Asian American art is arguably the last area of American art to be recognized as a genre. Until recently, there have been very few museum shows and books dedicated to this important topic. Throughout the years, Eastern and Western artists have assimilated very different traditions in the multicultural society of America. In the late 19th century, while artists such as Whistler and Van Gogh were looking at Japanese prints for inspiration, the forefathers of Asian American art were arriving in California to merge their traditions with new Western art techniques.
The template of success of African American art in the last 30 years should be true for the first steps Asian American art is now taking. Let me compare the historic African American painters Edward Bannister, Robert Duncanson and Henry O. Tanner to the very few, very rare late 19th century Asian American painters. Museum holdings of the Asian American contemporaries of the African American artists mentioned is much more rare, in fact, and most museums have no examples.
In the early 20th century, Asian American artists experienced a Renaissance in California, not unlike the Harlem Renaissance taking place in New York at the same time. Unlike public schools, art schools were not segregated. Asian Americans could participate in group shows, museum exhibitions, art clubs and various other activities.
The outbreak of World War II led to the forced internment of Japanese Americans living in the Western United States. The internment centers had a unique art history, including art classes and exhibitions. Internment art serves as the visual documentation of this regretful period. Many of the already established artists lost much of their art work because of internment.
In the 1950s, when abstract art exploded and abstract expressionism was considered to be the only true form of American art, many Asian American artists already had been working in abstract expressionist style rooted in the abstraction of Asian calligraphy. Many American abstract expressionist painters were influenced by Eastern philosophy. Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, for instance, attended Zen lectures on the relationship between calligraphy and abstract painting.
Today there continues to be overseas interest in Asian American art with artists being represented in exhibitions and auctions both in the United States and Asia. The boundary between Asian American and Asian art has softened. California can perhaps be imagined not on the West Coast, but on the East Coast of the great Pacific Ocean. California is as close to Asia as it is to London.
I have collected Asian American art for over 20 years. Parts of my collection have been exhibited at venues around the United States and internationally in Japan and Taiwan. Many works from my collection are illustrated in museum exhibition catalogues, art reference books, magazine and newspaper articles, textbooks and so forth, in English, Japanese and Chinese.
All Asian American art was not produced on the West Coast. There was a smaller subset of Asian American artists that could be called the New York School. Some of these artists spent summers or lived at art retreats such as Woodstock. Another subset would be the Hawaiian artists. Hawaii art is rich with the contributions of many Asian American artists who had distinguished art careers both in Hawaii, and internationally. Asian American art history is barely 150 years old, and my collection begins from 1880 forward. The collection represents the cross section of styles and art influences found in American art during this period of 150 years.
I have sold many paintings to museums that realized their Asian American art holdings were too limited or nonexistent.
Images by many additional artists not represented in the gallery are available on request. Please contact me with any questions.
Michael D. Brown
PO Box 460492
San Francisco, CA 94146