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Reviewed by:
  • Asian American Art: A History, 1850–1970
  • Richard S. Kim (bio)
Asian American Art: A History, 1850–1970, edited by Gordon H. Chang, Mark Dean Johnson, Paul J. Karlstrom, and Sharon Spain. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008. Xxiii + 547 pp. $39.95 paper. ISBN 978-0-8047-5752-2.

Asian American Art: A History, 1850–1970 is a landmark publication, representing the first comprehensive history of Asian American art. Containing over 400 high-quality reproductions, Asian American Art showcases the impressive breadth and [End Page 306] depth of Asian American artistic achievements in wide variety of styles and media that include paintings, photography, printmaking, dance, sculptures, textiles, ceramics, and murals. Much of this remarkable artwork has never been seen before or been long vanquished from public view. The edited volume also contains ten interpretative essays written by a diverse group of scholars that provide important historical and aesthetic contexts for appreciating the artistic expressions presented throughout the book. The last major component of this pioneering publication is the inclusion of over 150 biographies of a wide range of Asian American artists active in California from 1850 to 1965, accompanied by a detailed Asian American art/history chronology covering the same period.

With its expansive contents, the scope of Asian American Art is truly extraordinary and certain to appeal to multiple audiences in and out of the academy. From the vantage point of a historian, the brilliant diversity of artistic expressions documented in Asian American Art opens exciting possibilities for the study of Asian American lived experiences in a variety of different contexts. In his richly suggestive foreword, historian Gordon Chang notes that the lives of Asian American artists and their creative work have received scant attention from scholars of Asian American history. In light of this dearth of historical knowledge, Chang proposes that the careers and artwork of Asian American artists offer productive sites for the study of Asian American experiences, "such as identity formation and projection, felt experience, perceptions of racial and ethnic identity and place, the texture of daily life, and intellectual and personal interaction with other communities, both white and minority" (xiii). The arts were not something for the privileged few, far removed from the daily activities of most Asian Americans, but rather an important part of the everyday lives of many Asian Americans in their homes, families, and communities. "This recognition," according to Chang, "helps us begin to recover a sense of the actual lived experiences of Asian American lives" (xiii).

Indeed, Asian American Art, with its showcase of diverse forms of visual art, its collection of biographies of well-known and less-known artists, and its interdisciplinary essays, seeks to recover the rich, but long-neglected, history of Asian American art. In accordance, the volume consciously focuses on the period between 1850 and 1965, prior to the emergence of a politicized Asian American consciousness in the late 1960s. Consequently, many of the artists active in this period would not have likely considered themselves "Asian American." Art historian Mark Dean Johnson explains in his astute introduction that the use of "Asian American" in the volume's title, nonetheless, serves as a unifying thread in two important ways. First, it links the long but largely unknown history of art created by persons of Asian ancestry in America to contemporary Asian American art. [End Page 307] Second, it underscores the salience of race and ethnicity in the history of art and culture in the United States. In demonstrating that Asian American artistic production and reception are not recent phenomena, Johnson effectively highlights the significance of Asian American artistic achievements to the history of art in the United States and to the study of Asian American experiences.

A succinct summary of the contents of a publication as comprehensive and diverse as Asian American Art is nearly impossible. Nevertheless, the themes and goals established in the foreword and introduction give the edited volume a sense of unity and coherency. Altogether, Asian American Art narrates how Asian American artists were resourceful, ambitious, and innovative—working through, challenging, and negotiating the constraints of being viewed through the homogenizing lens of American Orientalism. In the process, it provides valuable insights...


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