Cotter and Desai Recall Introducing 'Neglected' Asian Art to US Audiences

NEW YORK, September 24, 2012 — Two veterans of the New York art world — Holland Cotter, Pulitzer Prize-winning chief art critic of The New York Times, and Vishakha Desai, President Emerita of Asia Society — joined Melissa Chiu, Asia Society's Museum Director and Senior Vice President of Global Arts and Cultural Programs, to discuss the shifting attitudes towards contemporary Asian art in New York and beyond over the past 20 years.

Desai set the tone by describing the mentality towards modern and contemporary Asian art history upon her initial arrival to the United States — everything "beyond the 19th century … was not (considered) authentic and therefore you didn't study it." This dismissive attitude emboldened the curator early on to "recognize and appreciate and understand the creativity of modern and contemporary artists who were completely neglected at the time in the American setting, because no major museums were doing anything."

Similarly, Cotter's professional interest sprang from an awareness that contemporary Asian art was not receiving the attention it deserved. "It was new, and nobody was writing about it and I thought it should be written about … so I said I would be the one to do this. And once I started to do it, it became extremely interesting to me."

Beginning in the 1990s and continuing into the present, both Cotter and Desai lauded an increased focus on considering context and agency as a way to better understand Asian contemporary art — Desai stating, "if you define an artist only by how they paint, you're not looking at the context." Cotter singled out Asia Society's 1998 exhibition Inside Out: New Chinese Art as a defining signifier of change within the field. In response, Desai praised Cotter for bringing greater interest to the field through his substantial coverage of that show. Chiu pointed out that great strides have been made since then to the extent that both the Guggenheim and MoMA, stalwarts of Western modernism, will be mounting exhibitions of Asian modern art next year.

When asked what surprised her most over the past 20 years, Desai noted that she did not expect the rapid commercial success of Asian contemporary art but conceded that this phenomenon was made possible in large part to the economic rise of China and India. Looking forward, curator and critic agreed that, though great strides have been made, much groundwork is still needed to ensure a place for modern and contemporary Asian art within the mainstream American art world.

Reported by Michelle Yun

Video: Highlights from the program (1 min., 9 sec.)


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