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Wen C. Fong: Collecting and Teaching Asian Art

Lecture Series in Honor of Art Historian Sherman E. Lee (1918–2008)

Wen C. Fong at the Asia Society on Feb. 18, 2009. (Asia Society)

Wen C. Fong at the Asia Society on Feb. 18, 2009. (Asia Society)

Lecture Series in Honor of Art Historian Sherman E. Lee (1918–2008)

NEW YORK, February 18, 2009 - In conjunction with the current Asia Society Museum exhibition Asian Journeys: Collecting Art in Post-War America, Wen C. Fong, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and Curator Emeritus at theMetropolitan Museum of Art, illuminated how Sherman E. Lee (1918-2008)—as a director, scholar, curator, and advisor—helped to shape the field of collecting and teaching Asian art in 20th-century America. After the talk, Asia Society President Vishakha N. Desai and the audience joined Fong for a lively conversation about Lee'slegacy as well as the challenges and opportunities for Asian art history in the twenty-first century.

Fong began with warm remembrances of Sherman Lee and an overview ofhow East Asian art and history became a significant part of academia and the museum world in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1953, Lee, then Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, offered Fong asummer job to study important Chinese Song dynasty paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Fong spent that summer studying the collection and living with the Lee family; his work with Lee that year resulted in a joint publication on the twelfth-century handscroll Streams and Mountains without End (part of the Cleveland Museum collection) in which Lee and Fong undertook a comprehensive study of its seals, colophons, silk, and paper. Their findings helped make it possible to trace the art-historical development of Chinese landscape painting style, and their methodological approach has remained exemplary in the field of Chinese painting studies.

Lee was instrumental in combining Sinology (emphasizing the written text) with art history (emphasizing the materiality of art objects) to solve the complex problems of Chinese painting history. In collaboration with experts who spoke and read Asian languages, and thanks to his training in European and American watercolor painting, as well as an impressive range of interest in all aspects of Asian art—Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Korean—Lee contributed to the field the notion of brushwork and "touch."

Summarizing this aspect of Lee's legacy, Fong commented, "In calligraphy, the physicality of the brushwork bears the presence, knownas the ‘trace,' of the artist's body that is the personal mark and expression of its maker. Working with Sherman Lee, I learned early how Lee as a connoisseur understood well the specific challenge of reading the brush line to discern its marking and, from that, its maker."

In his collecting and advising practices, Lee was acclaimed for his emphasis on quality, uniqueness, and hierarchy. His idea of seeking masterpieces left a deep impression on John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Asia Society's founder, who worked with Lee from 1963 to 1978 to build one of the most highly regarded private collections of Asian art in the United Sates. Lee's influence was evident in Rockefeller's brief visit to an art exhibition at Princeton University in the late 1960s, when he said to Wen Fong, "Show me the masterpieces."

Fong illustrated Lee's legacy through the example of Modernistartist Brice Marden, who was inspired by the Ming artist Dong Qichang's landscape paintings after visiting an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art organized by Wai-kam Ho and Lee in 1992. Fong pointed to Marden's interest in the idea of energy and the artist's presence: "...It's like having the qi [life's ‘breath'] come up through your body and translated onto the paper."

Fong continued, "By displacing mimetic representation with aself-conscious mode of artistic presence, and by incorporating the painter's bodily gesture and mark into the material painting surface, modern abstract painting becomes the physical presentation of the painter himself, just as the calligraphic brushstroke declared the physical presence of the artist in Chinese painting history."

In the discussion that followed the lecture, Fong noted that forsomeone working at a museum, which consists fundamentally of a collection and people, Sherman Lee possessed remarkably good instincts about both. In response to the intriguing question: "Yet today, who has Sherman Lee's kind of breadth of interest or knowledge?" Fong remarked that, while one needs to be a specialist, over-specialization kills thefield. Asia Society President Vishakha N. Desai and curators from AsiaSociety Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art then discussed the possibility of breaking geographical and traditional/contemporary divisions in the museum world.

Reported by Daisy Wang