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'Killing the Buddha': Reconstructing Zen

Monday, July 24, 2023 | 11:00 AM - 5:00 PM

Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, MO 63112

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” So said a Zen master in an iconoclastic koan—a paradoxical statement to provoke a disciple into understanding, in this case to warn against a doctrinal conception of Buddhism. From its roots in ninth-century Japan to its existence as a modern global phenomenon, Zen, or rather our understanding of it, has dramatically transformed. “Killing the Buddha”: Reconstructing Zen investigates the dynamic shifts in Zen and Zen-adjacent art from the seventeenth century to the post–World War II period. Focusing primarily on the Kemper Art Museum’s twentieth-century collection, this installation addresses three themes: meditation, movement, and reinterpretation. These categories respectively engage the role of meditation in the historical practice of Zen through seventeenth-century ink scrolls, the global spread of Zen concepts and its Western artistic interpretations, and the mutability of the role of Zen in American and Japanese avant-garde artistic movements, including Gutai and Abstract Expressionism. Weaving together the works of Zen monks and nuns—such as Sengai Gibon and Ōtagaki Rengetsu—with Zen-inspired works by Franz Kline, Yoshihara Jiro, Yoko Ono, and others—this exhibition illuminates the outsize yet understated role of Zen in the canon of modern art.

“Killing the Buddha” is curated by Alexandra Crotty (AB ’23), Endie Hwang (AB ’24), and Jingxian Gloria Jin (AB ’23), the recipients of the 2022 Arthur Greenberg Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship. 

The Arthur Greenberg Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship is a competitive program offered every three years that provides upper-level undergraduate art history majors the opportunity to curate an exhibition in the Museum’s Teaching Gallery. This year’s advisors are Kristina Kleutghen, David W. Mesker Associate Professor in the Department of Art History & Archaeology in Arts & Sciences, and Meredith Malone, curator at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.