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Franz Kline, Painting No. 7, 1952
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

 
       
 

Asia, Zen, 
and Abstract Art 

   
 

To the Letter!

   

 

  

 

Asian mysticism has seeped into the white snailshell of the Guggenheim in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989.  The exhibit explores the influence of Asian culture - the impact of Zen Buddhism, transcendentalism, Asian metaphysics, and calligraphy on American Art.  The show includes poetry and music - bells tinkle, there is a distant hum of chanting as one walks, and the installations have a certain random, haphazard quality - all this giving the museum an uncharacteristically raffish air! 

The curators date the beginning of this flourishing cultural interaction to Commodore Matthew Perry's reopening of trade with Japan in the mid 19th century, an action which brought to an end 250 years of Japanese isolationism.  The title of the show refers to a 'cut-up' work by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin that draws on the idea of spontaneity derived from Asian culture - random texts and images that incorporated misreadings and even invented terms.

One of the most exciting ideas here is the link between Abstract Expressionism and Japanese and Chinese calligraphy.  Artists like Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and David Smith found inspiration in the art of the letter - they were, after all, searching for a way to use paint to express emotion.  Japanese and Chinese calligraphy were fascinating to the Abstract Expressionists for their aesthetic qualities - rhythm, balance, the opposition of control and dynamism, the way the brushstroke and the gesture involved became a part of the process and captured the spirit of the artist himself.  The idea of the brush as an extension of the body.

Franz Kline's large, imposing oil on canvas, Painting No. 7, captures the sense of this brilliantly.  Seen in the context of Asian art, the calligraphic influence is overwhelming - from the use of black-and-white to the bold brushstrokes.  Kline's contribution was to take this very ritualized art form - the letter as aesthetic object - and blow it up in size, simultaneously freeing the painting from any secondary associations.  The painting is reminiscent of Japanese art and calligraphy, but the size, boldness and sense of action take the painting in completely new directions.  A bare branch in winter, or a letter from some exotic alphabet of the imagination? 

The calligrapher's art is a formal one - but with the breaking of rules comes personal expression.  It is the beginning of that thing known as 'style.'

 

See: The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989 at the Guggenheim, through April 19, 2009 

 

 

 

 

       
 

 
       
     

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