Opinion: Japanese Art is Underestimated in U.S. History

Wherever the United States has been in contemporary art, Japan got there first. This is especially true of art movements in the 50s and 60s.

In 1950s America, Zen Buddhism became increasingly popular especially among young liberals and artists. The Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki is credited with “bringing Zen to America” through his books and lectures.  He met many important 1950s artists at a hangout in New York city called “The Club” where they would discuss philosophers, writers, and other artists. Notable members included John Cage, Marcel Duncamp, Alan Watts, and Ad Reinhardt.

During the 50s, Abstract Expressionism was the most popular art form and the community of artists involved enjoyed discussing and reading about Zen. In traditional Zen paintings, the artwork isn’t limited to the image but is something felt inside the viewer and doesn’t have to be naturalistic. The purpose of Abstract Expressionism is to evoke feelings in the viewer and it is never representational of real-world objects. Almost as if we borrowed an idea from the Japanese… While Zen art emphasizes the Buddhists ideals of harmony between all things, Abstract Expressionism is meant to convey an individual’s feelings.

Leading up to the 60’s, the most admired thinkers discussed by “The Club” were anti-intellectualists. These are thinkers who prioritize intuition and feeling over logic and often have a great respect for nature. Perhaps the most famous are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Not surprisingly, many artists in New York at the time (including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauchenburg), who later pursued Pop Art, overheard these conversations and showed appreciation for Zen. I can’t help but wonder  if the combination of Zen and anti-intellectual philosophy created a somewhat ironic uprising of the Pop Artists (who rebelled against Abstract Expressionism). As I explain in my post, The New York Theory, Pop Artists aimed to create art anyone can understand and valued objectivity in art. Although appealing to the masses isn’t expressive of Zen, the ideas of objectivity and including everyone in “fine art” are. For a movement that valued anti-intellectualism, Abstract Expressionists spent a lot of time discussing it. I’m not sure Pop Artists were impressed by that.

Composer John Cage with D.T. Suzuki

American and British 1960s artists received the most attention but many influential artists were Japanese.  Although Johns and Rauchenburg will forever be my favorites as the ones who introduced me to this beautiful world of art, in my personal opinion, Japanese artists  are the most thoughtful, radical, and underestimated. In my next post, I’ll introduce you to these extraordinary people!

Watts, A. (1958). The Spirit of Zen. New York , NY: Grove Press

Westgeest, H. (1996). Zen in the Fifties. Zwolle: Waanders Printers

One thought on “Opinion: Japanese Art is Underestimated in U.S. History”

  1. I’m looking forward to your next post. I will be following along with you on your explorations of Pop Art, and looking at the Asian contributions will be fascinating, for sure. I’m so glad you have this blog and they we were able to “connect” through our love of art.


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