On ViewBertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery at Hunter College
February 2–April 29, 2023
To those who are familiar with the history of collecting classical Chinese paintings, the name C. C. Wang provides certain assurance of quality. In provenance records of auction catalogues, credit lines of museum labels, or conversations among dealers, it carries the imprimatur of a seasoned collector, an authoritative connoisseur, whose credentials were validated by venerable cultural institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which bought at least sixty-two paintings from Wang and named a gallery in his honor.
After his emigration to New York from Shanghai in 1949, on the eve of a regime change, C. C. Wang quickly established himself as the cognoscente of pre-modern Chinese painting and calligraphy, a field that was then little studied in the United States, mainly due to a lack of exemplary works at hand and the connoisseurship required to authenticate and appreciate their value. Wang was able to assist on both fronts. The tutelage of Wu Hufan and a rare opportunity to examine closely the erstwhile Qing court collection allowed Wang to develop exceptional insights into the style and brushwork of old masters. Since the 1930s, Wang had relied on this knowledge and great business acumen to gradually assemble a magnificent collection. By the 1970s, he had become a trusted scholar to the museums, an astute consultant to Sotheby Parke-Bernet, and an erudite teacher to his students. What is sometimes unintentionally left out from this description of a man of many hats is the facet of Wang as artist, an identity so often overshadowed by his other reputations.
With the exhibition C. C. Wang: Lines of Abstraction at Hunter College, art historians Wen-shing Chou and Daniel M. Greenberg set out to present the artistic side of the collector.
Lines of Abstraction comprises twenty-one works on paper and one on canvas, Still Life (1956), which shows the only surviving example from Wang’s time as a student at the Art Students League in New York. In this painting, his familiarity with early modernist painters, especially “les Fauves” is evident: they, like Wang, paid special attention to the application of the brush. In terms of composition, the painting loses some of its structure in the left half, but it nonetheless shows that Wang was always eager to learn new styles and techniques, principally by way of imitation.
The practice of copying was an important and common tradition for Chinese artists of the past to elevate their craft. For Wang, it was a way to study historically informed brushwork and to participate in the long lineage of literati cultural production. Wang believed that personal expression could only be achieved through dialogues with history. A large portion of the works exhibited carry the qualifier “in the style of” or “after” to indicate their relations with models of the past. Works such as Splendid Views of Rivers and Mountains (1995-2001) and no title (Landscape after Fan Kuan) (1985) show an eclectic approach, which borrows its brushstrokes and compositions from historical masterpieces, updated with new subject matters or processes—for instance, applying texture using a roller wrapped with crumpled paper dipped in ink.
The balance between antiquarianism and originality is carefully preserved in the exhibition. Still, at times, Wang’s deep historical self-consciousness ineluctably weighs him down, when a spontaneous burst of creativity is needed to propel some of the pieces forward. A heartfelt, vibrant self-image of the artist remains elusive, hiding behind veils of references and quotations.
The few examples of a truly distinctive personal language are found in the semi-calligraphic abstractions seen in works like no title (Abstract Work with Blue and Green) (1998) and no title (Abstract Calligraphy) (1998). Popular strategies of “modern calligraphy” during the eighties and nineties—the use of faux characters and the pursuit of pictorial effects over legibility—are synthesized to evoke the lyricism and expressiveness of the line. These tendencies are often referred to as a form of deconstruction, not in the Derridean but the literal sense of the word. Wang’s brand of deconstruction, which extracts from lines an abstract expressiveness independent of textual or representational functions, is not substantially original, as it echoes the general trend of contemporary calligraphy of the late 1980s and early ’90s.
The idea of originality, however, might be an entirely wrong and misleading criterion by which judgments are made. Originality was never worshiped by a literatus in the same way as it would be by a modern, Western artist. To subject Wang’s work—indeed any work of art—to the despotism of originality has the same adverse effect as seeing his art solely through the lens of history.
Luckily, one work in the exhibition offers an example that transcends the prejudicial dichotomy of emulation and ingenuity. In the late 1990s, Wang performed the daily practice of calligraphy on the crowded pages of telephone books, quoting famous passages or poems from memory, rendered in effortlessly elegant calligraphy, or sometimes simply making abstract lines that embody the spirit of the brush. No title (Phonebook with Artist’s Calligraphy Practice) (1998) captures the moments of a cultural giant at ease, in a state of casual creativity, unencumbered by concerns for the past or the future. Artistic creation is weaved so seamlessly into the fiber of everyday life. There was no profound deliberation over style, reference, or material. He chose the phone book simply to save paper.