Back to A Rarity in Chinese Contemporary Art main article

CATALOGUE NOTE from Sotheby's catalogue

Contemporary Art Asia: China, Korea, Japan

Sale: N08343 | Location: New York
Thu, 20 Sep 07 2:00 PM

Published with kind permission of Sothebys

With great prescience, long before most art aficionados even realized there was such a thing as contemporary Chinese art, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena organized two important exhibitions of post-Cultural Revolution art: Beyond the Open Door: Contemporary Paintings from the People's Republic of China (1987) and "I Don't Want to Play Cards with Cézanne" and Other Works: Selections from the Chinese "New Wave" and "Avant-Garde" Art of the Eighties (1991). The director (now emeritus) under whose aegis this extraordinary pair of exhibitions was organized was David Kamansky. Here, internationally recognized scholar of Chinese contemporary art Britta Erickson speaks with Dr. Kamansky about the nature of his work with these landmark exhibitions.

Britta Erickson: David, what inspired you to proceed with the first exhibition, Beyond the Open Door It was such an unusual event for that time that you even had Henry Kissinger write the catalogue foreword.

David Kamansky: Beyond the Open Door was based on a collection that Atlantic Richfield Company had put together over a period of time while they were doing business in China. When I first saw the collection I was quite impressed because I had been going to China two or three times a year for twenty years, and I knew something about the contemporary art movement. I was extremely surprised to see how well they had chosen things, and I said I would be happy to look at it critically and put together an exhibition that made sense. They felt that was a good idea.

I looked through the hundreds of works they had collected and selected ones I considered representative of the time. Then, through Caroline Leonetti Ahmanson we managed to get Henry Kissinger to write the catalogue foreword. She was in fact one of the major forces to convince both Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to take a fresh look at China: she felt the only way to be successful in dealing with China was to engage with China in a new way. We thought it was particularly interesting to have Henry Kissinger write the foreword because that was the time when he was quite closely engaged with China.

Britta Erickson: You completed the planning for the second exhibition after the seminal China / Avant-Garde exhibition at the National Gallery (which opened in February of 1989) was closed under a cloud and after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4th. That September you traveled with curator Richard Strassberg (now at UCLA) to seven cities in China to select works. Did you sense that a change of mood was already affecting the art being produced in the aftermath of those sobering events?

David Kamansky: Actually, I was also in China in the spring of 1989 looking around. Based on that visit I decided we should visit all the art academies in China. We found that, although the major art schools in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing were conservative in their teaching, they were where most of the great avant-garde artists of the late 1980's had studied: they had received a classical training in the academies and then moved outwards. Many artists saw books on Western art for the first time in the academies' libraries. Many of the art teachers defied the authorities by encouraging young artists to explore new avenues of expression. A great way to find out about younger artists was by going to the academies and asking the professors who was doing good work. In those days, if you were a successful well-regarded artist, then you lived in a state-provided apartment on a lower floor of the building. If you were a young, struggling avant-garde artist, you were on the tenth or eleventh floor. That September we must have visited forty or fifty young artists living on the tenth floor or above; since there were no elevators I certainly got my exercise! And we met some extraordinary people.

We had a Chinese critic, Tang Qingnian, traveling with us; he knew some of the lesser-known people, so we covered all the bases. By approaching this task very thoroughly we found just about everybody who was important at that time and included them in the exhibition.

Until the crackdown in later 1989, artists had a fairly free life and were able to express themselves. The works chosen for "I Don't Want to Play Cards with Cézanne" were done before the crackdown. Many of the artists we chose were sent to reeducation camps after the crackdown and not allowed to pursue their avant-garde work. Luckily most of the great ones didn't pay attention; they went to New York or London or Paris, and are now working outside China. Some stayed in China and worked through that period, but at the time it was pretty scary; they were treated badly.

Britta Erickson: Both exhibitions presented works in a wide range of media and approaches. Was this the result of a conscious effort?

David Kamansky: I wanted to show there were many different things going on. Before Beyond the Open Door, there was the perception that artists in China were working in one mode; everything was being done by rote and reproduction, with nothing new, no new ideas or new media. We wanted to show that wasn't true, and we also wanted to show that artists were putting political meanings in their work even if sometimes it was dangerous to do so. Many of the works in Beyond the Open Door included such messages, some in support of the regime, and others critical: those were brave people who did that. There was a tremendous variety of expression in "I Don't Want to Play Cards with Cézanne"... it was a wonderful time in Chinese art. So many young people were doing expressive, exciting things in all kinds of media. We found it fascinating and that is why we were trying to introduce the art to the West.

Britta Erickson: Are there any particular experiences you recall from your trips to China to prepare for the exhibitions?

David Kamansky: In preparing for "I Don't Want to Play Cards with Cézanne", we were once visiting an artist's studio and looking at a painting reminiscent of Monet. We told the artist that it was interesting, that it looked like a combination of Monet and Cézanne. The artist replied that the painting was based on one by Cézanne, but that he didn't want to play cards with Cézanne. What he meant was that he didn't want to copy Cézanne slavishly, but that he wanted to get ideas from Cézanne and incorporate them into this own work, as a way of finding a new direction. It was very important for him to express this intention, so we took his statement as the title of the exhibition.

Britta Erickson: Is there anything else you think important to mention?

David Kamansky: When we organized the exhibition we thought it should have an East coast venue, so we offered it to a major East coast museum. When the curators there came back to us, they told us that since none of the artists we had chosen were important, they didn't think the exhibition was suitable. Of course, the artists we chose have become extremely important; in fact, some of the leading artists today were included in that exhibition. Those curators just didn't know what was going on in China.

Britta Erickson: Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

Back to A Rarity in Chinese Contemporary Art main article