Rooted in front of the 1957 Mark Tobey abstract titled “Lyric,” Titus O’Brien talked about the influence the Chinese art of calligraphy played in Tobey’s paintings.
Titus O’Brien talks about Mark Tobey’s painting “Lyric,” an example of the influence Chinese calligraphy played in the artist’s work. O’Brien, an artist and a Zen instructor, will discuss the influence of Asian philosophies and religions on avant-garde painters of the 1940s to the 1960s. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)
“Many of his paintings are much more dense than this,” said O’Brien, assistant curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum. “Here there are no characters, no letters. The energy of the mark making, inspired by calligraphy, is the message. It is radically non-symbolic.”
Tobey’s painting, tempera on board, is among the 50 works in the Albuquerque Museum show “When Modern Was Contemporary,” which continues through Dec. 31.
“Lyric” is an uninhibited shout out of color – pale yellows, whites, squiggles of red, patches of olive green. The effect on O’Brien is to make him pause for a moment, to reflect.
“It’s painted in difficult colors, weird, strange colors, awkward colors,” he said. “I like paintings that resist you. They are sort of like Zen meditation. It’s not so easy to sit still.”
Integrated and engaged
In O’Brien’s view, all works of art should be objects of meditation. But he noted that this is especially so in the works by artists of the avant-garde movement of the 1940s to the 1960s – painters such as Tobey (1890-1976), Kenzo Okada (1902-1982), Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and the composer and music theorist John Cage (1912-1992). Unlike artists who poured out their souls onto their canvases, O’Brien said Tobey, Okada, Rothko and Pollock, all of whom have works in “When Modern Was Contemporary,” shifted the emphasis in their paintings from their own feelings to the objects depicted in the work.
Clarence Giese and Ingrid Vollnhofer check out Mark Rothko’s “Old Gold Over White,” left, and Kenzo Okada’s “Abstraction No. 7” during a recent visit to the Albuquerque Museum.
He said that’s due in part to the fact that these trailblazers were very much influenced by Asian philosophies and religions, especially Zen Buddhism.
“Zen is about your whole body and your whole mind integrated and engaged,” he said. “Many of the artists in this exhibit were looking for ways to expand beyond materialism, consumerism and militarism. These artists are not depicting the world, they are organizing color, line and shape.”
On Saturday morning,O’Brien will lead a brief guided meditation followed by a tour of select works in “When Modern Was Contemporary.”
He is especially well suited to the task. He is an artist, a sculptor and a painter who does abstracts in casein (milk tempera). But he has also studied Zen for three decades and is an instructor in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. On most days, he meditates in the morning and again in the evening.
“My tradition is just sitting and allowing sensation and thought to arrive and depart without manipulation and engagement,” he said.
And that works just fine for looking at abstract paintings.
‘Here I am’
O’Brien, 50, grew up in Littleton, Colo., and early on was unsure as to what path he would follow.
“I had a grandfather who was a painter and a grandfather who was a biological scientist,” he said. “I wanted to be both. I was drawn to medicine, and I was also interested in anthropology. But the art won out in high school.”
He earned a bachelor of fine arts from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1991 and master of fine arts from the Yale University School of Art in 1993. He was introduced to Zen when composer Cage was a visiting professor in Kansas City in the late 1980s.
Cage was born in Los Angeles and died in Manhattan, but his major influences were East and South Asian cultures. Cage attended D.T. Suzuki’s lectures on Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s and early 1950s and used the ancient Chinese text the “I Ching’ as a tool for creating his musical compositions.
O’Brien attended lectures Cage presented in Kansas City and interacted with the composer during one of those sessions.
“He was saying really interesting stuff about the non-existence of the self,” O’Brien said. “I said, ‘What do you mean I don’t exist? Here I am.’ He said, ‘Yes, exactly. And what is that?’ My brain couldn’t make anything of it.
“He had this Cheshire cat smile and these twinkling eyes. It was a beautiful, transforming experience. I connected with him very strongly. He was a singular and radiant individual. He singled me out, and he started talking to me about Zen.”
While doing graduate work at Yale, O’Brien studied at the New Haven Zen Center. Between 1995 and 2000, he spent time at Zen centers in Rhode Island, Kentucky and Northern California.
“Now, I use the ‘I Ching’ to compose my paintings,” he said.
Just as Cage helped form O’Brien’s zeal for Zen, Tobey’s interest in Eastern religions – he converted to the Bahá’i faith – may have influenced Cage to some degree. The men were friends and Tobey studied piano and music theory with Cage. And there are those who suggest that Tobey’s oriental brushwork and calligraphic strokes prompted Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.
One of those Pollock paintings, “Number 8, 1949,” is in the show. O’Brien refers to the piece – a roiling, twisted mass of oil, enamel and aluminum paint on canvas – as organized activity.
“All art is a mediation between order and chaos,” he said. “But Pollock was clearly the most chaotic of his generation.”
But that doesn’t mean his work is not Zen.
“Zen tradition is full of rogues, raconteurs and radicals,” he said. “Zen is not just the eternally beatific, monks and monastics.”
Kenzo Okada was born in Yokohama, Japan, and was a realist painter before he moved to New York City in 1950.
“Then he got swept up in the heated, abstract atmosphere,” O’Brien said. Even so, his abstract paintings retain a powerful Japanese sensibility and appreciation of form. His 1953 oil on canvas, “Abstraction No. 7” is part of the exhibit. Large shapes and smaller ones stand out against a desert-sand background.
“Notice the numbered title,” O’Brien said. “You are not supposed to be able to tease out any kind of story. Clearly Okada wants you to view that painting on its own merits. You are approaching these elements in their relationship to each other. He leaves these sort of wonderful negative spaces – landscapes of the mind and heart.”
Floating in space
Okada and Rothko were friends. Did Okada’s Japanese-flavored abstracts influence Rothko? Maybe. Maybe not.
But Rothko’s 1956 oil on canvas, “Old Gold Over White,” might just be the most Zen work in the show. O’Brien describes the painting as hazy rectangles floating in space.
“Do you fall into them, or do they come out and get you?” he said. “The best description of Rothko’s paintings is meditative. They are not promoting any Zen doctrine. They are just inviting you to meditate on them, on your experience with them.
“You can come back to a Rothko painting forever and have different experiences each time. You can say the same of Zen meditation.”
If you go
WHAT: “The Zen of Abstraction.” Art curator and Zen practitioner Titus O’Brien guides visitors through a brief meditation, followed by a tour.
WHEN: 10-11:15 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2
WHERE: Albuquerque Museum, 2000 Mountain NW
COST: Program is free with regular museum admission of $1-$4.