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Artistic Lineages in the Lloyd Cotsen Japanese Basket Collection

by Gary Gach

A veteran docent at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum is reported to have experienced a mini-satori upon entering the gallery where Masters of Bamboo was being previewed. "Never before," she said, later, when speech returned, "have I witnessed such a concentration of skill, patience, and vision."

It is, indeed, an auspicious moment for lovers of the arts of Asia. Since 2006, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has officially been proud site of the world's largest public collection of Japanese bamboo art, the Lloyd Cotsen Japanese Basket Collection. Of their 900-some pieces, 25–40 are always on display in the permanent collection galleries, with works rotated twice a year (then stored for five years to limit exposure to light and humidity fluctuation). Currently (February 2 through May 6) the Asian is spotlighting this unparalleled, truly awesome art form in a special exhibition of the collection’s greatest masterworks.

Curator Melissa Rinne, in collaboration with bamboo specialist Koichiro Okada, has plaited key elements, arranging the works by region with simultaneous emphasis on lineage. The layout of works in the gallery reflects the three regions of bamboo art in Japan: Western, Eastern, and Kyushu. While basic patterns of tea-ceremony basket and flower-arrangement basket provided the initial impetus, it was an artist in Kyushu who is credited with leading bamboo art into the realm of pure sculpture.

Intertwined with the geographic and spatial origins of the artworks, we can see the evolution of distinct schools, through master-disciple lineages. The apprentice learns by observation and practice. In so doing, he absorbs techniques of previous generations; a rich, dynamic network of mutual influences, past and present. The master never teaches per se; there's no show-and-tell, no Q&A. It is expected that eventually an apprentice will copy particular elements and make them his own.

It's an art of sheer devotion. To produce just one work for competition takes an average of two to three months. Yet, while a bamboo artist's fame (and fortune) might be relatively scant, where else is there so much complete control by one individual over a finished work? Short of growing the bamboo itself, the artist splits, refines, colors, plaits, shapes, etc. No wonder there are less than 100 bamboo artists working today. The younger artists who will be featured in The Next Generation—a separate small exhibit of bamboo art to be held simultaneously in the museum’s North Court, February 15–March 18—are mostly in their 40s and 50s.

It is interesting to note that the lineage charts on the wall of the exhibit, tracing such affiliations, have never been published before in Japanese or in English. Not only do they illuminate the organization and arrangement of the exhibition, but they also evince the unparalleled breadth and depth of the Cotsen Collection.

One last noteworthy element within the exhibit, overall, is how the works can be separated into three categories echoing Japanese calligraphy: formal, semiformal, and informal. The latter is the hardest because it takes pure vision: you can't sketch it out, but, rather, have to make it as you go.

As ever, the Museum has produced an indispensable, expanded catalog, a work of art in its own right. No mention of the exhibition would be complete without shining a light on Evan Kierstead, whose lighting not only enables certain works to create incredible zones of light and whirl-a-gig shadow clusters, but moreover permits the viewer to connect to the pieces immediately and directly.

Satori FREE with museum admission.

Coffey, Robert T. and Doe, Donald Hin: The Quiet Beauty of Japanese Bamboo Art (Art Media Resources. 2006)
Coffey, Robert T. and Cotsen, Lloyd Bamboo Basket Art of Higashi Takesonosai (Art Media Resources. 2002)
Rinne, Melissa M., with Okada, Koichiro Masters of Bamboo (Asian Art Museum. 2007)


© Gary Gach and

Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism, editor of What Book!?, and co-translator of Flowers of a Moment and Ten Thousand Lives by Ko Un. Home page: || exhibitions