Traditional Techniques

By Leilani S C Pao

“Abstraction” is the modern occidental attitude in search of the “absolute.” [The] Oriental way of thinking in metaphysics, philosophy, religion, general culture and art, [and] also the way of living itself, have for centuries been tending toward the “absolute” through “abstractions.”
– Sabro Hasegawa

For many years, art critics, scholars, and artists have debated the relationship between the art of the East and West. In the statement of her exhibition The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 at the Guggenheim Museum, curator Alexandra Munroe wrote “[western] vanguard artists consistently looked toward ‘the East’ to forge an independent artistic identity that would define the modern age….They drew ideas from Eastern religions, as well as classical Asian art forms and performance traditions.” On the other hand, academics like Wen Fong are appalled by the thought of comparing Western “action painting” to Chinese traditional art. Even abstract expressionist artists like Franz Kline and Willem deKooning, whose artworks are often associated with Asian aesthetics, publicly distance themselves from East Asian art.

This debate about the connection between eastern and western ideals in art ultimately generates a fundamental question regarding the work produced by Asian American artists: in exactly what category do Asian American artists fall? A common stereotype of Asian American artists suggests that their work is a combination of occidental and oriental aesthetics. Asian American artists are often associated with the notion of identity because many of them struggle to find a sense of belonging, as they are neither American nor Asian. Some scholars desire to identify features that are uniquely Asian American in order to properly acknowledge prominent artists. However, other scholars argue that grouping all Asian American artists creates generalities and thus, overlooks the diversity of work produced. Artists may differ in their country of origin, medium, process, and in the issues or subjects they investigate.

Traditional Techniques focuses on Asian American artists who create works that visually convey a sense of Asian tradition, such as through medium or subject matter, but that also reconcile Eastern and Western influences.


Toshio Takaezu

Toshiko Takaezu (1922-2011)
Blue Green Bottle Form
Glazed Stoneware, 9 in. tall

Toshiko Takaezu’s Blue Green Bottle Form is a quintessential example of a work infused with oriental and occidental ideas. Deceivingly simple, the work exemplifies the characteristics of the Japanese tradition of ceramics. However, Takaezu’s closed rounded pot, derived from natural forms, displays painterly qualities reminiscent of American “action painters” and elevates the historical use of ceramics as a functional vessel. Her method of working was not far from artists like Jackson Pollock. She “like[s] the idea of going around the piece and glazing—it’s almost like dancing.” Takaezu was largely influenced by Japanese Shinto faith and Zen Buddhism. According to Shinto , elements of nature are thought to embody spirits. It is with this respect for nature, and in particular the clay, that is prevalent in her work. She felt that the clay “is alive and even when it is dry, it is still breathing! The whole process is an interplay between the clay and [herself] and often the clay has much to say.” For Takaezu, pottery was not merely a hobby but a way of life. In a New York Times article she explains that she “see no difference between making pots, cooking and growing vegetables.”


Hung Hsien

Hung Hsien (b. 1933)
Burnt Rocks, 1970
Ink and color on paper, 32 x 34 in.

A humble artist often overlooked by art historians both in the East and West, Hung Hsien creates works that unify spontaneity and dynamism, aspects also found in western Abstract Expressionist artists. Even though she is trained in both eastern and western methods of painting, she chooses to revert back to traditional ink instead of oil paint. She attributes her greatest inspiration to her teacher, Prince Pu Ju (1896-1963), who was the brother of the deposed final Emperor of China, Pu Yi. She said that when she was an art student she painted orchids and narcissi merely as they are and that her “painting was confined to particular styles, particular modes of representation-that is, the fine-outline and color-fill academic mode or the boneless expressive mode.” As an established artist, she sees the natural elements in various forms. She would sit and stare at her subjects, rocks and woods, for a number of hours and each time she would see them differently.For her, a single rock could recall faces, animals or human forms. After this act of contemplation, she would then combine all the forms into a single entity. The result “was not only a rock or a tree, but a live fusion of the rock’s or tree’s multiple images, combined with [her] brushwork.”


Reuben Tam

Reuben Tam (1916-1991)
Fog Bank
Pen, ink, and graphite, 14 1/8 in. x 17 3/8 in.

Also using the traditional medium of ink in a similar manner to ancient Chinese calligraphy, Reuben Tam’s abstract painting seizes the essence of our ever changing world. Like the artists mentioned above, Tam follows with an equal admiration of the beauty of nature. “Fog Bank” is not dated, making it difficult to discern where it was created. However, Tam’s work mostly bears reference to the rugged and weathered terrains of Monhegan and his home Kauai. As a Hawaiian native, it is not surprising that Tam was influenced by nature and was interested in capturing the earth as it was shaped by environmental forces. He described his work to be “about weather and geology, islands, tides, and light, and the very movement of the earth.” Much like 19th century impressionist painters, Tam would spend a large amount of time outdoors, repeatedly sketching and contemplating his subject then reverting back to his studio where the actual painting was done. This painting was likely to be one of his studies in nature. However, unlike his western counterparts, Tam chose not to cautiously depict forms from a realistic memory of the landscape, but instead to respond to his environment through poetic emotional abstraction with obvious reference to the heritage of his immigrant parents.


Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1893 – 1953)
Growing Weeds, 1923
Ink, chalk and watercolor on paper, 13 1/2 in. x 10 1/2 in.

Growing Weeds is one of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s early works. In this period of the early 1920s, Kuniyoshi’s artwork was characterized by warm, earthy colors and flattened spaces, similar to the manner of western cubists. Kuniyoshi had a talent for combining memory and imagination with reality. This quality is not unheard of as Traditional Japanese painters often obscured the lines between truth and fantasy by portraying the ideal image of a particular subject matter, unlike in traditional Western painting. As a Japanese living in America, Kuniyoshi had a tough time finding a place where he belonged. During his trip to Japan he stated “I don’t belong here and I am returning to America as soon as I can make it.” The art world relished his work, with patron Hamilton Easter Field explaining that “ Yasuo Kuniyoshi… has expressed the ideal of modern Japan and of modern American as he has read them fused together in his own heart. He was just an alien technique as if it were his own language.” On the other hand, the Japanese often criticized his hybrid style. He suggests that his “art was condemned as being too European. I was told I was a barbarian and has lost respect for my people. I was criticized for not observing the elaborate Japanese formality and the etiquette of dealing with people.” Nevertheless, Kuniyoshi’s fusion of Eastern and Western formal qualities are definitive to the Asian American aesthetic.


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“Is There an Asian American Aesthetics?” in Zhou, Min, and James V. Gatewood. Contemporary Asian America: A Multidisciplinary Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2000.