CONVERSATIONS@PAM: 6 Questions with First Wave panelists Professor Richard Strassberg and ZHENG Shengtian

February 2, 2015

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First Wave Panel, the inaugural CONVERSATIONS@PAM event this Saturday, February 7, 2015, features a panel discussion with Professor Richard Strassberg and ZHENG Shengtian, moderated by USC PAM Director Christina Yu Yu. The discussion will focus on the first comprehensive exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art in the United States, originally shown at USC Pacific Asia Museum in 1987 and 1991, and now part of the current exhibition The First Wave: Modern and Contemporary Chinese Paintings in the USC Pacific Asia Museum Collection.

In preparation for the event, we took a few minutes to chat with Professor Richard Strassberg and ZHENG Shengtian about how they became interested in Chinese contemporary painting, how the art scene in China has changed since the 1980s, and much more.

When you began planning for Beyond the Open Door and I Don’t Want to Play Cards with Cézanne in the late 80s/early 90s, there was very little attention placed on the contemporary art scene in China. How did you become interested in contemporary Chinese painting?

ZHENG Shengtian:

The idea of exhibiting contemporary Chinese painting in the US was started by Waldemar Nelson (1917- 2005), an American expert on philanthropy who was a strong advocate of Chinese art in the 1980s.  He became fascinated by the new Chinese art emerging in the 1980s and recognized its great potential during his several visits in Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Nanjing.  At that time, I was teaching at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and arranged these trips and took him to art colleges and artists’ studios. Encouraged by Robert Anderson, the Chairman of The Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO), Mr. Nelson was able to collaborate with Pacific Asia Museum to launch the first exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in North America, Beyond the Open Door.

Richard Strassberg:

I have always been interested in Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy, both traditional and modern, and previously curated several exhibitions at Pacific Asia Museum.  In 1987, the ARCO Co. asked the museum to exhibit a group of recent Chinese paintings that it had acquired in China for its corporate collection, and I was asked to organize them into a show and compile the catalog.  This became Beyond the Open Door.  It was followed a few years later by I Don’t Want to Play Cards with Cézanne, which came about when the museum decided to mount more extensive exhibition on its own surveying the “New Wave” and “Avant Garde” movements.

Are there any particular anecdotes or encounters from your trips to China that helped shape the focus of these exhibitions?

ZHENG Shengtian:

In the 1980s China was not ready to fully open its door. The scope of cultural exchange with the West was very limited and Chinese government did not support contemporary art practice. Any exhibition going abroad had to go through complicated reviewing process by cultural officials. We found a way to avoid the censorship and that was to purchase the artwork and bring them back as personal items. Many Chinese artists remember how they met the unexpected buyer and how their first sale was conducted. It stimulated great excitement in the art community.

Richard Strassberg:

I had many wonderful encounters with artists and others involved in the art scene at the time and was deeply impressed by some of the younger artists who were working under a lot of constraints as well as by some senior artists who told me of their suffering during the Cultural Revolution.  It made me realize how much art matters to people and how, sometimes, creating it can truly be risky.

With so many artists to choose from and being the first comprehensive exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art in the United States, how did you determine the artists who would be represented in these first important shows of contemporary Chinese artists?

ZHENG Shengtian:

In mid-1980s Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Nanjing were the cradles of the “New Wave” art movement.  We focused on the art academies in those cities and were able to meet with some of the most important pioneers of contemporary Chinese art. For example, Beyond the Open Door introduced a young artist Wang Jianwei’s painting to American audiences for the first time. Now an immersive exhibition Wang Jianwei: Time Temple, the new work of this artist has been shown at the Guggenheim Museum since last October as the first commissioned artist for the museum’s Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative.

Richard Strassberg:

For I Don’t Want to Play Cards with Cézanne, the museum director and I visited China twice, in 1989 and 1990, working closely with Mr.Tang Qingnian of the journal Art Monthly (Meishu) and with Prof. Shengtian of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts as well as with other experts in the nine cities that we traveled to.  We discussed all the works that were included and the final choice of 40 from more than 300 emerged from a consensus among us.  Generally speaking, we were seeking works of high aesthetic quality that represented a range of styles and directions that could define the New Wave/Avant Garde movements of the 1980s, and we especially wanted to include artists working outside the major art centers.

How did the closing of the seminal China/Avant-Garde exhibition at the National Gallery and the Tiananmen Square massacre affect the preparation of the I Don’t Want to Play Cards with Cézanne?

ZHENG Shengtian:

After the exhibition in 1986, Mr. Nelson launched a non-profit organization the International Institute for Arts (IIA) to continue promoting art exchanges between China and the U.S.  But most activities were suspended after the Tiananmen Square massacre.  I left China in July 1989.  Around that time, David Kamansky, then the Director of Pacific Asia Museum asked me to help organize another exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. I recommended Mr. Qingnian Tang, an editor and art critic who observed the ’85 art movement to arrange a tour for them in China. Mr. Tang introduced many participators of the China/Avant-garde exhibition and their works for the second contemporary Chinese art exhibition I Don’t Want to Play Cards with Cézanne and Other Works: including Geng Jianyi’s famous painting The Second Condition, Wang Guangyi’s Big Dolls: Holy Mother and Child, Xu Bing’s original installation Book of Heaven, and Zhang Peili’s X, etc.

Richard Strassberg:

As the catalog to I Don’t Want to Play Cards with Cézanne describes, the exhibition was already being planned when these tragic events occurred, but we determined to proceed nevertheless.  In China, the atmosphere in the art world had become pessimistic, and amid the repercussions that followed many felt, that the possibility of publicly exhibiting and marketing this kind of art within the country had been closed by the authorities.  Hence, much hope was placed in showing this work abroad, and some artists and critics even emigrated. Despite the censorship, the authorities did not interfere with the private production of this art, so artists continued to produce it in their homes and studios.

How do you assess the contribution that both of these exhibitions have made to the study of Asian art?

ZHENG Shengtian:

The two exhibitions were the earliest ones that brought contemporary Chinese art to the West, even prior to the famous Magiciens de la terre in Paris and the China Avant-Garde exhibition in Berlin. On the other hand, these two shows in Pasadena also provided the opportunity for some Chinese artists to gain their first experience of international recognition.

Richard Strassberg:

It seems that these are now regarded as historical events among those researching contemporary Chinese art.  From time to time, I receive inquiries from art historians and from graduate students writing dissertations regarding details of these exhibitions.  The catalogs, unfortunately, are out of print, but the one for I Don’t Want to Play Cards with Cézanne contains several essays with valuable insights. Perhaps it will be reissued someday.

In what ways has the contemporary art scene in China changed since you first started to explore it?

ZHENG Shengtian:

Art critic Norman Klein from the California Institute of Arts wrote a favorable review on the 1991 exhibition.  He noted: “This work was clearly years beyond our simplified western notions of multiculturalism, or even post-colonialism. …… Clearly what was displayed here, casually in progress, contained possibilities for art of the next century.” Norman was one of the first Western critics to foresee the potential contribution of Chinese artists to the international art scene. In the past two decades, we have seen more and more Chinese artists being exposed in major international biennials and in Western art museums. The market for contemporary art has been also developed rapidly. No doubt it was a collective achievement contributed by many prior generations although they more than likely never anticipated that it would come so fast, and on such a scale.

Richard Strassberg:

None of us involved in these exhibitions could have conceived at the time how contemporary Chinese art has grown, both inside China and abroad.  It has become so huge, diverse, popular, and, for some, quite lucrative.  I doubt that such an exhibition as I Don’t Want to Play Cards with Cézanne could be seriously presented today for the art scene is simply too extensive and complex to adequately survey in a single show.


First Wave Panel Discussion

Saturday, February 7, 2015 at 7 pm

Auditorium, USC Pacific Asia Museum

Included with museum admission

Join us for the inaugural CONVERSATIONS@PAM event, featuring panel discussion with Professor Richard Strassberg and ZHENG Shengtian, moderated by USC PAM Director Christina Yu Yu.

Special thanks to USC Pacific Asia Museum’s Chinese Arts Council for their support of this program.