Before the Mast: A Reclamation of Asian American Art

By Corrie Martin

Have you ever wondered as you wandered through the portals of our beloved Addison Gallery about the smattering of model ships permanently moored throughout its august halls and hallways?

 

There are 25 such ships, 24 of which were considered an indispensable asset of the Addison’s inaugural collection by museum founder Thomas Cochran who, in commissioning their production and purchase envisioned how these iconic vessels “document four centuries of American history.” But, what history and whose stories do these resolutely mute ship models convey?

 

From the model of the Santa Maria, described in the museum catalog as “a Spanish merchant ship chartered by Columbus and used as his flagship on his first voyage to America” in 1492, to the miniature Mayflower, “the famous ship which brought the Pilgrim Fathers to New England” in 1620, to the Half Moon, captained by Henry Hudson on the 1609 voyage during which he “eventually discovered the Hudson [sic] River,” the ships are now, as they were then, vessels for the fantasies, hopes, ventures, and reimagined narratives of the European outcasts, immigrants, and hired guns whose descendants would get to write and rewrite this history in a heroic white light.

 

That is, it’s a heroic story to some, a tragic, infuriating, and partial one to others. The fuller narrative of these 24 ships and their connection to “four centuries of American history” would include--should include--the slave trade, piracy, war, smuggling, and environmental exploitation. And, as far back as to the oldest ship depicted, the Santa Maria (whose impetus, let us not forget, was a route to India, China, and Japan), the ship collection speaks to—if one pays attention—the centrality of Asia to the nation-founding and empire-building that occurred throughout these “four centuries of American history.”

 

If Asia—both real and imagined—is central to American history and to the context of the ships that so fired the imagination of the Addison Gallery’s visionary founder, do Asian and Asian American art also have an importance and relevance worth noting? Addison Gallery curator Gordon Wilkins provides a fascinating answer to this question in his talk, “The Last Lacuna: Art by Asian Americans in the 'American' Museum.”

 

If, like me, you already have a fascination and passion for Asian and Asian American artists, you would be thrilled to learn more about the plethora of works included in the Gallery’s permanent collection. From the avant-garde photography of Eikoh HosoeSoichi SunamiYasuhiro Ishimoto, and Laurel Nakadate, the exquisite paintings, woodcut prints, and drawings by Dong M.  KingmanYasuo Kuniyoshi (the “inspiration” for Mickey Rooney’s offensive yellow face portrayal in the iconic film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and Seong Moy, who in my estimation surpasses Jackson Pollock—also part of the permanent collection--to the artists who should be household names everywhere such as Wen Ying TsaiIsamu NoguchiRuth Asawa, the Addison Gallery has also featured visiting artists like Andrea Chung and Fred Han Chang Liang in recent years and others throughout the decades.

 

Even more intriguing than serving as a repository of art, the Addison Gallery has not infrequently worked to promote appreciation, understanding, and production of American art in an expansive sense, even as its charter specifically delineates that its “collection is limited to works of art or craftsmanship produced by native-born or naturalized citizens of the United States” (with a few narrow exceptions), which in the first decades of its existence precluded the many artists of Asian descent who were barred from naturalization and citizenship by the very laws of the United States.

 

One inspiring moment in the Addison’s role in bringing together Asian American and American art history is its 1948 “Art Schools USA” exhibition that showcased a young Ruth Asawa, then a student at Black Mountain College, whose work in the show earned praise from the New York Times art critic. Apart from Asawa, the vast majority of the exhibition artists go unnamed in the review, their work falling into the critic’s “dross” category, including a piece by a student from Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Andrew Warhola. Art historians will later identify this as Andy Warhol’s first work to be exhibited in a museum. Another chapter of American Art History could be written about the debt Warhola/Warhol owes to the originality and genius of Asawa and another iconic Asian/American artist, the singular Yayoi Kusama.

 

The intrinsic importance of these model ships to the Gallery’s founding collection speaks to the vision Cochran had of art as itself integral to the nation’s self-conception and future identity development. Art and myth, storytelling and national identity, these were two sides of the same coin, whose value depended on a certain trade that itself depended upon and simultaneously erased the indigenous people of this land, on enslaved Africans and their descendants, on immigrants and “alien” laborers. While the Addison Gallery’s founding collection comprises some 50 white male artists and these ships, each bearing the fantasies that they both reflected and helped to foment, we as the museum’s patrons and beneficiaries have the joyful duty of reclaiming the relevance and importance of the diverse artists whose lives and works contribute to our grand national narrative. We hope that this New Narratives at Andover exhibition introduces or deepens your experience of one such thread, the provocative and inspiring creativity of the Asian American community.

 

In the wake: In 2016, the Addison Gallery purchased a 25th model ship, adding to the original collection for the first time in nearly eight decades. The next time you wonder as you wander through the museum, stop to ponder the story of the ship model, The Wanderer, a slave-smuggling ship that successfully defied the ban against the inhuman trade until it was finally seized during the Civil War.