Art history can sometimes seem an overly tidy affair of received wisdom and logical progression. But that neatness comes at a cost. Oddball stories can be neglected or forgotten. Questions can go unasked.
What if, for instance, American Abstract Expressionism derived indirectly from Chinese calligraphy? And what if a certain 20th-century abstract sculptor owed as much of a debt to traditional Asian ink-brush painting as he did to the European avant-garde?
Two new shows at the Frye Art Museum address those possibilities, illustrating their theses with some truly sublime artwork. “Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930” is the main exhibit, while “Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai” provides both a tonic note and a local connection.
Noguchi (1904-1988) was the son of an American writer and a Japanese poet, and is best known in Seattle for “Black Sun,” the glorious circular sculpture in front of the Seattle Asian Art Museum that serves as a kind of lens onto Puget Sound from Volunteer Park.
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The received wisdom on Noguchi is that Japanese culture was the key Asian influence on his art. But “Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi” persuasively suggests that an encounter between Noguchi and Chinese artist Qi Baishi in Beijing in 1930 was equally formative and pivotal for him.
Their meeting came about entirely by accident. The New York-based Noguchi, after studying with sculptor Constantin Brancusi in Paris, embarked on a trip to Japan to visit his father for the first time in a dozen years. But while he was en route, his father wrote saying he had no desire to see him.
“If my father did not want me,” he later wrote, “Peking had heart and warmth to spare.”
His plan for a brief stopover in Beijing turned into a six-month stay. During that time, he discovered the work of Qi and immediately asked to become his student.
Qi (1864-1957) belonged to the Chinese “literati” tradition of amateur scholar-artists, but with a difference. Where key practitioners of the tradition dealt in high-minded landscapes, Qi drew on his humble background to give mundane items and creatures — a cabbage, a duck, a frog — pride of place in his ink-on-paper drawings. His varied, virtuosic brushwork had a startling unpredictability about it (“To not have a method is actually to have a method,” he quipped), and his canny sense of how much detail you don’t need to bring a chosen subject to life must surely have impressed Noguchi. Qi’s knack for suspending his subjects in empty yet charged space likely influenced the younger artist, too.
Noguchi, however, put Qi’s lessons to markedly un-Chinese use. In the 100 so-called “Peking Drawings” he made while in China, he used live models, often nude, whose living presence he caught with a tender spontaneity that’s utterly seductive.
It’s not just his fluidity of line, but the scale of that fluidity that impresses. These are large pieces, many of them. They’re also strong, daring compositions — so strong, in fact, that they’re not just a prelude to Noguchi’s mature abstract sculpture, but a whole satisfying body of work in themselves.
As Britta Erickson writes in the catalog for the show, Noguchi delighted in what she calls “the performance aspect” of ink painting. “Just as sculpting in stone is a creative method that permits no turning back, so, too, is ink painting,” she notes. “A mark once made cannot be withdrawn. Noguchi embraced this corollary of ink painting, confidently capturing forms in space through brush gesture.”
To see what wonders single brush-strokes can achieve, look no further than “Peking Drawing (two nude wrestlers)” and “Peking Drawing (woman nursing baby, reclining on left arm),” two striking nude studies. When Noguchi depicts folds of fabric over bodies in unusual poses or action, as in “Peking Drawing (slouching monk)” and “Peking Drawing: ‘Ye Kau Jong’ (robed man, sitting cross legged, resting on fist),” a similar single-line dynamism comes into play.
At some point, Noguchi began to venture beyond narrow brush-strokes. In “Peking Drawing (robed monk),” the contours of the monk’s head, hands and upper shoulders are in broad ink- smears. A veritable whirlwind of fabric movement and a sharp alertness in the monk’s eyes add to the almost perturbing energy of the piece.
Many works offer what you might call double takes on their subjects, as if two entirely different ink-brush paintings were occupying the same space. Figures depicted in thin brush-strokes — a crying baby, a reclining man — are overlaid with inches-wide, barely translucent swathes of dark ink that seem to point toward the abstract possibilities of the human form.
This effect is most powerful in paintings that depict two or more figures. Several beautiful portraits of mothers nursing their babies deliver both a tender realism and a broad-stroke abstraction of the visceral connection between mother and child.
“Peking Drawing (three figures, one behind the next)” is a family portrait, with father, mother and son finely rendered in contrasting poses and attitudes, at the same time that thick ink-smears bind them in a curvilinear cage. “Peking Drawing (man and boy in circular tumble)” has equal psychological weight. Its two figures are inextricably bound together by thick, encircling ink marks, yet locked in head-to-head opposition. An allusion to Noguchi’s shaky relationship with his father seems probable here.
“Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai” is a smaller show, consisting of two works by Teng and a dozen by Tobey, the self-taught artist considered the founder of the Northwest School of art and who lived most of his life in Seattle. Here’s where some local art history enters the picture.
Teng (1900-1980) came to Seattle in 1924 and studied art at the University of Washington. After earning his master’s, he taught courses at the UW on both Western and Chinese art. He seems to have made a big impression, judging by the amount of newspaper coverage he got.
While in Seattle, he taught Tobey (1890-1976). He returned to China in the early 1930s, and Tobey visited him in Shanghai in 1934. Tobey would later talk of how a Chinese “calligraphic impulse” shaped his work, including his famous “white writing” technique — an overlay of white or light-colored symbols on an abstract field. While Tobey had a likely influence on the Abstract Expressionists (especially Jackson Pollock), he didn’t, curiously, see his pieces as abstract.
“There is no abstract art,” he argued. “You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark. It is what started the artist off, excited his ideas, and stirred up his emotions.”
Some titles in the show — “City Reflections,” “Forest Dance” — bear him out. Others (“Above the Earth V,” “Above and Below”) seem to join a cartographic with a calligraphic impulse, evoking impossible geographies of the mind with their dense, warped cross-hatches of color. They’re beguiling pieces.
Teng, unfortunately, ran afoul of the Cultural Revolution in China, and most of his work was lost or destroyed. His two pieces in the show, “Bird on Rock” and “Cranes and Pine Tree,” are ink-on-paper works, mounted on scrolls, which use a jazzy, quick-sketch touch to evoke their chosen subjects. Their specific influence on Tobey isn’t obvious. More likely it was Teng’s wealth of knowledge, especially of Chinese calligraphy, that led Tobey toward his breakthroughs.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com