With New Eyes: Toward an Asian American Art History in the West • San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA – 1995



San Francisco State University exhibition Sept. 24-Oct. 26 will showcase Asian American art of the West from the Gold Rush through 1965, much of it never before publicly displayed.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. – The art of more than 75 Asian American artists, all from the West, will be exhibited this fall at San Francisco State University during a first-ever historical survey of West Coast Asian American art created during a 100-year-plus period. The exhibition recognizes and celebrates the Asian American artistic renaissance in the American West from Gold Rush days to 1965 and attempts to restore that art and its history to their rightful positions in American art history.

Similar to the black artists who contributed to a rich artistic renaissance in New York’s Harlem, Asian American artists in the Bay Area flourished during the 1920s and 30s. The art they created enriched the cultural life of the San Francisco area with artistic self expressions that drew both from their pasts and their experiences of the American West.

Described by exhibition organizers as “a story that has not yet been told,” the collection of art represents a rich part of American art history not previously celebrated because of anti-Asian sentiment during the past century. That sentiment resulted first in strict immigration laws and ultimately the internment camps of the Word War II era.

The exhibition, titled With New Eyes: Towards an Asian American Art History in the West, features art produced by Chinese American, Japanese American, Filipino American, and Korean American artists and highlights the work of 19th Century photography studios, the “Golden Age” of the 1920s and 30s Asian American arts organizations, art produced during internment, and the post-war renaissance in painting, sculpture and craft.

The exhibition consists of painting, prints, photographs, family portraits, sculpture and ceramic pieces, and includes works by San Francisco area artists Ruth Asawa, Chiura Obata, Yun Gee, and Roberto Vallangca as well as Seattle artist George Tsutakawa.

The exhibition attempts to capture a cross-section of the phenomenal work created by artists who belonged to the four major Aisan American art organizations that thrived in the Bay Area around 1920. During that period, photography, print making and painting flourished. Some estimate that at least half of the artists producing the work were women.

“Their eyes might have been trained in Asia, and some of them showed their root connections to the old world, but their attention honed in on the West,” writes novelist Maxime Hong Kingston in a catalogue essay about the exhibition’s artists and their works. “I think that the artist who learned to see in Asia could see the West with fresh eyes, maybe see better the reality of Yosemite and the Sierra and the redwoods. These works celebrate and praise the world that the artists found among them, the people they met here, the Native Americans, the landscapes. What that means is that they claimed this place as theirs through art,” Kingston writes.

“Looking at this material is like looking at a new vision,” says Mark Johnson, San Francisco State University Art Department Gallery director and coordinating curator of the exhibition. “It contradicts stereotypes. It enables us to look at history with new eyes and to look at a contribution not before acknowledged.”

Some of the art has not been exhibited since before the turn of the century and was discovered in the closets, basements, attics and personal collections of families who for generations acted as its guardians and held it in safekeeping.

A major emphasis of the exhibition is an extensive collection of photographs that represent the first survey of San Francisco’s Chinatown photography studios, which flourished at the turn of the century. “These photographs show us how Chinese Americans wanted to depict themselves, how they wanted to be remembered,” Johnson says.

“A large number of photographic studios were operated by Asians in San Francisco during the late 1800s and early 1900s,” says Irene Poon Andersen, another of the exhibition’s curators and slide curator of the S.F. State Art Department.

Most of these were portrait studios producing clear and honest records of people as they wanted to be viewed, she says. There isn’t the exoticism that sometimes dominates photographs taken by an outsider in a community such as Chinatown.

“Although there were over 50 active studios in San Francisco during this period, Asian photographers were never credited with their contributions to this art form in the written histories of early photography,” says Andersen.

A touching aspect of the exhibition will bring descendants of the artists together during a morning segment of a day-long educational program Oct. 21 at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. Sponsored by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in collaboration with the West Coast Office of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, and San Francisco State University, that event will feature premier art scholars of the period ad the artist’s family members in a discussion of Asian American Art.

This exhibition is concurrent with the run of an exhibition titled Asia-America which opens October 12 at the San Francisco Center for the Arts. That exhibition will also explore the broad role of Asian American artists in the art history of the United States.

San Francisco’s State’s With New Eyes exhibition is being collaboratively organized and curated and is supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation of San Francisco, the LEF Foundation of St. Helena, and the university.

For more information about the exhibition, which is free and open to the public, and the September 24th opening reception and related events, call the San Francisco State University Art Department at 415-338-2176.