Asian-American Art Is Plagued by Generational Amnesia

Over the recent Lunar New Year weekend, I attended the opening and panel discussion for the exhibition Scratching at the Moon at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The show is described on the museum’s website as the “first focused survey of Asian American artists in a major Los Angeles contemporary art museum.” In a city with such long-standing, vibrant, Asian-American communities, this assertion seems unbelievable, but it is true. Of course, there are only three or four “major” contemporary art institutions here. Being “first” in such limited company is perhaps not remarkable, but neither is racism in elite cultural institutions.

However narrowly construed, the claim to be “first” minimizes the history of exhibitions of contemporary art by Asian Americans that have been taking place in and around Los Angeles for over 20 years. Shifting Perceptions: Contemporary L.A. Visions was curated by Betty Phoenix Wan Hamada at the USC Pacific Asia Museum in 2000; artists Việt Lê, Yong Soon Min, and curator Leta Ming brought us humor us at the Municipal Art Gallery in 2007; and One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now, curated by Melissa Chiu, Karin Higa, and Susette S. Min, was a traveling exhibition that made a stop at the Japanese American National Museum in 2008. These are just three among many others organized by curators based in Southern California like Kris Kuramitsu, Sonia Mak, Steven Wong, and Rebecca Hall. None of these shows took place in a “contemporary art museum,” but that distinction feels pedantic — contemporary art by Asian Americans has long been an undeniable part of the Los Angeles scene. Although the Scratching opening event nodded to some Asian-American predecessors — the late, much-missed Higa, and the New York-based art collective Godzilla — there was little attempt to situate the show within this history or explain how it reflected or enriched the established discourse around Asian-American art. Must we always be “emerging”?

The desire to be “first,” which I understand is often a selling point for securing funding, also strains the bonds of community by playing into the Eurocentric modernist notion that rupture with the past is required to move forward. More importantly, when Asian Americans court recognition and validation from the White art establishment and direct attention and resources there, it is often at the expense of the smaller, community-led organizations that have supported us all along. Seeking this validation can also distract or distance us from making common cause with other marginalized folks. If we dust off our hands and declare, “We’ve made it!” we might turn away from the larger, less glamorous project of chipping away at the divisive forces and systems that created the idea of “making it” in the first place. We’ve seen this happen before with the myth of the “model minority.”

During the question and answer session at the Scratching opening, I asked how the current exhibition relates to those that came before. Panelist and artist Amy Yao responded by acknowledging that a certain amount of generational forgetting has occurred. This made me feel frustrated that a younger generation doesn’t recognize or perhaps even know about past efforts to create visibility for Asian-American artists. It also made me feel sad. In some ways, my generation has failed to pass this knowledge down. But then it also reminded me of my time in Asian-American arts organizing in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s. I used to get annoyed at the older generation who seemed to want us young folks to do everything: the writing, the fundraising, the printing, the schlepping. Now I understand how they must’ve felt. They were tired. Tired of watching us wake up, yet again, to an art world and a nation where it seems no amount of progress cannot be undone or forgotten.

This forgetting applies not just to the history of Asian-American exhibitions, but to the proposals many of them made to trouble and explode the category itself. As has been oft-noted, Asian Americans are a polyglot group bonded by common experiences with racism and xenophobia, but who are mostly lumped together by others without regard for the myriad ways our communities are textured by class, ethnic, linguistic, and other differences. When One Way or Another debuted at the Asia Society in New York in 2006, my friend Susette S. Min titled her catalogue essay “The Last Asian American Exhibition in the Whole Entire World.” It was an ironic cry of exasperation; she was so troubled by the ghettoizing, tokenizing, and essentializing effects of Asian-American exhibitions (mind you, in the midst of curating one) that she went on to write a book about it. Unnamable: The Ends of Asian American Art looks at how some Asian American artists employ promiscuous aesthetic strategies that expose, critique, and defy the racist, capitalist, and patriarchal structures that keep all of us — not just Asian Americans — apart from one another. For her, the ill-defined, ever-shifting landscape of “Asian-American art” provides a way of thinking about affiliation and coalition-building across the lines within which the dominant culture expects us to paint.

“Asian-American art” is a category we can’t live with and can’t live without. To be sure, we’ve made progress in the conventional sense. In the ’90s, there were only a handful of Asian-American artists who had attained the prominence that many of the artists in Scratching enjoy: international gallery representation, tenured professorships, group and solo museum exhibitions. Asian-American art also now has an institutional home with the Asian American Art Initiative at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, whose website notes that it is “dedicated to the study of artists and makers of Asian descent.” And yet, the question remains: Why continue to build a separate art history based on an exceedingly leaky racial category? We may forestall future generational forgetting, but will we ever be able to talk about the work of Asian-American artists in a way that acknowledges the racism and exclusion they face without it being the only thing we talk about? Their work deserves better, and more.

I have used Scratching perhaps a bit unfairly as an excuse to think through these issues, and I admit that I am more unhappy with how the show is contextualized than with the experience of seeing it. Created as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying rise in anti-Asian hate, the exhibition, to paraphrase curator and artist Anna Sew Hoy, makes visible a network of Asian-American artists and supporters in Los Angeles (embodied in the formation of the AAPI Arts Network around the same time). It traces the contours of a particular community, and as I walked through the galleries, I sensed a tenuous web of thematic and interpersonal connections that deepened my appreciation for the artists, many of whom I have followed for years. I don’t know if those who are less familiar with these histories will perceive these ties, but perhaps they will pick up on the energy. Scratching feels like it was created for us, the Asian-American denizens of the LA art scene, and that should’ve been enough.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of the artist Yong Soon Min (1953–2024), who led the way for so many of us.

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