If there is one thing I want you to take away from this show, the curator told an audience of museum members, it is that these works are three-dimensional works, not just paintings.
Wow, I thought, here is a curator at an art museum telling people not to look at a work as painting but, instead, to elevate (for that was the tone she used) their appreciation for these pieces to that of a three-dimensional work that included high craftsmanship in addition to its so-called fine art qualities.
The museum was the Art Institute of Chicago, and the show was “Beyond Golden Clouds: Japanese Screens from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Saint Louis Art Museum.” I was there to review the show for the Wall Street Journal, and I came away wondering whether the contemporary screens, if displayed alone amid contemporary sculptures and paintings, would have elicited the same remarks about craft. Rauschenberg’s 1964 Gold Standard, for example? Has anyone read in descriptions of this work anything about the construction of the screen, the tradition of Japanese screen-making, or the decorative and practical uses of this form? Everything I have read discusses the work primarily in the context of Rauschenberg’s use of found objects and his personal journey as an artist. The texts I have read do precisely what curator Janice Katz almost begged her audience not to do: essentially reduce the Japanese screens on display to fine art.
I could not agree more. Whether we are talking about a 17th-century, traditionally constructed screen with florals or 20th-century works that explore new materials and techniques, the works are all the richer for being experienced in their complexity — as paintings, as useful and practical partitions (I mean, is there anything more practical than a wall you can store in a closet?), as decorative accessories, as meticulously constructed works, as reminders of poetry,….
I am now curious about contemporary screens made in and outside Japan and how they are discussed in art writings — if anyone knows of any please pass the information along.
the screen at the top is by Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828); photo by the Art Institute of Chicago