Curated by John Yau, the exhibition, The Unseen Professors: Leo Amino (1911-1989), Minoru Niizuma (1930-1998), John Pai (b. 1937), focuses on the sculptures of Leo Amino, Minoru Niizuma, and John Pai, three Asian artists who were born in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea between 1911 and 1937, and immigrated to America. Eventually, all of them moved to New York City, where they worked and taught for many years in leading institutions, such as Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University. In fact, despite belonging to different generations, their teaching careers overlapped for more than decade (1964-77), during which time a generation of artists associated with Minimalism and site-specific art gained much of the art world’s attention.
During the period in which they were teaching and exhibiting, both here and abroad, the following essays were published: “Specific Objects” (1965) by Donald Judd and “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” by Rosalind Krauss. Neither of them mentions a single sculptor of color at a time when there were almost no critics of color who could offer an alternative vision to their influential viewpoints. By gathering together a group of sculptures made of different materials (wood, polyester resin, marble, granite, and steel), this exhibition will demonstrate that there was a group of artists who had roots in other histories and philosophies than the one that was narrowly defined by Judd and Krauss.
It is high time we place the oversights of Judd and Krauss in context. Between 1947 and ’62, Amino, who had taught at Black Mountain College (Summer of 1946 and ’50) and was the first American sculptor to work with polyester resin (plastic) after World War II, showed in all but two Whitney Annuals between 1947 and ’62. Niizuma and Judd had work in the Whitney Annual of 1966 and Niizuma’s work was also shown in the Whitney Annual two years later (1968), in which Judd’s work was not included. Although Niizuma was included in these two exhibitions, none of his sculptures entered the museum’s collection. Pai’s work is not in the museum collection, while Amino has one work. The underrepresentation of these three sculptors, all of whom were actively working and teaching for many years in New York, is one impetus of the exhibition. The larger goal is to introduce a new generation of viewers to three distinguished Asian American sculptors working in different mediums, and employing different processes, as they followed their own trajectory and attained something particular and unique in their work.
By reexamining this period through significant works by Amino, Niizuma, and Pai, The Unseen Professors: Leo Amino (1911-1989), Minoru Niizuma (1930-1998), John Pai (b. 1937) will highlight the significant accomplishment of three independent Asian-born artists who never were associated with a mainstream movement or style. Equally important is that the work and material choices of these Asian-American artists have almost nothing in common with each other. Each rigorously pursued their own trajectory and never attempted to become part of the currents dominating the New York art world at that time. This refusal to work in an approved style may have been due to the realization that they would always be outsiders or outliers, no matter what they did.