Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Perspectives Asian Pacific American Heritage

Asian American Modernism with Abang-guard

Explore how four pioneering artists made their way in New York City.

Jun 9, 2022

Two suited men walk in opposite directions in a large room with white walls covered by large paintings

Since 2017, Maureen Catbagan and Jevijoe Vitung have mined their personal experience as security guards at The Met through their collaborative project, Abang-guard. They grapple with questions of labor, visibility, and cultural production in art institutions, and how these intersect with themes of immigration and subjectivity. Alongside original poetry by fellow Met security guard Louisa Lam, they draw attention to several modern and contemporary artworks in The Met collection—including paintings and sculptures by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Bumpei Usui, Isamu Noguchi, and Martin Wong—to highlight these pioneering yet understudied modernists’ contributions to art history.

Below is an edited transcript of the performative talk Abang-guard presented in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Yasuo Kuniyoshu (American, born Japan, 1889–1953). Self Portrait as a Photographer, 1924. Oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 30 1/4 in. (52.1 x 76.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982 (1984.433.11)

Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Self-Portrait as a Photographer (1924) captures the artist as he takes a photograph of a landscape painting. Kuniyoshi photographed artworks to supplement his income while attending the Arts Students League of New York. Born in Okoyama, Japan, in 1889, he immigrated to the United States in 1906, eventually settling in New York to pursue a career in art. At the League, he studied under the painter and printmaker Kenneth Hayes Miller, who also taught Rockwell Kent, Isabel Bishop, and Reginald Marsh. Kuniyoshi later taught there and in Woodstock, New York, where he also became a lifelong member of the Woodstock Art Colony. 

"A poem for all the Others" by Louisa Lam

One of Kuniyoshi’s strongest desires was to become an American citizen, but he was denied this recognition due to his immigration status. In fact, his first wife, the artist Katherine Schmidt, even lost her citizenship because of their marriage. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s subsequent Executive Order 9066, issued in 1942—which decreed the internment of Japanese Americans—further ingrained Kuniyoshi’s status as an “enemy alien,” despite his attempts to prove his patriotism with anti-Japanese militarist posters and propaganda for the Department of Defense. 

Notwithstanding this lack of citizenship, Kuniyoshi received notable recognition as an American artist. He was part of the 1929 exhibition ironically named Paintings by 19 Living Americans at the Museum of Modern Art, alongside artists such as Edward Hopper and and Georgia O’Keeffe, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935. Remarkably, he was the first living artist to receive a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1948 and was selected as one of several artists to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1952.


Left: El Greco (Greek, 1541–1614). Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (1541–1609), ca. 1600. Oil on canvas, 67 1/4 x 42 1/3 in. (170.8 x 108 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.5). Right: Marc Chagall (French, 1887–1985). The Lovers, 1913–14. Oil on canvas, 42 7/8 x 53 in. (108.9 x 134.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998 (1999.363.14). © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In this striking self-portrait, we can see how Kuniyoshi combined “Eastern” aesthetics such as dynamic diagonals and cropping typical of Japanese compositions with elements of modern American folk-art traditions. The work possesses the dream-like quality of a Chagall, as well as the ethereal lighting of El Greco’s landscapes and the famously elongated features of his portraiture. Here, Kuniyoshi’s backward glance also conveys a certain vigilance against the interrogations he likely faced as a Japanese citizen living in America at the time. The gray landscape painting he photographs could symbolize a window onto a land he wanted to call home but which remained foreign and out of reach.

Bumpei Usui’s The Furniture Factory (1925) depicts a bustling and vibrant factory filled with craftsmen and tools that Usui would be familiar with from his line of work. The artist was born in Nagano, Japan, in 1898 and came to the United States in 1921, where he attended the Art Students League and became lifelong friends with Kuniyoshi. While Usui gained recognition as a painter during his lifetime, he mostly focused on his successful framing business in Greenwich Village, which allowed him to work with many of the day’s leading painters. Usui and Kuniyoshi moved in the same artistic circles and supported each other; Usui sometimes provided funding for Kuniyoshi, and Kuniyoshi bequeathed a large portion of his paintings to Usui at the time of his death. 

Left: Bumpei Usui (American, born Japan, 1898–1994). The Furniture Factory, 1925. Oil on canvas, 36 x 43 in. (91.4 x 109.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, by exchange, 2014 (2014.142). Right: Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889–1975). America Today (detail), 1930–31. Ten panels: egg tempera with oil glazing over Permalba on a gesso ground on linen mounted to wood panels with a honeycomb interior, panel dimensions variable. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of AXA Equitable, 2012 (2012.478a–j)

In this painting, as with Kuniyoshi’s, we can see the strong diagonals of Japanese composition combined with the burgeoning American industrial aesthetic visible in Thomas Hart Benton’s mural America Today (1930–31). The framing of labor is especially poignant as it is one of the main themes of murals and paintings of that era, from Benton to Diego Rivera; it also resonates with a much earlier work like Utagawa Toyokuni’s The Mieido Fan Shop (ca. 1785–93), another densely populated workshop scene. This decision to make behind-the-scenes toil visible also resonates with us as security guards: we are part of the labor that protects, frames, and supports the Museum’s artworks. The workers in the factory are depicted with “Asian” features, perhaps to signal the diligence, craftsmanship, and productivity that they contribute to American society.

Utagawa Toyokuni (Japanese, 1769–1825). The Mieido Fan Shop, ca. 1785–93. Triptych of woodblock prints; ink and color on paper, 15 1/8 x 10 1/8 in. (38.4 x 25.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Howard Mansfield Collection, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1936 (JP2725)

Usui also faced harassment and interrogations during World War II but wasn’t interned in a camp as Roosevelt’s order mainly covered the western United States. Although Usui received critical acclaim for his participation in gallery exhibitions and traveling shows—including for the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project—he mostly stopped painting after 1949 and his work fell into obscurity. Usui’s art has received a resurgence of interest following the acquisition of The Furniture Factory by The Met in 2014.

"Lightness of birds" by Louisa Lam

Isamu Noguchi is known for his industrial and furniture designs, from the Noguchi coffee table to the round Akari paper lamps. He also did set design for Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, garden landscapes for UNESCO, and numerous public works such as his sunken garden in Manhattan. He saw no distinct separation between art and invention, form and function, instead perceiving a sense of dynamic interconnectedness between space, time, and bodies.

Left: Inscribed by Saotome Ienari (Japanese, active late 17th–early 18th century). Helment (Hoshi-Kabuto) in the 16th-Century Style. Iron, lacquer, silk, 11 3/4 x 13 in. (29.9 x 33 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Howard Mansfield Collection, Gift of Howard Mansfield, 1936 (36.120.407a, b). Right: Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988). “Radio Nurse,” 1937. Bakelite, cellulose acetate, 8 x 6 1/2 x 6 1/2 in. (20.3 x 16.5 x 16.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, John C. Waddell Collection, Gift of John C. Waddell, 2000 (2000.600.14). © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum

Born in Los Angeles in 1904, the son of Japanese poet Yone Noguchi and American writer Leonie Gilmour, Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan during his childhood but returned to the United States to attend high school in Rolling Prairie, Indiana. He briefly studied medicine at Columbia University but dropped out to pursue his passion for sculpture, supporting himself through portrait commissions. The sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s work especially resonated with Noguchi, and in 1926 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to visit Paris for a five-month apprenticeship under the revered artist. Upon returning to the United States, he collaborated with futurist architect Buckminster Fuller on several projects including the Dymaxion car and created the Zenith  “Radio Nurse” baby monitor, a minimalist take on the kendo helmet. 

"Here wings that break bone" by Louisa Lam

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Noguchi helped form the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, testified in hearings, and even volunteered to intern himself in a camp in Poston, Arizona, for seven months. That experience, and the later bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, greatly affected him. He sought to change our relationships to technology and nature by bringing them back into balance and moving us closer toward a sense of universal connection. He once described technology as “striving to go to the stars only to return back with a rock.”

Left: Marble statue of a kouros (youth). Greek, Attic, ca. 590–589 B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1932 (32.11.1). Middle: Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988). Kouros, 1945. Marble, Height: 9 ft. 9 in. x 42 1/8 in. x 34 1/8 in., 619 lb. (297.2 x 107 x 86.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1953 (53.87a–i). © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Constantin Brancusi (French, born Romania, 1876–1957). Bird in Space, 1923. Marble, Overall (with base): 56 3/4 x 6 1/2 in. (144.1 x 16.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of FLorene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.7ab). © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Kouros (1945) is one example of Noguchi’s desire for balance and universal connection, in which he bridges the classical and the modern through his deliberate reference of an ancient Greek kouros statue in The Met collection. His version is abstract, modernist, biomorphic—but both sculptures are made of pinkish marble referencing the flesh. (Noguchi’s Georgian marble even has bluish veined striations.) Whereas the classical sculpture is wrought from a single block of stone, Noguchi’s is made from eight interlocking components balanced and secured by two strategic pins. The separate pieces perhaps reference the sense of fragmentation and precarity he felt during and after World War II. But ultimately they brace each other and are perfectly balanced, symbolizing resilience while demonstrating the artist’s extensive knowledge of Japanese joinery. 

If Noguchi’s work focused on universal connection through expansiveness, Martin Wong’s conveys a sense of intimate connection through accumulation and density of detail. Wong once said, “Everything I paint is within the four blocks of where I live and the people are the people I see all the time.” Wong was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1946 and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He studied ceramics in Humboldt State University and did set design for the San Francisco–based performance group Angels of Light before moving to New York City in 1978, settling in the Lower East Side (or Loisaida, as its predominantly Puerto Rican residents called it). There, he fell in love with the neighborhood’s multilingual and cross-cultural energy. 

Left: Martin Wong (American, 1946–1999). Attorney Street (Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero), 1982–84. Oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 48 in. (90.2 x 121.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Edith C. Blum Fund, 1984 (1984.110). © The Estate of Martin Wong. Right: Philip Guston (American, born Canada, 1913–1980). The Street, 1977. Oil on canvas, 69 x 111 in. (175.3 x 281.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace and Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Saul Gifts, Gift of George A. Hearn, by exchange, and Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1983 (1983.457). © Estate of Philip Guston

In Wong’s Attorney Street (Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero) (1982–84), we see frames within frames indicating a multiplicity of perspectives and stories. Wong’s love for semiotics and language is legible through his inclusion of a poem by his close friend the writer Miguel Piñero, with whom he lived and collaborated for a year and half. Piñero’s poem can be found in the sky above the brick building, its placement echoing compositional techniques used in Chinese scroll paintings. (Wong said, “Scholars write poems in the sky and so do I.”) The unique block shapes of the hands and the curves of graffiti lettering also resemble multiple styles and schools of Chinese calligraphy. Even the layered borders recalls the borders found on hanging scrolls. It shares certain formal qualities with Philip Guston’s The Street (1977), such as its red-gray palette and density of brushwork. While Guston portrays life in the city as fragmented, chaotic, and alienating, Wong here offers the possibility of intimacy and even mutual redemption.

Left: Wu Boli (Chinese, active late 14th–early 15th century). Dragon Pine, late 14th–early 15th century. Hanging scroll; ink on paper, overall with knobs: 100 x 21 in. (254 x 53.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Edward Elliott Family Collection, Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1984 (1984.475.3). Right: Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669). Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653. Oil on canvas, 56 1/2 x 53 3/4 in. (143.5 x 136.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, special contributions and funds given or bequeathed by friends of the Museum, 1961

Wong’s painting has a distinctive impasto that emphasizes the accumulative quality of his autobiographical cosmology. The red thickness of the bricks refers to his background in ceramics while the dark, brooding palette evokes Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653)—a work likely familiar from Wong’s time employed in The Met Store, where he grew acquainted with the elaborate iconographies of religious compositions that would later appear in his own paintings. The prison-like buildings and the chain-link fences that recur throughout his oeuvre were indicative of the state of affairs in Loisaida during the 1970s and ’80s when New York City went bankrupt. The neighborhood was basically abandoned, yet Wong saw grace, transformation, and redemption in what others might regard as urban blight. 

"Prayer crossing Manhattan Bridge" by Louisa Lam

Wong also worked at Pearl Paint and befriended various graffiti artists, whom he believed comprised “the last great movement of the 20th century.” He funded and supported works by many artists including Lady Pink, Rammellzee, and Lee Quinones. Wong amassed one of the largest collections of New York City graffiti art and opened the Museum of American Graffiti on Bond Street with Peter Broda. However, it was short-lived due to Wong’s declining health; he bequeathed his collection to the Museum of the City of New York. Wong moved back to San Francisco to live under the care of his parents and died in 1999 at age fifty-three from complications related to AIDS. Through Attorney Street, we can see how Wong fully engaged his energy, curiosity, love, and passion within the four blocks of Loisaida where he lived.