Tags for: In between Cultures: Finding Asian American Identity
  • Blog Post
  • Collection

In between Cultures: Finding Asian American Identity

Sooa Im McCormick, Curator of Korean Art
May 6, 2021
Sonata I-IV, 1996. Nam June Paik (Korean, 1932–2006), Mark Patsfall Graphics (United States, Ohio, Cincinnati, est. 1981), Galerie Asbæk (Denmark, Copenhagan, est. 1975). 2015.144

Since 1990, May has been Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage (AAPI) Month, during which we honor and celebrate Asian and Pacific Americans’ contributions to the United States. Due to the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, this year, the month takes on more urgency than ever.

As the first Korean art specialist the Cleveland Museum of Art has hired, I am proud of my Korean and immigrant heritage, which allows me to fulfill an important role: to preserve, to research, and to present the museum’s Korean art collection.

In light of AAPI month, I would like to highlight two forward-thinking artists from the CMA’s collection: Nam June Paik (1932–2006) and Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988). Each artist made a transformative contribution to the global contemporary art scene: Paik in time-based media art, and Noguchi in sculpture and design. While each artists paved new and different paths, they had this in common: both explored their own cultural identity as a powerful tool to enrich their artistic vocabularies.

When my colleagues asked if Nam June Paik was Korean American, my answer was, “not really,” although Paik spent a significant portion of his adulthood in the U.S. Paik referred to himself as Korean in various interviews, in my view he was a global citizen. Born in Seoul to an affluent family, he grew up receiving private piano, music composition, and calligraphy lessons. Right before the outbreak of the Korean War (1950–1953), he and his family fled their home in Seoul, first to Hong Kong, and later to Japan. He graduated with a BA in aesthetics from the University of Tokyo in 1956. His graduation thesis was about Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), the influential composer and creator of a radical renovation in modern classical music.

Sonata III, 1996. Nam June Paik (Korean, 1932–2006). Portfolio of 4 prints, each: lithograph, screen print, and etching; each sheet: 53.3 x 66 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The A. W. Ellenberger Sr. Endowment Fund, 2015.144.

Pursuing further studies, Paik left for Germany, where he met the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, and later joined Fluxus (literally, flowing), an international experimental and interdisciplinary art movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Though he migrated to the U.S. in 1964, he was invited to represent Germany at the Venice Biennial in 1993 and was awarded the Golden Lion prize.

His instrumental vocabularies were considered extremely radical, yet he often drew on visual and sensory components from his experience and memories of traditional Korean art and history, as evident in works ranging from the video installation TV Buddha (1974) to Gut (굿), or, Korean shamanic ritual (1990). A set of four screen-printed sheets titled Sonata, which the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired in 2015, is another example of the artist’s homage to his distanced, yet deeply rooted Korean heritage. Each sheet comprises of sixteen different framed images including: family photographs, calligraphic writings, traditional Korean art, musical compositions, and clips from his video works.

Sonata III, 1996. Nam June Paik (Korean, 1932–2006). Portfolio of 4 prints, each: lithograph, screen print, and etching; each sheet: 53.3 x 66 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The A. W. Ellenberger Sr. Endowment Fund, 2015.144.

This detail of Sonata III shows a black-and-white photograph in which his father holds the artist as a baby, while his drawing above summons the image of an old city gate standing in downtown Seoul.

Rock Carvings: Passage of the Seasons, 1981. Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988). Basalt with mineral accretions; part 1: 286.9 cm; part 2: 347.8 cm; part 3: 208.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Mildred Andrews Fund 1981.46. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: David Britchford.

Isamu Noguchi is one of the 20th century’s most critically acclaimed sculptors. His restless quest to achieve a sense of belonging both frustrated and inspired him. Sadly, some of Noguchi’s negative experiences as an Asian American, living amid the growing racial enmity especially during World War II, still resonates today in the lives of Asian and Pacific Americans.

Born in Los Angeles to a Japanese father and an Irish American mother, Noguchi constantly grappled with the ambiguity of his identity. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 fueled his desire to define his identity. To stand in solidarity through artistic projects with incarcerated American-born Japanese (Nisei in Japanese), in 1942 he voluntarily entered the Colorado River Relocation Center (in Poston) camp in Arizona and spent about six months there.

His painful experience of belonging nowhere, however, seems to have enriched the complexity of his artistic vocabulary. Noguchi’s Rock Carvings: Passage of the Seasons, which stands on a low hill across the north entrance of the Cleveland Museum of Art, is a commissioned, site-specific work. Three large, minimally sculpted and polished basalt stones are arranged in a way that alludes to a sense of detachment. As an immigrant person who spent half my life in South Korea, and the other half in the US, Noguchi’s life speaks to me about the confused sense of belonging, which I occasionally feel, but his Passage of the Seasons makes me also think that the home is part of self-definition, not attached to physical space or borders. Contemplating this piece, I imagine that Noguchi finally found a sense of belonging in his own creative self and art.

Last Days of Village Wen, 2011. Yun-Fei Ji (Chinese, b. 1963) (detail). Pair of handscrolls; ink and color on Xuan paper; painting only: 34.6 x 657.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund, 2012.99.

A number of other Asian American artists in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection illuminate the enduring relevance of art in today’s global society and brings forth transformative experiences to our audience. I’ll just name a few here: Last Days of Village Wen by Yun-Fei Ji (born in Beijing) depicts the issues of rapid industrialization and its daunting impact on local communities; Washing Away of Wrongs by Anicka Yi (born in Seoul); and Chinese Hand Laundry by Martin Wong (born in Portland, OR) address ongoing issues of immigrants and biased perceptions.

Washing Away of Wrongs, 2014. Anicka Yi (American, b. 1971). 2 stainless steel dryer doors, Plexiglas, diffuser, 2 fragrances designed by Christophe Laudamiel — Traennen and Bullfrog; overall: 304.8 x 332.7 x 67.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Contemporary Art Society, 2014.403. Photo: Scott Shaw for the CMA.
Chinese Hand Laundry, 1984. Martin Wong (American, 1946–1999). Acrylic on canvas; overall: 121.9 x 175.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchased with funds donated by Scott Mueller, 2014.3. Courtesy of the Estate of Martin Wong and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.


Celebrate AAPI heritage throughout May and the rest of the year by visiting these artworks in person or online, as well as in the new exhibition Interpretation of Materiality: Gold in the CMA’s Korean art galleries.

Explore more Asian art in the new exhibitions Animal Fables of Mughal India in the Indian and Southeast Asian gallery (242B), and Rinpa (琳派) in the Japanese galleries (235 A & B), as well as the Chinese art galleries.

As an added bonus, view the author’s story, Playbook for Solitude in Stories from Storage, a featured exhibition is on view through May 16. #withlovefromCMA


This is the first installation of a four-part series celebrating AAPI Heritage Month, during which the CMA is sharing AAPI voices and collection artworks and recognizing the diverse histories within these communities. Follow the CMA on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more on AAPI Heritage Month.