Duke Professors Awarded for Research on a Zen Influencer and a New Approach to Color Theory

Two Duke faculty in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences have been appointed National Humanities Center (NHC) fellows for the 2023-2024 academic year.

Richard Jaffe, professor of Religious Studies, will lovingly craft 15-plus years of research into a comprehensive biography honoring a name many are familiar with: Suzuki. 

“This isn’t Suzuki the motorcycle inventor or the music method Suzuki,” Jaffe cautions. “This is Daisetsu Teitaro (D.T.) Suzuki, who introduced Zen Buddhism to the United States and Great Britain during the 20th century.”

Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Distinguished Professor of Art and Art History, will build upon the six-part lecture series, “Colorstruck! Painting, Pigment, Affect,” that he presented at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 2022. He will expand the lectures into a monograph, to be published by Princeton University Press.

Both will spend a dedicated year away from teaching duties to work on their independent book-length projects at the Research Triangle Park-based center.

Spreading Indra’s Net: A Biography of D. T. Suzuki

Richard Jaffe
Richard Jaffe, professor of Religious Studies.

Jaffe first learned of D.T. Suzuki in an unlikely place — a Wisconsin summer camp, where a counselor loaned him a book on Buddhism.

“I must have been 16- or 17-years-old at the time and couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but I continued to practice and study Buddhism, and Suzuki was always in the background,” Jaffe says.

As Jaffe’s graduate research in modern Buddhism expanded, Suzuki kept cropping up. Jaffe soon realized the enormous global traction this unassuming figure had across the 20th century and the United States.

Born in Japan in 1870, Suzuki first came to the United States in 1897 — not as a religious scholar but as a translator for the Open Court Publishing Company in La Salle, Illinois, a Gilded Age mining town built on profits from zinc ore. Sponsored by the publishing company’s owner, Paul Carus, the partnership lasted 11 years.

A second trip brought him to New York City in the early 1950s, courtesy of the Rockefeller Foundation, as a visiting professor at Columbia University. His charismatic lectures were popular with both students and the New York intelligentsia, and Suzuki quickly became a beloved fixture on and off campus for the six years he taught.

Returning to Japan, Suzuki continued to travel abroad and lived an active life that spanned nearly a decade. The religious scholar, philosopher, writer and translator became the face of Buddhism outside of Asia. Jaffe explains that the Dalai Lama is as prominent today to Buddhism as D. T. Suzuki was in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Jaffe hopes the finished biography will appeal to a broad audience and provide historical insights while offering access to Suzuki’s prolific achievements.

“Suzuki was truly a global citizen, and he lived such a fascinating, active and influential life,” Jaffe explains. “Many of today’s undergrads aren’t familiar with his life or his contributions — but he deserves to be remembered.”

In addition to the NHC fellowship, Jaffe recently received the Kanazawa University International Award for his work on Japanese Buddhism and D. T. Suzuki, traveling to Japan in August for an awards ceremony and lecture.

Colorstruck! Painting, Pigment, Affect

Richard Powell
Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Distinguished Professor of Art and Art History. (Shaun King/Trinity Communications)

In his original lectures from 2022, Powell used the theme of color as a thread to unify each talk, exploring how color acts as an agent or catalyst in art and engaging with the viewer both subliminally and consciously.

The monograph, divided in chapters, will pair colors with artists known for their use. One chapter, focusing on the narrative painter Jacob Lawrence, known for his modernist depictions of African American life, will discuss the artist’s use of a blue-green hue: viridian. Another chapter explores how the idea of a “yellow, orange glow” functions in the abstract painter Alma Thomas’s body of work.

Powell will also cover the use of red and blue in the Bay Area painter Raymond Saunders’s multimedia works and in the African American color field painter Sam Gilliam’s palette, respectively.

A chapter grounded in brown will discuss the use of the pigment in works by the British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and by the American painters Nina Chanel Abney and Henry Taylor, and another chapter will focus on both color and paint as writing in the works of the acclaimed American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Haitian-born, Paris-based painter Hervé Télémaque.

“Both Basquiat and Télémaque were informed by the graffiti movement and took those energies to develop their own versions of Pop Art,” Powell explains.

Powell is looking forward to expanding his lectures. As a printmaker, now art historian and theorist, it is a chance for him to look back at color and think about its role in painting. Because some of the artists profiled may not be well known, Powell also hopes the book will also introduce the public to unfamiliar faces and artwork.

“I want to share with readers the breadth and complexity of art, where race and culture are factors that are inescapable.”

This fall, Powell is in New York for a Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, returning to North Carolina in the spring for his NHC fellowship.