This New Art Exhibit is Rewriting the History of Abstract Expressionism
“Abstract Expressionism: Looking East From the Far West,” which debuts Sept. 7 at the Honolulu Museum of Art, is a showcase of more than 45 paintings, illustrations and sculptures intended to explore the ways that Abstract Expressionism was shaped by the traditions and techniques of its Asian-American and Hawai‘i practitioners.
From left: Hawai‘i artists Edmund Chung, Tadashi Sato, Jerry Okimoto, Satoru Abe, Bumpei Akaji and Tetsuo “Bob” Ochikubo in 1954 at the Honolulu Museum of Art.
photos: courtesy of honolulu museum of art
Abstract Expressionism is often described as the first uniquely American art movement to put the United States—specifically New York City—on the map in the international art community. Conventional wisdom holds it emerged in the 1940s as a response to the fear and trauma of World War II and that its leading artists include Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Philip Guston, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. Turns out there’s a lot more to this story.
Art critics of the 1940s and ’50s helped introduce Abstract Expressionism in this way, pushing the new art style when it debuted. Writers such as Clement Greenberg championed the new movement as avant garde and experiential, praising artists like Pollock for his use of unstretched canvas, color and texture. Essayist and educator Harold Rosenberg applauded the energetic smears and splashes of “action paintings” by de Kooning and Kline. These authors not only helped promote the burgeoning art form, they began to shape the narrative of what Abstract Expressionism was—and was not. Over the years, female artists, artists of color, sculptors and even those simply operating outside Abstract Expressionism’s focal point of New York City were considered second-tier or glossed over completely in the history books.
A new exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art seeks to revisit the history of Abstract Expressionism by examining not only the famous artists of the New York School such as Pollock and de Kooning, but also of its associated contemporaries including sculptors Ruth Asawa and Isamu Noguchi, painter Saburo Hasegawa and artists of Hawai‘i including Satoru Abe, Isami Doi, Tetsuo “Bob” Ochikubo and Tadashi Sato. Abstract Expressionism: Looking East From the Far West, which debuts Sept. 7 at the Honolulu Museum of Art, is a showcase of more than 45 paintings, illustrations and sculptures intended to explore the ways that Abstract Expressionism was shaped by the traditions and techniques of its Asian-American and Hawai‘i practitioners, from the compositional style and lyricism of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy to the balance and subtleties of Zen Buddhism.
Sean O’Harrow, Honolulu Museum of Art director
“I think a lot of the stories we hear about [artists’] individualism and creativity are linked to sort of a myth about the ‘singular genius’ versus someone who’s part of a larger group. And I would say art historians are responsible for a lot of that,” says Honolulu Museum of Art director Sean O’Harrow. “ I think this show will help to actually start to break that down and show a global connection between a particular artist movement and the artists involved.”
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The exhibition is a strong debut show for O’Harrow, just seven months in as the museum’s new director. It also features a subject matter with which he’s very familiar: O’Harrow worked extensively with Abstract Expressionism in his previous role as director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, which houses significant works by Rothko, de Kooning, Motherwell and Guston, including the famous “Mural,” Jackson Pollock’s first large painting.
Before his time in Iowa, O’Harrow attended college at Harvard and then abroad at Cambridge. But he’s originally from Hawai‘i, where he fondly remembers taking classes at the Honolulu Museum of Art School as a child. In many ways, O’Harrow’s own journey mirrors those of the Hawai‘i artists in the upcoming exhibition, who left the Islands to attend school and hone their craft, then returned to help grow and develop the art scene in Hawai‘i.
This was the case for painter and printmaker Isami Doi, who was born on O‘ahu and studied at Columbia University in New York City and, later, Paris. He was a friend and mentor to fellow Hawai‘i artists Tadashi Sato and Satoru Abe, both of whom also traveled to New York to practice art and become involved in the bohemian Expressionist scene. Sato attended the Brooklyn Museum School and the Pratt Institute. As the grandson of a sumi-e ink wash painter, he spent years studying Japanese calligraphy and literature. Many of his paintings incorporate elements of Cubism’s open forms and space balanced by the subtle delicacies of Sato’s featherlike brushwork to create calming scenes. Abe studied at the Art Students League of New York and exhibited work at the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sculpture Center and other city museums. A welder, his sculptures are often a staccato of crisscrossing interwoven structures, organic and seemingly fluid and fluctuating. All three artists have pieces in the exhibition.
“Hawai‘i has one of the most talented groups of artists,” says Abe. (Read more about him below.) “But I went to New York to study art. I remember I wanted to go and live close to the Art Students League, which was 57th Street. A Caucasian friend of mine, a fellow student, said he’d come with me to look for a place. We talked to the owner about renting. He said for my friend, yes. But for me, no.”
At the time, it was difficult for Asian-American painters who were creating works of Abstract Expressionism. Often they were either held to expectations that their artwork needed to have “Asian” qualities or ironically be criticized for interpreting “Western” modernism with a style inspired by their own culture. “Some artists, like Isami Doi, Tadashi Sato and Tetsuo Ochikubo, always embraced their Asian heritage and painted in calligraphic styles,” says Theresa Papanikolas, Honolulu Museum curator of European and American art. “They had to meet expectations, but, once they met those expectations, now it didn’t fulfill the criteria of Abstract Expressionism so they’re not the ones who get talked about as the movement goes down in history.”
And yet, Western artists such as Rothko and de Kooning were fascinated by Asian philosophy, aesthetics and the gestural style of Japanese calligraphy. At the Eighth Street Club, a gathering place for artists including Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Guston and others from 1950 to 1960, lectures were held every Friday night on topics ranging from modern art to Freud to existentialism, and speakers included composer John Cage and mythologist Joseph Campbell. Zen teachings, such as those by Eastern artists Saburo Hasegawa and Matsumi Kanemitsu, were of particular interest to the New York School artists. They recognized the maximum potential for spontaneity on the canvas through Zen principles: keeping a clear mind, casting out preconceived notions about art history and styles, and maintaining an inner calm. These types of influences were left out of the mainstream narrative about how Abstract Expressionism developed.
THERESA PAPANIKOLAS, HONOLULU MUSEUM OF ART DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF ART AND PROGRAMS AND CURATOR OF EUROPEAN AND AMERICAN ART.
Papanikolas first conceptualized the exhibition in early 2015, coming on the heels of Art Deco Hawai‘i, a 2014 exhibition she also curated focused on the Art Deco movement in the Hawaiian Islands from the 1920s to the ’40s. It examined imagery depicting the Islands as “paradise” and perpetuating a romanticized idea of Hawai‘i as exotic and unspoiled, compared to works by Hawai‘i artists of the time, who adapted the Deco aesthetic to create an original interpretation of modernism imbued with an authentic sense of place in the Pacific.
“Art Deco Hawai‘i was an attempt to see how art in Hawai‘i that was created in the 1920s and ’30s, before World War II, played out in the national scene, through the lens of Art Deco,” Papanikolas says. “After the exhibition, I started thinking about the next chapter of the story, looking at Hawai‘i-born artists who grew up here and seeing how their work fits on the national stage in context of Abstract Expressionism.”
Ruth Asawa (American, 1926‒2013)
In addition to work by Asian-American and Hawai‘i artists of the movement, this exhibition marks the first opportunity for Hawai‘i art enthusiasts to view work by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, some never before displayed in the Islands.
While critics of Abstract Expressionism valued the literal style and autonomy of the art form itself—it doesn’t require an MFA to be able to understand or appreciate the emotion in the expressive work—many of the most compelling stories come from behind the scenes.
For example, Rothko struggled with creating art after being diagnosed with a mild aortic aneurysm in early 1968. Near the end of his life, illness left him unable to paint the big paintings he used to. He became frustrated and later killed himself in 1970. A red painting he made after his aneurysm in 1968, “Untitled,” captures his angst and appears in the exhibition. “We know now it was sort of the beginning of a road that was going to lead to tragedy,” says O’Harrow. “This painting is from a moment in the history of his life.”
The exhibition’s Jackson Pollock painting is the “Portrait of H.M.” from 1945, created at a time when the artist was painting more figurative styles. He hadn’t yet conceptualized the signature splatter technique that he, as “Jack the Dripper,” would become known for, but it’s critical in his development as an artist. “[‘Portrait of H.M.’] is a portrait of his best friend, photographer Herbert Matter, and probably the man who influenced Pollock the most in terms of art,” O’Harrow says. “It’s sort of the missing link, the beginning period when he’s developing his abstract style.”
Beyond the famous artists, the core of this new exhibition is about moving beyond the accepted fiction of Abstract Expressionism to recognize and embrace its larger and more truthful heritage. Pollock was depicted as a “bad boy” in the art world with his avant garde technique and loose style, but his work was deliberately planned out. Despite being an alcoholic, he didn’t paint drunk. He was also heavily influenced by Native American sand paintings and other traditions from around the world.
“Sometimes it’s felt that, in Hawai‘i, things aren’t as good or can’t compete with what’s happening on the Mainland,” O’Harrow says. “And that’s not the case at all. Our local artists, who have always worked at the highest level, can enter the canon of art history. That’s important.”
Tadashi Sato (American, 1923‒2005)
Surf and Water Reflections, 1969‒70 | Oil on canvas
Honolulu Museum of Art, Gift of The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, 2011, and gift of the Honolulu Advertiser Collection at Persis Corporation, 1974 (TCM.1974.1.239)
Reproduced by permission of Jan Shimamura
Willem de Kooning (American, 1904‒1997)
Woman as Landscape, 1954‒5 | Oil on canvas
Collection of Barney Ebsworth
© 2017 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Mark Rothko (American, 1903‒1970)
Untitled, 1968 | Acrylic on paper mounted on Masonite
University of Iowa Museum of Art
Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1985.49
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Reproduced with permission from The University of Iowa
Jackson Pollock (American, 1912‒1956)
Portrait of H. M., 1945 | Oil on canvas
University of Iowa Museum of Art | Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1947.39
© 2017 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Reproduced with permission from The University of Iowa
Sitting with Satoru
One of the New York Abstract Expressionists, 92-year-old Satoru Abe, still sculpting and going strong.
PHOTO: OLIVIER KONING
It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning at the Kaimukī home of Satoru Abe when John Koga arrives with a six-pack of Heineken.
“So you going drink too, right?” the 92-year-old artist asks.
“Yeah, I’ll drink with you,” Koga replies, chuckling.
Koga, also an acclaimed Modernist artist, helped arrange this get-together with Abe. For the next three hours, over beers, sushi and scones, Abe talks about his career, his education in New York and Hawai‘i’s art scene today. We tour his studio, his home and garage, filled to the brim with works ranging from metal sculptures smaller than a paperweight to one the size and shape of a tree, planted in the yard outside his house.
“the idol,” 1958
Even if you don’t know his name, you know his artwork: the copper-and-bronze cone with rectangular chunks missing, outside Aloha Stadium; the six granite tablets in a circle with images of leaves etched on them at the airport; the twisting, interwoven treelike sculptures outside the First Hawaiian Center. Satoru Abe is a sculptor, a welder, a painter and an illustrator.
Alongside Abe’s own pieces on display at his home are his favorites by Hawai‘i artists, collected or received as gifts over the years. They cover nearly every inch of wall and shelf space. “That’s David Behlke, that one’s Sanit Khewhok. [Lauren] Okano is over there, next to [Warren] Stenberg. Of course, my mentor, Isami Doi. Probably a surprise is that one by Keiko Bonk,” Abe says, pointing. Bonk is perhaps best known as the first Green Party member to win political office in Hawai‘i.
Abe still produces 150 to 200 pieces a year, roughly the same number as when he first began welding in the 1950s. “The difference today is that I make things without preconceived ideas and try to surprise myself. To do this, your work has to be spontaneous,” says Abe. “Almost every third day or so, I surprise myself. That’s the fun part.”
Before Abe was an artist, he packed milk containers for the Dairymen’s Association, a cooperative of seven O‘ahu dairy farms that later became Meadow Gold. “I asked myself, is this what I’m going to do for the rest of my life?” Abe says. “So I decided to be an artist. Simple as that. I was young, naive and with a dream. That’s all you need.”
At the time, Hawai‘i had no comprehensive arts education programs, so he traveled by ship to California, then to the Art Students League of New York. “My first night in the city, I caught the Greyhound and I had the address for someone in the Lower East Side but it was too late, 10 o’clock. So I went over the wall at Central Park and spent the night there,” says Abe. He found work as a restaurant dishwasher making 75 cents an hour, plus two meals a day. “I’d get cash, 24 dollars or however much [on payday], and I’d tuck it in my socks and take the subway home. But, 17 years in New York, I never got mugged.”
When Abe began in art, sculpture was rare. He learned the basics by experimenting: sanding, erasing, melting. From there, he began creating forms. “When we started, there were only two categories: painting and sculpture. That’s all. Ceramics was considered a craft. Photography wasn’t included. Today, everything is art,” Abe says. “Which is very good. The only criteria is well done or not well done.”
He returned to Hawai‘i in 1950, where he met other local artists also returning from studying or working around the globe. “Bumpei Akaji came back from Italy after the war, Tetsuo Ochikubo came back from the Chicago Art Museum, Jerry Okimoto, he was at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, Tadashi Sato came back from Brooklyn Museum—no, Pratt Institute, I think. And Isami Doi, he mentored us,” says Abe. The group became known as the “Metcalf Chateau,” named after a house that Akaji and Abe rented for six months on Metcalf Street and where the group exhibited its artwork.
“There was a lot of drinking. Any time somebody made a sale—in those days, selling an art piece was rare—we had a party,” Abe says. At their first group show in 1954, artist Elsie Das recommended their work to what’s now the Honolulu Museum of Art and, within a month, the exhibition was moved to the front room of the museum.
“The rest is history,” says Abe. “Seventy years ago, I didn’t even know what art I was going to make. It was beyond imagination. I look back now, I still can’t believe what I made.”
Any routines when you work? Abe says no. “One thing, in all the years, I never drink when I work. No drugs either,” he says. “My cigarette career was 20 years, then I quit for 23 years, then I smoked for 26 years. I’ve quit now for a year and a half. Of course, I’m waiting for marijuana to be legal …”
Abstract Expressionism was an art movement shaped by its critics. “Whether it was good or bad critique, the longer the better. If they criticize you for this much,” Abe says, gesturing large, “it’s better than if they like you but only for this much,” Abe says, gesturing small. “But the main thing is that they have your name correct.”
We talk the day after Gov. David Ige announced his intention to veto a bill that would have appropriated funds to help finance a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the State Capitol. Abe read the news in the paper this morning.
“So we’re gonna do something ourselves to celebrate instead, right?” Abe asks, looking at all of us gathered. The man never stops.
READ MORE STORIES BY JAMES CHARISMA