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Exhibitions of the Week: Japanese Art, Then and Now at the Asia Society and MoMA

Exhibitions of the Week: Japanese Art, Then and Now at the Asia Society and MoMA

Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan (Until May 8 at the Asia Society Museum)

Perhaps the most profound artistic innovations are the ones that call the least attention to themselves. Two such devices emerged in the Kamakura period (1185-1333), a time when Japanese sculpture flourished. The first, the use of joined woodblock construction, enabled Japanese artists to create exceptionally dynamic forms, or at the very least to make the draperies of static figures increasingly tense and convincing. The second, the adoption of inset crystal eyes, makes some of those otherwise static figures seem positively alive. Although the Kamakura period wasn't entirely a Japanese Renaissance, the parallels -- and the spate of breakthrough techniques -- are certainly in evidence. The Tale of Genji here, The Decameron there; the turbulence of the heavens leading the Italians to new sculptural heights, the serenities of Buddhism welling up in the wooden effigies of Kamakura.

Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality is an unimpeachably beautiful exhibition. It gives professional fault-finders like me precious little to dwell over, and its single-floor and single-gallery presentation gives museumgoers, professional or not, no chance to meander away. Previous Asia Society showcases, like the variegated Buddhist Art of Myanmar, sprawled in comparison. This one manifests itself in three sections -- "Form and Presence," "Ritual and Devotional Contexts," and "Empowering Interiors" - that, despite their frequent subdivisions, warp together into one alluring whole. For those of us (or, really, most of us) who see sculptural mastery through Western eyes, there are parts of the showcase that aren't necessarily easy to gauge: while Kamakura masters developed distinctive styles and aggressively claimed creative ownership of their works, those masters are hard to tell apart without the kind of critical mass of items that, say, a solid group of Michelangelos can offer. We are left, perhaps, to revel in the details. And what details they are - an effervescent Flying Attendant on a Cloud in gilded wood, a carved water buffalo that perfectly reconciles realism and stylization, those woodblock draperies sweeping past, those crystal eyes pounding into your soul.

A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond (Until July 4 at the Museum of Modern Art)

The impulse to imitate nature through art may be as old as art itself, but seldom has it been quite as grand or quite as unabashed as in A Japanese Constellation. In structure and in theme, the showcase is at times overwhelming: it angles itself through one of MoMA's middle floor galleries, a floorplan that is designed to make you wonder, again and again, whether you've just missed something important. Maybe, maybe not: although headliner Toyo Ito and his exploratory compositions set the template for the architectural designs on display, younger Japanese innovators take his prioritization of space and shadow, industry and intuition in new directions. (Highlights include Akihisa Hirata's neuron-like foam forms and, especially, the creations of Sou Fujimoto, whose architecture ranges from orbiting, layered ramps to white latticeworks that could be overgrown riffs on Sol LeWitt.) All told, MoMA's exhibition roundly demonstrates that "organic public architecture" has many more dimensions than "I once visited something by Frank Lloyd Wright." Art, architecture, and life have more to offer than that.

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From This Author Patrick Kennedy

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