Leo Amino: Work with Material, Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, Asheville, NC late December 2022

Have you ever visited an exhibition that left you so profoundly moved that your initial instinct was to shout its praises from the highest hill, only to be reminded by magazine editors that your visit occurred near the exhibition’s end, with only two weeks left before it closed? The magazines needed their pitches before opening as a preview or just into its run. Well, that was me this past January with the Leo Amino: Work with Material exhibition at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center.

Upon entering the museum, the scene was set by a wall-sized photograph of the 1946 Summer Arts Institute Faculty for Black Mountain College, one of American history’s most influential and progressive art schools. On the far left stood Leo Amino, alongside luminaries like Jacob Lawrence, children’s book illustrator Leo Lionni, and Theodore Dreier, an engineer and one of the college’s founders. To the far right, you found architect and Bauhaus School founder Walter Gropius, Mary “Molly” Gregory, who taught crafts while managing the school’s woodshop and farm alongside Josef Albers and Anni Albers. It was a gathering of remarkable minds. Two years after the college in Western North Carolina integrated, Amino came to the legendary college at the invitation of Josef Albers. 1946 was a transformation year for the artist, as in the aftermath of World War II, he mostly left behind making sculptures with wood, which he previously favored as his medium of choice, and embarked on a quest for new materials. That quest led to his work with polyester resin and acrylic (following military declassification). 

To provide some context, Leo Amino, originally named Ichiro Amino, was born on June 26, 1911, in Taiwan, part of Japan at the time. His father was involved in agricultural work for the Japanese government. Despite his birthplace, Amino’s upbringing took place in Tokyo. In 1929, he arrived in the United States and enrolled at San Mateo Junior College. By 1935, he had relocated to Greenwich Village in New York. While working for a Japanese wood importing firm, he brought home ebony samples, using them to teach himself how to carve simplified anthropomorphic forms. Somewhere during this period, he adopted the name “Leo.”

In 1937, he enrolled in a three-month training course at the American Artists School, where he delved into the art of “direct carving” under the guidance of the renowned sculptor Chaim Gross—a pivotal moment occurred in 1938 when Amino had the opportunity to travel to London, where he encountered the works of Henry Moore. The impact of this encounter was profound, as Amino absorbed Moore’s technique of softening and magnifying the human form, resulting in sculptures that possessed both abstract and figurative qualities. From the beginning, Amino’s artistic output was significantly influenced by Surrealists, particularly Joan Miro and Jean Arp, leading him to explore the potential of the subconscious mind. His use of space and dynamic movement, along with his incorporation of abstracted figurative gestures suspended in the air, undeniably connected his work to the early mobiles crafted by Alexander Calder.

A year after starting school, he achieved a significant breakthrough. In 1939, he was invited to exhibit alongside Isamu Noguchi at the New York World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. At the age of 28, in January 1940, Amino held his first solo exhibition of sculptures at the Montross Gallery in Manhattan.

In 1947, the Whitney Museum of Art accepted his work for inclusion in that year’s Whitney Annual, a precursor to today’s Whitney Biennial. Between 1947 and 1962, he was featured in nearly every Whitney Annual during that time, and in 1950, the Whitney added one of his sculptures to its permanent collection. He held over a dozen solo exhibitions at the Clay Club/Sculpture Center during this period.

Despite recent efforts to rectify this situation, including several exhibitions and two outstanding articles by poet John Yau in Hyperallergic, Amino’s work remains relatively obscure despite its significance during his lifetime. Several online articles question why Amino’s stature lacks recognition compared to two other Japanese heritage artists, Ruth Asawa and Isamu Noguchi. Asawa was a student at Black Mountain College in 1946 when Amino was on the faculty, and they both participated in the same Whitney Annual in 1958. Noguchi and Amino had exhibited together on more than one occasion since 1939. These comparisons, however, come with the caveat that Asawa’s recognition has soared in the 15 years following many years of being overlooked. Noguchi, the most renowned among the three, recognized early on that he needed to take significant personal initiatives to secure his legacy. This included establishing the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York, in 1985. The argument has been made that Amino made some missteps by never emphasizing his Japanese identity or attributing his artistic inspiration to Japanese influences. Instead, he positioned himself as an American artist. Amidst the backdrop of the World Wars, Amino’s outlook on both Japanese and American nationalist ideologies underwent a transformation, leading him to a state of disillusionment. He viewed the narrow-mindedness and uniformity fostered by these traditions as fundamentally opposed to the essence of modernity. His perspective aligned more closely with the staunchly nonconformist principles held sacrosanct by the Bauhaus exiles.

Back to the exhibition in Ashville, which was beautifully curated by Amino’s grandchild, Genji Amino. A wall vinyl explains that in response to Alber’s invitation to teach in the Summer Arts Session at Black Mountain, Amino proposes a course in “experimental work in new materials for sculpture.” While there indeed were some showstoppers in wood—Untitled, 1954, a long-legged assembly of biomorphic wood shapes climbing vertically, held together with steel wire like a suspension bridge—but the real magic happens in what he called his “Refractionals.” Crafted from countless thin layers of opaque acrylic that have been glued together to create shapes that are misty partitions permeable to light. Translucent yet satisfyingly dense. Swaths and blocks are semi-transparent; think of a thin wash of watercolor paint, crystallized lines hanging like fossil-like forms, suggesting a petrified past. Even without an apparent light source, they appear to be illuminated from within, and as you walk around them, the shapes and colors seem to grow, decline, or shift in vibrancy based on your perspective. It’s incredible to see how these blocks of resin radiate light and energy in a way that feels so alive. Despite being nearly fifty years old, these sculptures still evoke a sense of enigmatic futurism, almost resembling portals to another place, another time.

This was my introduction to Amino’s work, and as I walked through the exhibition, I couldn’t shake two thoughts. First, there was something undeniably American about taking something inherently toxic and crafting an idealized version of sunlight’s pure, smooth beauty: the highest definition, the utmost clarity—an artist’s mastery over nature. The second thought was how well-known many California Light and Space movement artists are. Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Helen Pashgian, Fred Eversley, and De Wain Valentine all employed innovative industrial methods to achieve the most pristine representation of light and spatial concepts. Artists from this movement have witnessed fluctuations in popularity. Still, from the 1976 Venice Biennale to the 2011 series of exhibitions known as Pacific Standard Time, they have consistently remained part of the art world conversation. Their work began in 1971, at least twenty years after Amino’s.

This exhibition filled a significant gap in my understanding of art history. Over a career spanning from the late 1930s to the ’80s, Amino’s sculptures navigated the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop Art, and Conceptual Art. Yet, he remained fiercely independent, carving out his unique path, which history largely, previously had overlooked. I am grateful that his grandchild has taken on the task of reminding us of the immense importance of Leo Amino in the art world.