Americans in China

“Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation”, a show that has spent a decade in gestation, is on display at the National Art Museum of China, here in Beijing. (360-degree scans of a 19th Century room here; a more contemporary room here.) It is an ambitious show, as anything trying to cover 300 years of art in a single show would be, and generally succeeds at both informing and entertaining. Supported principally by the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art, it contains many of the names you would expect, if not, of course, their best works. But it is surprisingly broad church from the 1700s right up to the present.

20070210_mgyssbn_36.jpg - 193.11 KbIt is quite something to walk through rooms starting with Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians and Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, and end up with Matthew Barney (Cremaster Cycle) and Kara Walker (Insurrection). On the way you will have seen: Albert Bierstadt (Sierra Nevada), Frederic Remington, George Bellows, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer (Watching the Breakers: A High Sea), Childe Hassam; then jumped to Edward Hopper (Dawn in Pennsylvania), Georgia O’Keefe (Red Poppy VI), Walt Kuhn (Clown with Drums); and then Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko, de Kooning, Lichtenstein, Ruscha, Bell, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Twombly, Judd, Serra, Nauman, Weiner, Schnabel, Haring, Gonzalez-Torres, Basquiat, Koons, Currin, Wiley and more. As I said, quite something. For those interested, the only artists that merited two works (as I recall) were John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Thomas Krens of the Guggenheim led the curatorial team.

I went partly to enjoy the walk, and encourage my art-student daughter to go, but also curious to see local public reaction.

20070210_mgyssbn_22.jpg - 312.50 KbPerhaps predictably, the members of the Beijing public I saw on the two days I went seemed to be most perplexed by the room containing works by Judd (Untitled 1970), Serra (Right Angle Prop), Flavin (Green crossing Green: to Piet Mondrian who lacked Green) and Nauman (None Sing – Neon Sign). Many walked straight across Carl Andre’s 10×10 Altstadt Copper Square without being aware of their intimate experience with a work of modern American Art. There were many more people looking at the more accessible 19th-century works and the, I suppose, more conceptually familiar late-20th-century video works. Indeed Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle had its own room packed with people sitting and standing around the room in front of the five screens. Also interesting, and consistent with Lawrence Weiner’s concern with context was the translation of his To See and Be Seen into 3-foot-high Chinese characters 而为人所视 alongside the English. Not that anyone seemed to take notice. One recent work that did seem popular was the Felix Gonzalez-Torres cellophane-wrapped-candy piece (“Untitled” Public Opinion). I saw a number of people pick up single sweets to try and one lady take a two-fisted bundle into her coat. The young fresh-faced guards, in from the provinces, did not seem to mind, which is unusual here. So they were clearly under instruction.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 150-foot historical time-line that is surprisingly brave about US history, covering at least as much of the bad as the good. Indeed a cursory passage down the long line of events one gets an impression of individual triumph (Washington, Lincoln, Edison, Bell, Lindbergh, ML King) and national embarrassment (treatment of: Slaves 18c, Indians 19c, Blacks 20c; Salem Witch Trials 1692, Chinese Exclusion Act 1882, National Origins or Immigration Act 1924, Iraq today). Whilst I applaud the honesty I am not sure how balanced it was. One local visitor was heard to question whether it was written by an American or from someone in the Chinese Ministry of Propaganda (I believe it was written in the US). Still, I would think this will go down well here where self-reflection and self-criticism is much praised if not always practised.

20070210_mgyssbn_26.jpg - 69.51 KbI tried to buy a catalogue on the way out on both days. Supposedly available in both English and Chinese, it was only available in Chinese the first day I visited and was sold out (pending more arrivals) the second. Ah well. I suppose it is good sign that so many people wanted a record of the exhibition.

It all heads off to Shanghai soon for a May 1 opening. Apparently split between two locations (the Shanghai Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai). Which would seem to somewhat defeat the purpose of traversing the history of American Art in one show? (Perhaps local politics played a part. Many things here are overseen by more than one government ministry which makes the art of compromise a necessary skill and the occasional odd decision an inevitable result.) But the timing is good, given the buzz in the local Art scenes, and local reviews have been warm. Long may this sort of exchange continue.

4 thoughts on “Americans in China”

  1. The handling of that historical time-line has me curious on two fronts. Intellectually speaking: Was there some art history as well? And physically speaking: Was it something one had to pass en route to the exhibition, meaning that it served as a sort of scene-setter? Or was it more tangential?

  2. The horizontal time-line had pictures (photos and paintings) presented around the historical facts, as accompanying illustrations, but with no text linking picture directly to history. Very small footnotes told you what the pictures were. So no Art History per se. The time-line was in a corridor that arced around the middle (mid-20th-century) room of the exhibition. You had to double back, after looking at the art work, to follow the time line around back to the entrance of that room. So you could have ignored the time-line completely. But on the days I went there were more people looking at the time-line than the art in the room.

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