“Calligraphic Abstraction,” at the Seattle Asian Art Museum through Oct. 4, is a centuries- and culture-spanning look at the form.

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Most of us think of calligraphy as an elegant form of writing, grand for wedding invitations and formal announcements, but just writing.

“Calligraphic Abstraction,” at the Seattle Asian Art Museum through Oct. 4, amply proves that calligraphy is so much more, and has been for centuries. The museum encourages visitors to see calligraphy as a longtime artistic tradition common to many cultures but expressed differently in each one.

The first gallery is organized in a fashion that compares calligraphy from Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Islamic traditions. They vary widely in size and composition but all were created through the sweeping motion of pen or ink brush.


‘Calligraphic Abstraction’

Through Oct. 4, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park, 400 E. Prospect St., Seattle; $5-$9 (206-654-3100 or seattleartmuseum.org).

Of special interest is the large 19th-century tughra, a calligraphic monogram of the ruling sultan, from the Turkish Ottoman period. A tughra appeared on all official and important documents as well as on coins. Throughout Islamic history Arabic calligraphy has been a valued art and writing form, and the tughra is one of the most elaborate and symbolic of the calligraphic ideographs. Although its components never varied, the individual sultan could give it his own flourish.

Next to and much smaller than the tughra is a 17th-century page of inked sayings from the Quran. The calligraphy is presented on gold paper in a complicated geometric pattern that exhibits the sophisticated mathematics of the time and culture.

Compare these pieces with the calligraphy-inspired watercolor by 20th-century Northwest artist Mark Tobey. Many of Tobey’s abstract impressionist paintings are highly structured compositions, created with oriental brushwork and calligraphic strokes, and the one in this show, an untitled calligraphic, is typical.

Another item of special interest in the introductory gallery is that of contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing, who has invented a writing system that looks like Chinese script but isn’t; he often integrates English letters in the words. The recipient of many awards, including a MacArthur genius grant in 1999, he dedicated his two-scroll work, “Learning from the Past, Moving Forward in Time,” to former Seattle Art Museum director Mimi Gates.

Contemporary Korean artist Son Man-jin used a Daoist quote from around 300 B.C. for his inspiration: “All men know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless.” On the right side of his horizontal work are characters for “useful” and “useless,” but transformed into somewhat abstract shapes. On the left is a wash of gray and black ink. Spatters of black ink create energy where the two halves meet. Thus, captured in art, is a philosophical conundrum.

In the first of two galleries devoted to Japanese calligraphy, we are introduced to kana, or “woman’s writing.” The lines are thin, gentle, flowing. There are many lovely examples on scrolls and a screen. But do notice the 17th-century wall hanging containing four poems by haiku master Basho and calligraphy master Shoei.

The bolder, thicker, wilder and sometimes phallic strokes found in the second Japanese gallery are kanji, “masculine writing.” This is especially impressive in the thick black calligraphy that decorates a magnificent gilt screen.

“Calligraphic Abstractions” is about beauty created by the thoughtfully applied flow of ink on carefully prepared surfaces — an artistic tradition across cultures and through the centuries.