A good museum does more than display treasures. It tests the accepted narratives of culture, checking for omissions and distortions. In that way a museum not only opens minds but changes them. The Honolulu Museum of Art is currently mounting an original and probably onetime-only exhibit, Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West. That title hardly conveys the spunky attitude and local relevance of this show, which retells the story of mid-twentieth-century Western art by adding a lost chapter on “Asian artists,” many of them from Hawai‘i.
For the first time in the Islands, viewers will have the opportunity to experience major works by New York artists from the 1940s and ’50s: Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. These men are all towering figures of abstract expressionism—an artistic movement that boldly refused to be representational or anything other than pure visual expression. Alongside them will be artists once dismissed as “Asian,” proving that these artists from the Pacific—many of whom were from remote parts of Hawai‘i—weren’t merely following the art fad of their day. Instead, they were informing the East Coast artists with their deep under-standing of Zen Buddhism, Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, sumi-e brushwork and their non-Western aesthetic sensibility. But because of their remoteness from New York, they have never taken their rightful place in the canon of abstract expressionism. They couldn’t join the team, so to speak, but they invented a lot of the plays.
“Abstract Expressionism was the first movement in American art to put America on the map” of world art, says Theresa Papanikolas, HoMA’s deputy director of art and programs and the creative force driving the new exhibit. But it self-identified with New York, the cultural capital of the post-World War II world. “It became associated with a handful of artists,” says Papanikolas, “with signature styles endorsed by a set of critics and galleries that launched them into posterity.” As a result, “all these other artists fell out of the story.”
So until January 21 you can encounter Isami Doi, Tadashi Sato, Satoru Abe and a dozen other under-praised greats. And that will not only change the story; it might change your mind.