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Asian American and Pacific Island Modernist Art  

Tom Wolf

Artists of Asian descent made substantial contributions to the artistic culture of the United States, incorporating practices that were different from the European-based traditions—like painting with water-soluble pigments rather than oil paint, choosing Asian subjects, and signing their works in the Asian fashion. Coming across the Pacific Ocean, some immigrants settled in Hawaii where Isami Doi, born of Japanese parents, became an influential artist. Doi typifies characteristics that are found in many Asian American artists in that he excelled at several media: printmaking, painting, and jewelry design. And he traveled extensively, spending time in Paris and over a decade in New York. The West Coast of the United States became a center for people coming across the Pacific, and major cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles developed Asian communities with active artistic cultures. Chinese immigrants were drawn to the San Francisco area because of the economic boom around the gold rush and the building of the railroads, but they also inspired prejudice, and harsh immigration laws were enacted in 1888. This halted immigration from China and bolstered it from Japan, until another law in 1924 restricted that as well. Yun Gee, of Chinese descent, in San Francisco made aggressively modern, brightly colored, and geometrically abstracted portraits before moving to Paris and then New York where his style became more expressionistic. The Asian communities in Seattle and Los Angeles included artists who worked in photography as well as painting, and some moved further east across the United States to pursue their careers in the Midwest or, more commonly, New York, the artistic center of the country. In the 1920s and 1930s, Yasuo Kuniyoshi became well known in the New York art world for his sensitively handled, sometimes humorous, sometimes erotic paintings and prints. Nevertheless, he and his peers who were born in Asia were forbidden by law from becoming citizens, something he desired, as his entire artistic career was in the United States. The sculptor Isamu Noguchi came to prominence after being nurtured by some of the Japanese American artists in Kuniyoshi’s circle, particularly Itaro Ishigaki. Noguchi is best known for the organically shaped carved stone sculptures he made after World War II, but he was also famous as a designer of modernist furniture and lamps using Japanese materials. Both he and Kuniyoshi suffered after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, while on the West Coast Japanese Americans were herded into detention camps, often losing their jobs and their homes in the process. Chiura Obata, for example, was removed from his prestigious teaching position at the University of California at Berkeley and put in a camp where he taught art. There he switched from making luminous landscapes of Yosemite to painting camp scenes of confinement and regimentation—once he was allowed to paint at all. The postwar years were a period of recovery, and new generations of Asian American artists emerged, exploring abstract styles and creating new incarnations of the multicultural art that was pioneered in the works of their Asian American predecessors.