All 69 scrolls by the 18th-century Zen master Hakuin Ekaku are currently on view at the Japan Society, in a show done in collaboration with the New Orleans Museum of Art, to which it travels in February, before opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in May.
Hakuin was a marvelous poet, who came up with the most famous koan, "What is the sound of one hand?" (no "clapping" in the original) and whose other lines ("cold clouds engage the snow/ weighty in settling sunlight/ mountain moon glows on plums," for example) are the equal of Robert Frost in their evocation of foreboding nature. His scrolls were gifts both to enthusiastic postulants and ordinary lay people, for Hakuin was both a satori specialist and a popularizer of Zen practices, often against the objections of his fellow seekers, to the wider world.
His drawing style was wide and full of the broad humor of a standup comedian, as in a picture of the three great masters Lao-Tse, Confucius and the Buddha himself, greedily gazing into a brimming tureen of wine. Hakuin devoted his most complex efforts to such as Yuima, a wealthy landowner who funded much of the Zen activity, and the aging, grumpy monk Rienza, whose thunderous, one word admonitions rise like dark clouds over his gnarled head.
Yet, Hakuin is best known for his minimalist side, as in his swift line drawings of blind monks crossing a dangling bridge and a haunting portrait of an ox staring out a window. Also of esthetic interest is the manner in which these valued scrolls have been preserved, stretched and restretched over pastel colored armatures, which add to the domesticity of the show's total presentation.
Far from being puritanical renunciations, Hakuin's monks are caricatured as enlightened Beetle Baileys, boating, slamming a hammer, even flying through midair, as if life is to be effortlessly stumbled over as pain disappears. My friend David Hall, who has a gallery in Wellesley, Mass., where he exhibits the great artist Ralph Coburn among other gesturates, accompanied me to Hakuin's show and remarked that "humor is an integral part of mark making." Or, as Hakuin might say, "within the line, lies the smile."
"The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin," Oct. 1, 2010-Jan. 16, 2011, at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, New York, N.Y. 10017.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).