Sunday, May 11, 2014


I always forget the Frye Museum is in my neighbourhood, because I never leave my house, so yesterday we actually broke the shackles of the grocery-store-library-and-home-again route and wandered up there, and the place was open and free and so we went in. There are two big exhibits right now, Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930 and Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai -- the influence of East and West, the American-Japanese sculptor learning from the Chinese master calligrapher and the American making friends with the Chinese painter who came to teach at the UW. Noguchi's drawings were pretty OK (we liked his nearly negative-space studies of slouching and sitting monks best), Qi's were masterful and witty (there is a giant colourful one of a BIG rooster by a gourd vine), we couldn't fucking stand Tobey's appropriative "fake Shanghai calligraphy" (what the actual FUCK) and I liked Teng Baiye from the first sighting I had of him as an art dandy in an inscribed photo:

Too goddamn cute, right? (The pose! The smock!) But his paintings, all fucking THREE of them (there were tiny photos of a few more, in a dimly lit room where a self-aggrandizing short film by Tobey droned on, and on, and on) and they were just....genius, I can't even say it any plainer than that. No reproduction does justice to them, they just popped off the walls. (This was before I found out he apparently did them in one sitting with his goddamn FINGERS -- the descriptions of the time about his methods sound a little romanticized, but hell, ink fingerpainting produced that? If I fingerpainted with ink, it would make Pollock look like Rembrandt, for Chrissakes.)'s no good, in reproduction they just look pretty-pretty. And you entirely miss this completely wild blend of abstract and realism -- the little cherry (?) blossoms in the left painting look realistic, but you get close up and realize they're not detailed at all -- mainly sort of pink blobs. But they look just right. (This was in Qi's drawings, too, the use of extraordinarily simple line, almost all suggestion, just a few details here and there somehow holding the whole.) (T said later that when I leaned wayyy in to look at the painting of cranes, the docent/guard/volunteer/whoever leaned pretty far out at a matching angle to make sure I wasn't going to, IDEFK, eat it like Francis Dolarhyde with Blake or something. I did devour it, but only with my eyes.) I kept going back to the "Bird on Rock" -- it was just so perfect, the pose, the angle of the tail and beak, you have to go see it.

But the reason there are only three (THREE) of his paintings on display is terribly upsetting -- apparently he taught at the UW a bit, got a scholarship to Harvard, knocked around New York, visited Europe, then went back home, taught painting for a while -- and then there was the Japanese invasion, he worked in a factory assisting refugees as a patriotic duty, and then, of course, the fucking Cultural Revolution and the one book I found (David Clarke's Chinese Art and Its Encounter With the World) with any information about him cut me off right there, thank you Google Books and your fucking limited views -- "His paintings were denounced as spiritual pollution, his overseas connections brought suspicion on him, and as a result he was forced to do manual labour." And his wife divorced him, probably to save their children. Dear God, I don't think I want to know any more than that. What happened to him? To his hands?

And just to prove that the ungodly flourish like the goddamned bay tree, Tobey went on to have a long, successful, dull, fradulent career. I was so mad I couldn't speak a word nearly all the way home. The true artist gets ground up in the machinery of politics, and the faker has more than a dozen pieces of shit on the museum walls.

Whether Tobey’s work had remained “American” or become “oriental” was a subject of debate among contemporary observers in the United States. Merrill Rueppel, the director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, wrote in 1968 that Tobey was “never for one moment anything but an American,” explaining that he had “taken the calligraphy of the orient and made it the foundation of his own art without becoming oriental.” Similarly, William Seitz, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, wrote that in Tobey’s work “the Eastern dragon had been harnessed to Western dynamism.”*

In China, similar questions regarding the extent of foreign influence on the work of Teng Baiye were raised. Scholar David Clarke notes that Teng’s “sojourn in the Pacific Northwest and his sophistication in handling both Western and Chinese cultural knowledge gave him valuable resources with which to contribute to the task of assimilating lessons from elsewhere while building a national culture [in China in the 1930s].” Nevertheless, after 1949, and especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), Teng’s paintings were denounced as spiritual pollution. He was condemned to manual labor and few of his paintings survived.

- Frye museum website

*no seriously, it says that