ArtWeekend

The Art World’s Erasure of a Revolutionary Japanese-American Artist

It’s clear that Leo Amino was neither interested in making identity the key to his art nor concerned with fitting in because he likely knew that he never could.

Leo Amino, “Refractional #85” (1972) (© the Estate of Leo Amino, courtesy the Estate of Leo Amino and David Zwirner)

Between 1947 and ’62, the sculptor Leo Amino (1911–1989) had work in all but two Whitney Annuals for sculpture, the precursor to the Whitney Biennial. Because Josef Albers recognized something special about his work, during those years Amino taught at Black Mountain College the summers of 1946 and 1950, befriending his student Kenneth Noland, and at Cooper Union (1952-1977), where he introduced his student Jack Whitten to the possibilities of sculpture. And yet, by the time I reviewed his exhibition, Polymorphic Sculpture: Leo Amino’s Experiments in Three Dimensions, at the Zimmerli Museum (October 20, 2018–April 12, 2020), organized by Donna Gustafson, Curator of American Art and Mellon Director for Academic Programs, Amino was all but forgotten.

Let’s put his near-invisibility in a racial context. Although Amino exhibited with Ruth Asawa and Isamu Noguchi, two other artists of Japanese descent, between 1939 (when he and Noguchi exhibited together at the World’s Fair) and 1958 (when he and Asawa were in the Whitney Annual), he remains the least known of the three. Asawa, we should remember, began to gain attention only 15 years ago. Noguchi, the best known of the three, realized early on that he had to do a lot on his own behalf to become established. This included opening the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York, in 1985, three years before his death.

The fact that there were three innovative sculptors of Asian descent making work unlike anyone else in America during the rise and eventual predominance of Minimalism, Pop Art, and Conceptual Art begs this question: Why hasn’t their collective achievement and resolute independence been recognized? To further underscore the invisibility of artists of Asian descent, and their important historical contributions to American art, I would add to this group the Korean-born sculptor John Pai (b. 1937), who taught sculpture at Pratt from 1965 until his retirement in 2000.

These are just some of the reasons why the exhibition Leo Amino: The Visible and the Invisible at David Zwirner (July 6-July 31, 2020), curated by Genji Amino, the artist’s grandson, is a major event. The exhibition encompasses 22 sculptures realized through different processes and materials, and five works on paper from the same notebook, all dated 1949 and measuring 6 by 9 inches.

Leo Amino, “Horizon” (1962) (© the Estate of Leo Amino, courtesy the Estate of Leo Amino and David Zwirner)

Amino, a self-taught sculptor, seemed to make his art without relying on preliminary drawings. He worked primarily in two radically different materials, wood and polyester resin. He was inspired by the abstract side of Surrealism (especially biomorphic forms) and László Moholy-Nagy’s Plexiglas sculptures, characterized by light, transparency, and shadow. While these two currents are distinct from each other, and may even seem incommensurable, they convey Amino’s underlying interest in science, from unnamable biological shapes to the transmission of light and color.

At the same time, it is also clear that Amino transformed these inspirations and precedents into something all his own. The exhibition suggests that the artist never became interested in making a signature work: he was too restless and open to experimenting to settle into a mode of production or become wedded to a process or material. While this restlessness probably didn’t help him secure an art-world reputation, it does evoke his joyous curiosity to discover the possibilities of a given material.

While I was walking around the exhibition, which spans three gallery spaces, I was able to talk to Genji Amino about my thoughts since I first saw the artist’s work. Amino’s sculptures are always human scale — he never made a monumental work. His polyester resin pieces seem to belong on a pedestal or table, where they can be closely scrutinized. I learned from his grandson that Amino, who lived in the West Village, always made his work in his apartment (a point that seems particularly apt during the Covid-19 pandemic).

Despite Amino’s artistic milieu in the 1940s and ’50s, his grandson further confirmed that he never pursued the geometric or the gestural, and thought Franz Kline’s paintings were pseudo-calligraphy writ large (this was not the first time I heard this view expressed by an artist of Asian descent).

Amino never hung out at the Cedar Bar or the Club, nor did he become a member of the American Abstract Artists — the three social gatherings in New York for modern artists in the ’40s and ’50s. He seemed to have no desire to becoming part of a group. Yet he was not interested in identifying himself as a Japanese artist, which is what he felt Noguchi and the painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi had done. It’s clear that Amino was neither interested in making identity the key to his art nor concerned about fitting in because he likely knew that he never could; his art could be said to reflect that realization.

Leo Amino, “Trinity” (1948) (© the Estate of Leo Amino, courtesy the Estate of Leo Amino and David Zwirner)

The earliest sculpture in the exhibition, “Composition # 10,” is made of acrylic and paint and dated 1948, while the latest are “Refractional #75” and “Refractional #85” (both made of polyester resin and dated 1972). Even when he was working with a particular material or process, he did not like to settle down. This meant that when he was developing a series, such as the “Refractionals,” the works are quite different from each other.

He made two mobiles in his career, “Trinity” (1948), which is in the Zwirner show, and another in 1959. Is there something counterintuitive about making a mobile that measures 55 by 66 by 6 inches out of wood and wire, particularly when the wood is heavy and there is nothing aerodynamic about the shapes? One aspect of Amino’s genius is that he does something so direct and unexpected that you are brought up short.

The title seems to refer to the three sets of objects hanging from the abstract, hand-carved armature: two objects hanging from each end and one in the middle. Although the mobile is balanced, the horizontal arm slants down, which is disarming. It certainly got me to keep looking. At the same time, the thicker end of the horizontal arm is higher, which led me to try and figure out why it is oriented this seemingly illogical way.

In the “Refractional” works, Amino built up layers of transparent resin, carefully suspending a colored shape within the resin block, merging color and defined form within the larger transparent form. (The merging of color and form also preoccupied Donald Judd.) In some works, the colored shape is opaque; in others, it is semi-transparent. Different forms and planes are defined within some pieces, each tinged along the edges by a color. Gathered in a group, as they are in this exhibition, it becomes apparent that Amino was testing the possibilities that resin provided him. It wasn’t a means to an end so much as a means to a discovery. For this reason there is no signature “Refractional.”

Leo Amino, “Refractional #1” (1965) (© the Estate of Leo Amino, courtesy the Estate of Leo Amino and David Zwirner)

Made more than 50 years ago, “Refractional #1” (1965, polyester resin, 7 3/8 by 6 5/8 by 3 5/8 inches), still looks fresh. Amino began using polyester resin in the 1940s. His works anticipate as well as overlap with the work of California Light and Space artists such as Helen Pashgian, De Wain Valentine, and Larry Bell, and their use of industrial resin, plastic, and glass.

Made of thousands of pieces of opaque acrylic in various sizes, which have been glued together and held within a freestanding wooden frame, “Horizon” (1962, 39 by 59 1/2 by 6 3/4 inches) is a cloudy wall through which light passes and shadows seem to become suspended within the faceted edifice. One wonders if Jack Whitten ever saw this work.

What the carved wood mobile and sculptures, the “Refractionals,” and “Horizon” have in common is that they were assembled piece by piece without relying on any of the processes associated with Minimalism. They are not modular, fabricated, or composed of readymades. Difference, rather than repetition, is key.

The piece that took my breath away is “Composition #25” (1952, polyester resin and wood, 12 by 17 by 1 1/8 inches). When I first saw “Composition #25” at the Zimmerli, I was bowled over. In this work and “Winter Scene” (1951, polyester resin and wood, 24 by 8 3/8 by 5 1/8 inches), Amino combines polyester resin and wood to establish a wholly new sculptural territory in the early 1950s that went completely unnoticed by the art world.

Leo Amino, “Composition #25” (1952) (© the Estate of Leo Amino, courtesy the Estate of Leo Amino and David Zwirner)

“Composition #25” is a resin slab in which Amino has suspended thread, netting, seed-like forms, and pieces of carved wood, which occupy declivities in the resin. The combination of seed-like beads and pod-like forms suggests birth and regeneration that might be halted or “frozen” by the resin. “Composition #25” is a relief sculpture and delicate drawing in a shallow space. It is unlike any other sculpture I have seen. The “#25” suggests that 24 works combining these materials preceded it. There should be a show of them — the Museum of Modern Art should dedicate a wall to them.

If museums really want to embrace diversity, there ought to be an exhibition of four sculptors of Asian descent who went their own ways between the 1940s and ’80s, when Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop Art, and Conceptual Art occupied the American art world’s attention. A celebration of their steadfast independence would say something the art world has not said before, largely because it still has not gotten around to acknowledging the multiplicity of races in this country.

Leo Amino: The Visible and the Invisible, curated by Genji Amino, continues at David Zwirner (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 31. Advance gallery appointments are encouraged.

comments (0)