“The work is the most important thing,” said John Yau, curator of “The Unseen Professors,” a deeply researched group exhibition at Tina Kim Gallery. “There’s a false notion in the art world that the best rises to the top.” Centering the work of three under-appreciated artists, Leo Amino, Minoru Niizuma and John Pai, each room in this large exhibition centers one of the three artists, each formally unrelated except for their Asian heritages and their legacies teaching across New York City institutions including Pratt Institute, the Cooper Union and Columbia University, during which they overlapped for more than a decade in the 1960s and ’70s.
Born in the then-Japanese territory of Taiwan in 1911, Leo Amino attended college in the US before teaching at Black Mountain College under Josef Albers, a German artist who fled from the Nazis. “[Albers] liked these artists,” Yau said, “and respected them, and he hired them based purely on the work, which would not happen today.” Afterward, Amino taught at the Cooper Union, where he instructed a generation of artists, including the late Jack Whitten. During World War II, Amino worked as a translator for the US Navy; after the war, he pioneered the previously classified usage of polyester resin in art. Clear and yellowed resin enshroud spikes of bright color which disappear when one rounds the corner, sheltering opaque elements like translucent flesh over bones.
Born in 1930 in Tokyo, Niizuma taught at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and then at Columbia University. Niizuma revelled in the properties of material itself: Unknown (c. 1986) is wrought from a thick slab of veined grey and white marble, reminiscent of a hunk of blue cheese, with yellow oxidized tops undulating into surprising holes like marrow, set upon a base of rough hand-hewn wood. Ragged marks on the bases and orifices stand in stark juxtaposition to the artist’s evident skill in crafting smooth surfaces elsewhere: Castle of the Eye III (c. 1985) is inset with nested layers of squares. “He sold work, got into museums. But I don’t think he focused that hard on it,” Yau said. Niizuma was an artist, but he was also a teacher: “He organized symposiums about stone carving, which is not highly consumed in America,” and found greater appreciation in Portugal.
As for Pai, Yau said: “John said this great thing: ‘I think of steel as liquid.’” The only living artist in Yau’s exhibition, Pai was the youngest ever professor at Pratt University before going on to become the Undergraduate Chair of the Sculpture Department. In 1972, he departed to pursue his own work. Pai’s geodesic wire sculptures can serve as their own frames, enclosing and suspending their own forms. And the dazzling Involution (1974), an apple-like sculpture, bends in one continuous, three-layered shape, ending with a pit-like center. Fittingly, these artist-teachers have been brought to full attention in this exhibition by yet another unseen professor: John Yau, poet, critic, professor and curator of the exhibition. The webs of influence wind much further than the works on view. —Lisa Yin Zhang