Lecture: Alexandra Munroe: Asian American Artist and the Transmission of the East to the American Avant-Garde
March 25, 2009

The use of Asian art and thought to inspire new forms of artistic expression is one of the greatest forces in the history of modern art in America. Over and over, artists deliberately eschewed European empiricism and utilitarianism in favor of Eastern culture, to forge an independent artistic identity that would define the modern age—and the modern mind—in terms of a transcendentalist understanding of existence and consciousness.  Many were devoted to challenging the perception that American modernism was a derivative of Europe, claiming an alternative intellectual and geographic identity, moored to the Pacific, rather than Atlantic Coast of America. They forged new levels of contact with the East and pursued the selective adaptation of transcendentalist, expressionist, and minimalist ideas and art forms to create not just a new style of abstract art, but also a new theoretical definition of the contemplative experience and role of art itself. Central to this process were the activities of Asian American and Asian-born artists who served as a catalyst in the transmission of Asian art and sensibilities to the American vanguard. These include Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Yun Gee, Isamu Noguchi, Kenzo Okada, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, and Natvar Bhavsar.  In this lecture, Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, illustrated the innovations mediated and forged by these artists, and explored a critical force in the history of American modern art.

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Recognized internationally as a pioneer in the field of modern Asian art, Ms. Munroe joined the Guggenheim in 2006, where she heads the Asian Art Program. In 2009, she organized The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, which won Best Thematic Exhibition in New York City by the International Art Critics Association (AICA). In 2008, she co-curated Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe which was among the best-attended shows in the museum’s history; its catalogue won the 2008 Wittenborn Prize for outstanding scholarship, design, and production. She also commissioned a sculptural installation, Memory, by Anish Kapoor, for exhibition at Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin (2008), and organized the historical exhibition, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, which ran at the Guggenheim in early 2009. From 1998-2005, Ms. Munroe served as Vice President of Arts & Culture at the Japan Society, New York, and Director of the Japan Society Gallery. While at the Japan Society, she directed two exhibitions subsequently selected by the New York Times as Number One Best Show of the Year. Among her other landmark exhibitions and publications are: Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective (1989), Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky (1994), The Art of Mu Xin (2002), and YES YOKO ONO (2000). The latter won First Prize for Best Museum Show Originating in New York City from the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). AICA also awarded Ms. Munroe, as project director, First Prize for Best Thematic Show in New York City for Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (2005), curated by Takashi Murakami.

Ms. Munroe holds a B.A. from Sophia University, Tokyo, an M.A. from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and a Ph.D. in History from New York University, where her research focused on modern East Asian intellectual history.  She is a Trustee of the U.S.- Japan Foundation; Institute of Fine Arts, New York University; The Korea Society, New York; and Longhouse Reserve. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She publishes widely, and lectures frequently on Asian art in Europe, North America, and Asia.

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