Almost a decade ago, I first met journalist Jonathan Napack, who died at 39 last weekend in a Hong Kong hospital, apparently due to a severe lung infection. There’s an excellent obituary, albeit brief, by Charlie Finch in the latest Artnet News, to which I’ll only add a few personal observations.
When we first met, Jonathan was in the process of decamping from New York to Hong Kong, and over the following years his byline popped up from all over Asia – not just Beijing and Hong Kong, but also Hanoi and Gwangju. His move seemed quixotic then, when no one cared about Asian contemporary art. Now it seems visionary.
He traveled the continent relentlessly, first as a journalist and then as Art Basel’s man in Asia. When I did my Singapore-Shanghai-Gwangju biennials marathon last fall, he and I ended up in quite a few of the same bars, planes and restaurants. Everywhere we went, he had could parse the internecine skirmishes in local cultural politics and had a total recall for trivia like the decade-old drug-trafficking convictions of local art collectors.
But what made Napack most fascinating was his ability to contrast the local art scenes, revealing how radically different they were in their mechanisms and development. And while he promoted Asian art by shining a spotlight upon it, there was none of that soft-minded mixing up of zen, yoga, batik and kung fu into some vanilla exoticism. Rather, the roguish Napack embraced Asia as it is – sometimes dirty, often hedonistic, always crowded and wildly varied.
It’s dangerous to over-rate a single person’s impact, but I think both in his writings and in his extensive behind-the-scenes activities (if not a fixer per se, he had all the tools), Napack narrowed the gap between the Eastern and Western contemporary scenes. Would Asian Art have ascended without him? Surely, but perhaps in a different way. So it’s a bitter paradox that he will not be around to trace its trajectory with his distinctive mix of anecdotes, analyses and apercus.