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Lions Roar : March 2006
REVIEWS z ...... E--< p::: V) Z l? @ z o V) ÇQ o u .....:i .....:i ...... ÇQ o E--< o ::r: p., z o ...... E--< U .....:i .....:i o U E--< p., Art Is a Record of the Heart SMILE OF THE BUDDHA: Eastern Philosophy and Western Art from Monet to Today By Jacquelynn Baas, with a Foreword by Robert A. F. Thurman University of California Press, 2005; 288 pp.; $45 (cloth) REVIEWED BY ROGER LIPSEY IF YOU GO LOOKING FOR THE BUDDHA, you may find him in unexpected places-perhaps even in a painting or a sculpture that at first glance bears no relation to a spiritual tradition. In recent years, a number of us have been exploring how Buddhism has influenced contemporary art. On the West Coast, Jacquelynn Baas, director emeritus of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and a group of cowork- ers conducted seminars and exhibitions for several years and published two accomplished books: Smile of the Buddha and an earlier book, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art. On the East Coast, Olivia Georgia and her colleagues-I was among them-conducted exhibitions and seminars throughout the New York region that led in time to an exhibition at Snug Harbor Cultural Center. An elegant catalogue, The Invisible Thread: Buddhist Spirit in Contemporary Art, records the exhibition. Books and catalogues preserve something of the essence of these art events. It's good to have them. Smile of the Buddha is a steadily insightful, beautifully il- lustrated survey of Buddhist influence on twenty artists from Monet to our contemporaries. Some of the artists, particularly the mid-century figures John Cage and Isamu Noguchi, were not shy about acknowledging the shaping power of Buddhist ideas and aesthetics for their art. The influence on earlier art- ists-Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin, Redon-is less clear-cut, yet Baas assembles persuasive evidence to support the vague notion many of us have that Japanese prints and Buddhist texts played some role in the development of their art. With Baas as our guide, Monet's multiple paintings of haystacks at various times of day and in varied weather become a uniquely perceptive study of impermanence, a multi-paneled screen with sequential images rather than separate works. Monet's friendship with a cultured Japanese art dealer in Paris is not a trivial fact; it implies conversations, the most powerful agent of learning and change. Wherever one chooses to draw the line in time when Buddhist influence became truly notice- able in the West, it's probably too late. My own line is drawn alongside a haunting photograph of colorfully robed speakers Agnes Martin, "Cow," 1960. at the World Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893, where the young D.T. Suzuki served as translator for Soyen Shaku Roshi. But that's probably too late. It's perhaps no accident that Baas illustrates in the Nogu- chi chapter a work that appeared in our Snug Harbor exhibi- tion: "Seen and Unseen;' a pair of related bronze floor pieces. The first is a small primordial swelling as if from the earth below, the second a somewhat taller but equally simple heap of life and possibility. Passing this work in the exhibition, I would recall the Sanskrit term vyaktavyakta, which Ananda K. Coomaraswamy expounded with dry eloquence: "... the uncharacterized Person is 'beyond' both the shown and the unshown, transcending their distinction, not to be thought of merely as one or the other, but rather as vyaktavyakta, 'shown - unshown.'" But this particular piece is a modest work in Noguchi's oeuvre. Had we had but time and money and a crane, we would surely have chosen to exhibit one of the great stones from Noguchi's late years, in which the ancient no- tion of the "uncarved block" becomes paradoxically evident through ingenious cuts, excavations, and surface treatments that leave the mass of the stone unchanged. Standing before such a work, one can have no doubt that the spiritual in art is not only of some other time but also of some other place more securely religious than our own. SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2006 81