The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia 1860-1989, at the Guggenheim, derives its title from a mixed-media work by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in which disparate elements combine to make a new form. The show, on view through April 19, in the works years before the current economic tailspin, coincides with the moment’s need to diminish the material and seek the spiritual. (Okay, many of the objects in the show are still worth a bundle. And then there’s The Death of James Lee Byars, a room covered in fluttering, luminous gold leaf…)
The exhibition is fascinating when it doesn’t list into the overly ambitious.And sprawl it does, drawing on more than 100 artists. It explores various Asian inspirations and sources for many familiar and less-known American artists in the last century and a half. Curator Alexandra Munroe (Senior Curator of Asian Art) divided the show into seven chronologically organized sub-themes, all of which would serve nicely as doctoral theses. The sections pretty much cover the bases of formal, philosophical, spiritual, geographical, and in addition to visual art, pulls from literature, performance, and dance.
The earliest examples include Whistler’s sublime Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge (ca. 1872-75), which shifts the bridge from the central focus. It relates to Hiroshige’s famous prints, whose flattened layers, balanced composition, and bold colors felt almost kitschy. Artists I haven’t heard or seen very much of since art history class, like John La Farge, are shown near Georgia O’Keefe, Arthur Dove, and Mary Cassatt. The roll call includes Mark Tobey, Philip Guston, Sam Francis, Isamu Noguchi and his frequent collaborator Martha Graham, and into the recent era with such artists as Agnes Martin, Robert Irwin, Brice Marden, and mavericks Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ono.
LaMonte Young/Marian Zazeela’s Dream House feels more like a nightmare, with its body-shaking sound and mind-bending light installation. The upper ramp houses rooms separated from the rotunda by a partition with installations by conceptual/performance artists as Linda Montano, Alan Sonfist, and Adrian Piper. And James Turrell’s piece—essentially light in a void that shifts miraculously, and nearly undetectably, in color—so neatly sums up many of the concepts identified throughout the show.
Ann Hamilton created human carriage for the rotunda, which involves a “bell trolley” on a track attached to the balustrade, and chopped up books (symbolizing the way our brains process information) to leverage the weight. Hamilton involves seemingly every bit of the time/space continuum, and reveals her typical painstaking attention to detail. But it feels effortful when seen alongside Sengai Gibon’s Edo period ink drawing, Circle, Triangle, and Square—simply sublime.An extensive humanities and performance program accompanies the show, including talks with Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, Merce Cunningham, and a new work by Robert Wilson.
Image: James McNeill Whistler, Nocture: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, ca 1872-75. Oil on canvas, 68.3 x 51.2 cm. Courtesy Tate, London.