“The Invisible Thread”

Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, Snug Harbor Cultural Center

What makes a work of art “Buddhist”? This question is like a koan, a riddle that can only be experienced, not expressed in words. In this show about the Buddhist spirit in contemporary American art, Bill Viola’s video The Reflecting Pool, 1977–79 perfectly summarizes some of the fundamental steps of Buddhist experience: self-inquiry, the negation of the individual ego, the interrelatedness of all human beings and nature. A man comes from a wood to a pool, looks into it, and jumps; when he’s in midair, the image freezes, and his body slowly disappears; time passes in silence; suddenly he emerges naked from the pool and walks back into nature. Viola conveys the radical transformation of mind that occurs in the practice of meditation, when the individual ego is purified until it disappears, the aesthetic and the ethical merge, and the void gives rise to innocent and spontaneous action.

But Viola’s video is a standout in this overcrowded, missed opportunity to explore what has been a fertile alternative for Western artists and thinkers since at least the ’50s. The exhibition’s misplaced focus is epitomized in Lewis deSoto’s Paranirvana (self-portrait), 2003, located at the museum’s entrance. A giant reclining Buddha made out of bluish gray canvas is filled by a hidden (but noisy) fan; its face is a portrait of the artist. Kitsch and Ego are conflated here, and the point is missed entirely.

Amid an excess of works, even the most effective lose weight and value. Silent and inspired pieces such as Marina Abramović’s quartz pillows, Pat Steir’s red splashing waterfall painting, Max Gimblett’s effortless black ink circle, and Andrew Ginzel’s anamorphic Buddha were grouped together with works as superficial as Philip Taaffe’s paintings of sword handles, as weak as Judith Murray’s academic abstractions, and as frankly ugly as Alex Grey’s artschool psychedelia (not to mention the inclusion of Richard Gere’s foggy snapshots—oh, the seduction of celebrity!). Works that distort Buddhist dictates and verge on the psychedelic, the trinketlike, or the perfunctory are put on the same plane as pieces profoundly infused with the spirit of Buddhist teachings.

In this context it was practically impossible to evaluate the impact of seminal figures such as John Cage, Isamu Noguchi, James Lee Byars (grouped together in a gallery of so-called pioneers, with a few, hardly representative works), and Agnes Martin on subsequent generations. Cage seems particularly shortchanged: Journeying through Buddhist practices and themes (the sound of silence, the complementary nature of fullness and void), he set Western artistic conventions aflame, employing chance operations to address the infinite potential of art and life and influencing artists as diverse as Steir, Yoko Ono, and William Anastasi. Nam June Paik’s Cage in Cage, 1995—video footage of John Cage laughing shown on several tiny monitors inside a birdcage—is in fact an affectionate homage to this master of paradox, portraying him as a living, joyous Buddha. But because the curators have not fully contextualized Cage, Paik’s work comes across as a mere one-liner. (Cocurator Robyn Brentano’s text does give Cage his due, but the catalogue was not available to the public at the time of the show.)

While the experience of emptiness as a state of infinite potentiality is at the core of Buddhist practice, here we saw only redundancy. It would have been vastly preferable to include a smaller number of highly representative artists, make a more focused selection of their work, and install it in a contemplative space where the effectiveness of the void could be expressed. Instead the all-inclusive approach of the four curators—Brentano, Olivia Georgia, Roger Lipsey, and Lilly Wei—resulted in a focus on subject matter at the expense of substance.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.