NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey — The 1958 Whitney Biennial included 184 artists, an inconceivably large number to ponder in our current marketplace atmosphere. In the thin, 28-page catalog accompanying the exhibition, the artists are listed alphabetically according to their medium (sculpture, painting, and drawing). Leo Amino and Ruth Asawa are listed first under sculpture. This is not the first time these artists of Japanese descent were in the same place at the same time.
Amino (1911–1989) and Asawa (1926–2013) were briefly at Black Mountain College at the same time, in the final years of the directorship of Josef Albers, before he and Anni Albers departed in 1950 and Charles Olson took over. Asawa was a student (1946–1949) and Amino was on the faculty (1948–1950). This is just one of the many thoughts I had while looking at the 19 sculptures (dated between 1939 and 1969) in the exhibition, Polymorphic Sculpture: Leo Amino’s Experiments in Three Dimensions, at the Zimmerli Art Museum (October 20, 2018–October 6, 2019), organized by Donna Gustafson, Curator of American Art and Mellon Director for Academic Programs. Part of my curiosity was motivated by my experience as a student at Bard College (1969–72), where I was the only Asian American at the school and often wondered what it would have been like if that were not the case.
As far as I can determine, while Amino and Asawa were at Black Mountain, where there were at the most only around 60 students, there is no record of them in conversation, and in subsequent records neither ever mentions the other, except perhaps in passing. Although they used different materials (resin and wire mesh) and processes, both pushed sculpture into fresh areas. During the past decade, as many neglected artists were being reconsidered, Asawa became a well-known, highly celebrated figure, and her work has been widely shown, as it should be. The same cannot be said for Amino, who remains obscure. I feel this wider disregard warrants further consideration.
The 19 works — all gifted by one donor, Mrs. Julie Amino, presumably the artist’s widow — can be roughly divided into three groups. There are six works made of carved wood, with the earliest dating to 1939, when he and Isamu Noguchi had a two-person show at the World’s Fair. The tallest of these is around 50 inches. The second group consists of five works made from Polyester resin, which he began experimenting with in the 1940s, including four geometric pieces from 1969. Alongside an outlier, “Mansion” (December 27, 1956), which is made of polyvinyl acetate and sand, the third group consists of seven pieces made of polyester resin in combination with carved wood and string. At least four of these hybrid pieces stood out from the rest: they are what convinced me to learn more about Amino’s art. As satisfying as I found the work, the exhibition only whetted my appetite.
Did Amino work on a larger scale? If not, this might partially explain why he is not better known. Noguchi made biomorphic wood sculptures that are larger than human scale. Made of interlocking parts, Amino’s carved, biomorphic wood pieces share something with those made by Noguchi, but on a less grand scale. Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti, especially his Surrealist work, might come to mind. Still, despite these borrowings, Amino’s works possesses something that is all his own – their spindly forms rising vertically and swiftly from their base, with the use of wire or bowed dowels seemingly holding the central form in place. That, and the fact that they are carved from wood, secures a place for Amino.
While it is unlikely that they ever met or even knew of each other, Amino’s use of Noguchi, Giacometti, and Miro calls to mind the Bay Area sculptor, Jeremy Anderson (1921–1982), Although Anderson enjoyed three retrospectives of his work during his lifetime, at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Pasadena Art Museum (1966–67) and at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (1975), his work remained under the radar for many years after his death, and has started to receive some attention only recently, Similarly, I think Amino is due for a more extensive look, if only to get a fuller picture of what he achieved.
A series of geometric forms titled “Refractional” and dated 1969, which Amino made from resin are interesting, but, again, I want to know more. Were the ones grouped together on a table-like platform a typical size, or did he work larger? What other kinds of forms did he explore? In these largely transparent works, Amino uses planes of color embedded within the clear objects to explore the relation of light and color in a sculptural form. In this, they connect with the resin works of Cris Gianakos (b.1934), an association that would seem to underscore Amino’s engagement with what was going on around him. And yet, I still cannot find out where he exhibited, or if he was represented by a New York gallery. He seems to be invisible in this regard.
All of this is enough to pique my curiosity, but what really spurred me to know more were the sculptures in which Amino combined his resin forms with wood. It is clear in these works that Amino reached a place that is totally his own, where all traces of influence fall away — especially in the wall-mounted relief “Composition #25” (September 1952), which is made of resin, mahogany, threads, and mesh. The delicacy of the lines (threads), the carved wood, which looks like half of a seed pod, some with bead-like forms inside, take the biomorphic vocabulary of Hans Arp and Miro to a new place.
The fact that the resin slab of “Composition #25,” which measures 12 by 17 7/16 by 1 3/16 inches, allows you to see the wall behind it only adds to the work’s mysteriousness. For all its allusions to nature, “Composition #25” defines a specific and original form — a unique approach to materials and space that should be seen in the same company as Asawa and Noguchi. Is this the only time Amino did this? I somehow doubt it. The revelations of the Zimmerli exhibition suggest that there were three wonderful sculptors of Japanese descent in the US during the 1950s and ’60s, who were exploring forms that were independent of Minimalism and other sanctioned stylistic movements. Is the art world ready to recognize that possibility?
Polymorphic Sculpture: Leo Amino’s Experiments in Three Dimensions continues at the Zimmerli Art Museum (71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey) through October 6. The exhibition is organized by Donna Gustafson, Curator of American Art and Mellon Director for Academic Programs.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.