veteran docent at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum is reported
to have experienced a mini-satori upon entering the gallery where
Masters of Bamboo was being previewed. "Never before,"
she said, later, when speech returned, "have I witnessed
such a concentration of skill, patience, and vision."
It is, indeed, an auspicious moment for lovers of the arts of
Asia. Since 2006, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has officially
been proud site of the world's largest public collection of Japanese
bamboo art, the Lloyd Cotsen Japanese Basket Collection. Of their
900-some pieces, 25–40 are always on display in the permanent
collection galleries, with works rotated twice a year (then stored
for five years to limit exposure to light and humidity fluctuation).
Currently (February 2 through May 6) the Asian is spotlighting
this unparalleled, truly awesome art form in a special exhibition
of the collection’s greatest masterworks.
Melissa Rinne, in collaboration with bamboo specialist Koichiro
Okada, has plaited key elements, arranging the works by region
with simultaneous emphasis on lineage. The layout of works in
the gallery reflects the three regions of bamboo art in Japan:
Western, Eastern, and Kyushu. While basic patterns of tea-ceremony
basket and flower-arrangement basket provided the initial impetus,
it was an artist in Kyushu who is credited with leading bamboo
art into the realm of pure sculpture.
with the geographic and spatial origins of the artworks, we can
see the evolution of distinct schools, through master-disciple
lineages. The apprentice learns by observation and practice. In
so doing, he absorbs techniques of previous generations; a rich,
dynamic network of mutual influences, past and present. The master
never teaches per se; there's no show-and-tell, no Q&A. It
is expected that eventually an apprentice will copy particular
elements and make them his own.
It's an art of sheer devotion. To produce just one work for competition
takes an average of two to three months. Yet, while a bamboo artist's
fame (and fortune) might be relatively scant, where else is there
so much complete control by one individual over a finished work?
Short of growing the bamboo itself, the artist splits, refines,
colors, plaits, shapes, etc. No wonder there are less than 100
bamboo artists working today. The younger artists who will be
featured in The Next Generation—a separate small
exhibit of bamboo art to be held simultaneously in the museum’s
North Court, February 15–March 18—are mostly in their
40s and 50s.
It is interesting
to note that the lineage charts on the wall of the exhibit, tracing
such affiliations, have never been published before in Japanese
or in English. Not only do they illuminate the organization and
arrangement of the exhibition, but they also evince the unparalleled
breadth and depth of the Cotsen Collection.
One last noteworthy
element within the exhibit, overall, is how the works can be separated
into three categories echoing Japanese calligraphy: formal, semiformal,
and informal. The latter is the hardest because it takes pure
vision: you can't sketch it out, but, rather, have to make it
as you go.
As ever, the
Museum has produced an indispensable, expanded catalog, a work
of art in its own right. No mention of the exhibition would be
complete without shining a light on Evan Kierstead, whose lighting
not only enables certain works to create incredible zones of light
and whirl-a-gig shadow clusters, but moreover permits the viewer
to connect to the pieces immediately and directly.
with museum admission.
Robert T. and Doe, Donald Hin: The Quiet Beauty of Japanese
Bamboo Art (Art Media Resources. 2006)
Coffey, Robert T. and Cotsen, Lloyd Bamboo Basket Art of Higashi
Takesonosai (Art Media Resources. 2002)
Rinne, Melissa M., with Okada, Koichiro Masters of Bamboo
(Asian Art Museum. 2007)