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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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