Asia Society Museum

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 68 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I loved a small room entirely filled with Anila Quayyum Agha’s “Crossing Boundaries,” a cubical, laser-cut steel sculpture from 2015 that cast amazing shadows on the walls, floor and ceiling. Immersive, serene, and beautiful, and none of my photos do it justice. (See link to her site at the end of this review.)

Asia Society, New YorkIn terms of attempting to cover an enormous mandate in an undersized area, the Asia Society Museum wins the prize for New York City museum with the most chutzpah.

In two modest floors of gallery space, it aims to present the world’s largest landmass, home to a population of billions and myriads of diverse cultures.  Call it “Asia” or “the Orient,” either way the label lumps together people who  have  nothing in common aside from location in a place that Europeans for centuries defined as “that exotic place that’s not here.”

The Asia Society Museum doesn’t succeed.  Moreover, it can’t succeed.  Well, it can.  The Met will give you a great overview of the arts and cultures of China, Japan, Korea, India, the Himalayan cultures of Tibet and Nepal, the Islamic world, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. But you need an institution the size and scope of The Met to do that under one roof.

The Asia Society’s mission statement isn’t about being a museum at all.  It says:

The Asia Society is an international organization dedicated to strengthening relationships and deepening understanding among the peoples of Asia and the United States.

At least it acknowledges an awareness of the multiple races and cultures there. However, this sets an impossible bar for the museum, which can’t represent more than a small slice of the “peoples of Asia” at any given time.

As Rich as Rockefeller

Inevitably, the Asia Society Museum owes its genesis to very rich people who bought a lot of art.  John D. Rockefeller 3rd founded the Asia Society in 1956.  The core of the Society’s art holdings come from his and his wife’s impressive collection. Rockefeller also served as president of the Japan Society during that time, which perhaps inspired him to launch an institution with vastly greater scope.

In honor of of its 60th anniversary,”Masterpieces from the Asia Society Collection” presents some of that core collection.  It’s a spellbinding little show–they don’t use the word “masterpiece” lightly.  It goes long on ancient bronzes from China, tea ceremony implements from Japan, and serene Buddhas from all over the place.Asia Society Masterpieces Exhibit Aside from the “greatest hits” nature, three  themes provide an organizing rubric.  However, it appears as though the curators picked pieces they wanted to show off and then devised themes to fit them together, rather than starting with a coherent idea and selecting pieces to illustrate the concept or argument.Asia Society, New York

Gotta Catch ’em All

The second show consisted of a small room of paper mache sculptures. New York City schoolkids created these pieces in response to an exhibition on a postwar artist named Zao Wou-Ki. This was…cute…lots of funny animals.  I’m not familiar enough with Zao’s work to really get what the students were responding to; the show failed in not providing that context.  In the event, it seemed like schoolkids responding to another great contemporary Asian art form, Pokémon.

Asia Society Museum, New York

Being South Asian

The third show was titled “Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions: South Asian Art in the Diaspora.”  The title is pretty self-explanatory: the show consisted of contemporary art pieces in a wide variety of media by a wide variety of artists, all of whom reside in the U.S. today.Asia Society, New YorkAs with much contemporary art, most of it was political, a great deal was forgettable, and some was pretty good.  And a few pieces rocked.

Should You Visit the Asia Society?

I feel concerned that I’m not holding the Asia Society Museum to realistic expectations.  But then again, they picked their name and mission statement. They decided to charge 12 bucks admission. And they designed a rather small amount of museum space into the Society’s building. And that leaves me unable to recommend the place.

I don’t expect to learn everything about Japan at the Japan Society, or all about the African American experience at the Schomburg Center. But I expect to learn something about them. And I come to those places with a coherent contextual sense of the people, the customs, the history. The Asia Society did not convince me that there’s a coherent “Asia-ness” besides the artificial one imposed from the outside. I therefore can’t say I learned anything about “Asia” there.

Buddhas, Asia Society, New York
Serenity Now

If you’re interested in the cultures of Asia, I’d recommend places like the Rubin or the China Institute that have more focus, or The Met, which uniquely has the required breadth to do justice to the topic.

For Reference:

Address 725 Park Avenue, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $12
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