- Entropic Designs: A Review of Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes and Asian/American/Modern ArtShifting Currents, 1900-1970 at the de Young Museum
"Forty years ago there were no Asian Americans."1 This puzzling and provocative opening statement made by professors Gordon Chang and Mark Dean Johnson in the catalog of the exhibition Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900-1970 (A/A/M) is explained in the next sentence by the historical acknowledgment that the term Asian American was not claimed until 1968: a panethnic collectivity, reappropriated as a sign of resistance within the context of the Asian American movement. The statement is key to understanding why many of the artists featured in this landmark exhibition did not identify as "Asian American," nor did they consequently categorize, describe, or mark their art with that label.
The exhibition reifies, but also challenges, the expectations of an exhibition titled Asian/American/Modern Art with seven subheadings: Looking Both Ways, War and Peace, Urban Life and Community, Philosophy and Religion, Nature, Sexuality as Abstraction, and lastly Ink and Line. The exhibition consists of five large rooms in which the themes are introduced on wall texts. Next [End Page 193] to each work is a description of the work or an anecdote about the artist. For example, in the War and Peace section, works of art in an array of different styles from figurative to abstract expressionism are presented that document the various wars of the twentieth century-World War II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War-that depict the effects of war on everyday life, and/or that are commentaries on the fear of racial violence, modern warfare, and nuclear annihilation. The exhibition opens with Looking Both Ways, a selection of artworks that highlight the East-West alliance, showing the hybridity of Asian American art. Until recently, Asian American art has been assumed to include some visual marker of Asianness or to take identity or race as its subject matter. American Orientalism, together with neoliberal multiculturalism, continues to skew and homogenize understandings of Asia as fixed in time, reinforcing imaginary divisions between East and West, racializing Asian American artists as representative types and their art as the site of immutable cultural difference.2 We see this at work in Eugene Neuhauss's 1915 statement in the catalog for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, "Why the modern Japanese artists want to divorce themselves from the traditions of their forefathers seems incomprehensible . . . I think the sooner these wayward sons are brought back into the fold of their truly oriental colleagues, the better it will be for the national art of Japan, the most profound art the world has ever seen."3
Paradoxically, the exoticizing of the East, in the form of Japonisme, for example, has created professional liaisons and exhibiting opportunities for Asian American artists. Whereas some artists' work benefiting from this exoticization does have a typically "Asian" look, as in Toshio Aoki's Untitled (Thunder Kami) (ca. 1900) painted in a nihonga style,4 some neither look to nor engage in Asian aesthetics or traditions. And many artists' works do not fit neatly within either category, as in the case of Ball Game (V) (1952/1980) by Chen Chi-Kwan, an experimental ink painting that at first glance may seem like modern Chinese calligraphy or a visual play on artists Henri Michaux and Eadweard Muybridge. The work is neither. Rather, the lyrical Ball Game, divided subtly into "yards" of a football field, is a study of the forward movement of a football rendered through thick and...