artists wanted to be attached to that title and used traditional Asian aesthetic. Johnson, Chang, and Karlstrom evaluate artists and categorize them into discernible movements/schools/traditions by a connection to having a community versus the readings from last week by Landauer and Albright which decided the Western or California School with the New York school and this allowed for a rejection to be thought of as one or the other. Many artists wanted their art to be universal and transcend.

    -Bronte Klass


  2. Wow. There’s a lot to this. I’m going to try and tackle this in the little amount of time I have before I have to get back to parenting, so I apologize if this comes out brain-farty.

    To respond to Kalstrom’s question, and in consideration of the profiles in his article, I’m thinking that seeking an “Asian American modernism” of “shared experience,” and maybe answering questions of what that actually looks like can actually be difficult to find, if possible at all in the way that canonized western art history (or western history for that matter) lays it out for us.

    Looking at it from the broader perspective, the weird thing about western art history is that it’s constantly tried to categorized and place every work and every artist into some sort of neatly organized movement. By doing so, what happens is that each category or “movement” has a set of essential qualities that decide what fits and what doesn’t. Perhaps when looking at earlier periods in art like the “classical” and “baroque” eras, categories may seem more clear (though this may have to do with how this has been written about and historicized, who knows what’s on the fringes?) but the closer we get to the modern era, movements, and pieces that we may consider to be abstract expressionist, or cubist, or futurist, sometimes the lines between categories can get blurry. So, one may even ask “what does a broader modernist concept even MEAN?” Who knows. Then to, on top of that mess of form and aesthetic and decision making, to insert questions of race and ethnicity and the (mis)representations of it, and then to lay the burden of ethnic representation upon the artist can lead to a very jarring experience as there are bound to be varying viewpoints that will vary from artist to artist.

    I’m not sure if I’m being clear. But— in other words, if we can’t quantify what being “Asian American” means in any sort of static concrete essentialized way, what makes us think we can do it in regards to Asian American modernism? But that’s not to say these things don’t exist, but they’re fluid with an ever changing, ever expanding set of qualifiers.

    And perhaps that is the Asian American Modernist experience. Perhaps that experience, the burdens, the marginalization, the racism, the orientalism…all of it, needs to be considered. Perhaps Asian American Modernism doesn’t come with a neatly quantifiable set of tenets, but rather a messy set of experiences and methods, all drawing from a myriad of sources, that can be loosely considered to be related narratives that try to navigate and negotiate an environment where we are historically uprooted, and then forced to be re-rooted in a context of systemic white supremacy, and in most civic and social conversation, excluded, marginalized, oppressed and otherwise subjected to various forms of xenophobia. Kalstrom even states “one should also keep in mind that, where race and ethnicity are involved [which is pretty much everywhere in the Modern world], the idea of home—and where it lies—remains forceful and compelling, a key to at least a partial understanding of artists from Noguchi to Matsumi Kanemitsu.” (238)

    I think of it along the similar vein of trying to answer the question “What does it mean to be Asian American?”

    Even with an artist like Isamu Noguchi, who I presume was, despite his convictions, trying to negotiate the efficacy of his own work in the “broader modernist concept,” his Asian American experience, as “inauthentic” as it may have seemed, is as authentic as any artist who has the burden of having to negotiate their ethnic identity with the broader landscape. Even in the contemporary sense, I can probably point to an Asian American artist who wants to downplay his/her ethnic background as well as I can point to an Asian American artist that wants to emphasize or exaggerate it. I’d be hard pressed to say that one is favorable, or “more Asian American” than the other.

    So do we need a different set of criteria? I don’t think so, but we do need to be able to make considerations about why artists make the decisions they make. Both so we can better understand their work, what their work means, and to curb our preconceived notions about what the purpose of the work is.

    Jeremy Villaluz.


  3. I would definitely say that Carlos Villa’s work as “modernist” does hold based on the visual works that I’ve seen of his. I see it as abstract, experimental, and non-traditional. We definitely have not seen people in the movements that preceded modernism use feathers, chicken bones, or packets of spit, blood, and sperm, just to point out the obvious. Also, with the notion of his work being part of a “community-directed modernism,” especially when placed together with that photo “My Dad Seeing Market St. for the First Time” (1979), I can definitely see how it can be directed to the community, or a certain community/communities that he has a relationship with. I may be just thinking so out of the box that I’m a million miles away from the box but in that specific work, I can see how his father could possibly react to seeing such a place for the first time, seeing how busy and congested it is, and the artwork reflects that kind of reaction. That kind of reaction may just be coming from a single person — his father — but it’s not too farfetched to say that there are many people like his father who would react the same way to an environment that they are not used to.

    On terms of evaluating criteria for what is “Asian American” art or having universal standard for evaluating a work’s merit, I, too, struggle with the thought because there are so many things that could go “right and wrong” with that. For instance, there may be people whose work meets the criteria of what is considered “Asian American art,” however, they refuse that kind of label. I understand how some people do not want their identity (whether that be their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, etc.) to place them in a box in the art world. Again, I’m just making a stab in the dark, but perhaps a reason why some may not be so happy with it is because when placed in a box, people; whether it be consciously or subconsciously, will begin to see it in that certain light. For example, if a heterosexual man paints an orchid, it is seen as an orchid. However, if it were someone like me, a gay Asian, who is labeled as a “gay Asian American artist,” my painting of an orchid, it could be read as a symbol for my love for my roots coming from the exotic Orient and my love for my homeland of Hong Kong (it’s not my homeland, by the way) since the orchid is it’s national flower and how I want homosexuality to be accepted and blossom like an orchid flower since not all of Asia is so accepting of homosexuality and all of that crazy nonsense. Perhaps an artist who is also Asian-American wants to be considered as such yet their work does not meet the criteria, such as making messages and pointing out topics that relate to the community, yet their style does not meet the criteria. To me, it makes no sense for someone to not be considered an Asian American artist just because they don’t incorporate calligraphy or influences of Zen Buddhism and such yet their art still speaks of and reaches out to that certain community.

    I know these can be seen as outlandish examples but the basis of how certain labels or titles can sometimes, if not all the time, alter how a person sees another’s artwork and what kind of impact that makes still stands. I think it depends on that certain artist and how they want to be seen, like what Bronte said. If they want to be seen as an “Asian American” artist, then allow them to have that attachment to that title. If their work’s purpose is universal, then it should be seen as that and free of any titles or labels they did not want.

    – Terence Ho (the other Beyoncé).


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