On the first Thursday of October, The Robert H. Smith Auditorium of the New-York Historical Society was packed to the rafters for the American premiere of the Discovery Channel Asia’s groundbreaking series Chineseness.
China today is a ubiquitous global power – economically, politically and culturally. Its unprecedented growth has brought about many social and cultural changes. This original Discovery Channel documentary series examines the idea of a renaissance in Chinese identity through the lives and work of four prominent contemporary Chinese artists – Yang Chihung, Zhang Huan, Li Chen, and Xu Bing. These artists have dedicated their lives to revolutionizing art and strengthening China’s presence in the art scene.
Hosted by archaeologist and art historian Dr Agnes Hsu-Tang, the all-new four-part series examines how art is being used to tell the story of the nation’s passage towards modernization, and in broader strokes, illustrates what it means to be Chinese today.
An Art Salon conversation between featured artist Yang Chihung and host of the series Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang followed the screening. The evening’s program was presented in conjunction with the exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, currently on view through April 19, 2014.
Abstract painter Yang Chihung was born on October 25, 1947 in Taiwan. Between 1965 and 1968, he attended the National Taiwan College of Art. In 1979, he emigrated to America with his wife, Jane and their son, Daniel. A resident of New York City, Yang Chihung is the first artist of Chinese descent to be awarded The Clocktower residency in New York by The Institute for Art and Urban Resources, receiving consecutive year’s residencies n 1984-85 and again in 1985-86. Yang’s work has been reviewed in admired journals by many noted critics of contemporary art. It has also been the subject of essays in solo exhibition catalogues, and featured in significant museums as well as corporate and private art collections in Western Europe, the Americas and Asia.
Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang is an archaeologist who has advised the UNESCO World Heritage Centre since 2006, including serving on the committees for the nominations of the Incan Road and the Continental Silk Road that led to their designations in 2014. She also advised the U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee on the renewal of the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding with the People’s Republic of China.
Agnes was a Mellon Fellow at the Needham Research Institute at the University of Cambridge and subsequently served on the faculty at Brown University. She was later a Presidential Award postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University. From 1994 to 1997, Agnes served as the Special Assistant to the former U.S. Ambassador to China and Korea, James R. Lilley.
Agnes is the host and narrator of the 2013 award-winning The Lost City of Jinsha on History Channel Asia, and a newly released series on contemporary Chinese art Chineseness on Discovery Channel Asia. She is currently working on the Mysteries of China series on Chinese archaeology. Agnes is a trustee of the New York Historical Society and the Metropolitan Opera. She resides in New York City and Vail with her husband Oscar L. Tang.
Below are excerpts of the transcript from their interview after the screening.
Agnes: Yang Chihung received his citizenship in 1989, 10 years after he came to the United States. The theme of the episode was journey. Tell us the beginning of your journey as a Chinese American. What was it like? Most of us are not artists. We all have this fantasy of a rock star or artist. When I first met Yang Chihung, I had this picture in my mind, the only picture I had seen of a pony tail, no shirt on- he was just so cool. What was it like to be here when you first arrived in New York and to be an artist?
Yang Chihung: Well first of all, I have to say, I still feel a little bit shy to look at the film. People do not usually look at themselves so intensely, within 45 minutes.
Speaking of when I came to New York, it was 30-some years ago. So I spend 30-some years in New York City. This is the most critical time in my whole life – from 30 years old to 60 some years old. In Taiwan, I lived 31 years and here 35.
The reason I came to the United States is for the art. Since the 50’s, the capital of the art world moved from Paris to New York. I was thinking to go to Paris when I was very young, because I looked at Van Gogh’s biography, so interested me. And I like Paris. But French is very difficult to learn. In Taiwan, in High School, we learned English. In college, we also learned English, so it is a little bit easier.
And then I got a chance in 1976, to visit the United States for the first time. I stayed three months in New York City. I think, “Wow! This is the place I want to be. So, when I went back to Taiwan, I tried to get enough money to come back to New York. In 1979, I decided to live here and work here. So for 30 some years, my critical period of time spent in this city only. Of course, I travelled, but I only lived in New York. I didn’t go to school. Like the younger generation, they went to Pratt or School of Visual Art or some school. I graduated art school in Taiwan, which is the same school Ang Lee did (the film director). That’s all. I came here and didn’t go to school. To me, New York City is a big school, it’s a big university. There are 600 galleries in New York and 30 –some great museums in New York City, and 60,000 artists live here.
Agnes: What was it like to live as an artist, breathe as an artist?
Yang Chihung: Fish in water. I was trying to live in Soho. At that time in the early 80’s, Soho is a booming time, but I have children. My son is only seven years old and has to go to school, but in Soho, no school. The only way is to send him to Chinatown. But I don’t like to mingle with the community that much. The first three years, I lived in Queens, Jackson Heights, so he could go to school. Then he went to Stuyvesant High School, that time we moved to Soho- three or four years later. I should have moved to Soho directly because at that time, Soho is very cheap. I remember when we buy an apartment in Queens, it was $60,000, Soho was $70,000. But now it is $7 million. But finally, I moved to Soho and lived on Broome Street. I knew Yoko Ono used to live on Broome Street. James Rosenquist had a studio on Broome Street, many years ago. And then I had a chance to, because my place on Broome Street was getting smaller, and my son is growing up and has a wife, and he wanted to move. I said, no I will give this to you and I will find a place to work as my studio on Crosby Street. Crosby Street is also a very nice street because Richard Serra used to have a drawing studio. Jean Michel Basquiat had a studio.
Agnes: What’s it like to live in that community? These are your neighbors. We’re all very curious what that environment was like.
Yang Chihung:The air is more artistic too. There’s an example, in Soho in the 80’s, if you pick up a stone and throw it, the one you hit is an artist. Whatever direction you throw it (Big laugh). I love Soho in the 80’s. I saw the first Julian Schnabel show at the Mary Boone gallery which is only four paintings, so it sold out. Mary Boone rented a space that was just downstairs from Leo Castelli. A lot of foot traffic. Now, Mary Boone is a great art dealer, everybody knows.
Agnes: We’re now in the 80’s and as part of your journey, you were the first Chinese artist to receive a fellowship to be at the Clocktower. You talked about that at this time you were painting in oil. You haven’t adopted acrylic yet. You also talked about, in the film, you thought of your work as violent. What was it like to have a residency at the Clocktower at that time? What was your creative thinking?
Yang Chihung: I think I got into a program called National Studio Program, which is P.S. 1. They have a program called National Studio Program for the American Artist. There was an International Studio Program for the Foreign Artists. That program is like, Tom Finklepearl said, “it is very competitive.” Tom used to be the director of Clocktower, and then he became director of Queens museum. Now he is commissioner of Department of Cultural Affairs. When I was selected to be in this program, they have two choices. You can either have a studio in P.S. 1 in Long Island City or a studio in Clocktower in Manhattan. Because I live in Manhattan, I choose Clocktower. If I still lived in Queens, I would have chosen P.S. 1. Everybody knows now that P.S. 1 has become part of the Museum of Modern Art. That program is very critical to me, because at that time, I really need a studio. I got the biggest studio in Clocktower.
Agnes: How did you do that?
Yang Chihung: I don’t know, they just gave it to me. They only offer artists one year for this program, but I am so lucky, I got two years. I still remember, my friend, an American painter called Vincent Desiderio, he showed with Marlboro Gallery. His show was quite famous, he’s my next door studio. One day I invited him to my studio to look at paintings. At that time, I am using a lot of Chinese Cultural elements- like a landscape and a lot of line, and a leopard eating the deer, superimposed on the Chinese landscape. So I said, “Vincent, do you think my work is too Chinese?” He said, “No, it is very New York.” Because, to live in New York is like living in a cement jungle.
It reminds me, in the 80’s, there was a very active gallery, Exit Art. The director is Jeanette Ingberman. She visited my studio and after looking at my work, she said, “to live or to be an artist in New York, especially for you as a foreign artist, you have to be very, very, very good.” She said three times ‘very’. Then I know, oh that means very very hard. It’s really hard. 60,000 artists. I’m kind of luck to be selected by The Clocktower Fellowship. During the Studio program period, each year we have Open Studio. You know who came to my studio? Jasper Johns, Henry Geldzahler. He used to be commissioner of Department of Cultural Affairs, and before that, the first curator of 20th-century art in the Metropolitan Museum. He saw my work and said, “I like your work very much.” He gave me his card, and said, “call me.” At that time, I really don’t know much about him. One day I talked to Tom and said, “Henry said he likes my work.” He said, “you hit a goldmine.”
Everybody knows that Jean-Michel Basquiat when he was trying to get into the New York art field, he used to ask, “who is the most influential person in the New York art field?” Everybody say Henry Geldzahler, he is a good friend of David Hockney, brought his work to Metropolitan. So Basquiat , he didn’t use the internet, but somehow he found out Henry’s favorite restaurant. So if you see the movie Julian Schnabel made, Basquiat, Basquiat presented a painting to Henry. “This is my work, I want you to see it.” I remembered in the movie, Henry first time, he said “too young,” because at that time, Basquiat was probably 20 or 22 years old, very young. He grabbed the small painting and Basquiat said, “too young for what?” and left. After not too long, there is a big show called New York, New Work at P.S.1 and Basquiat, just like a star in the show. Henry saw and said, oh I like it. There was an art dealer from Switzerland who loved it and wanted to buy it. And Henry said, “I know the artist.” Many years later, they become good friends, Basquiat and Henry. I saw an article, Henry’s bedroom, the bedroom wall, is Basquiat’s work. Basquiat’s art career was only ten years, starting from 19 years old – 29 years old.
Agnes: I wanted to go back to something your friend, Tom Finklepearl, said in the movie. He said, “ Yang Chihung’s work wasn’t about identity, but his work opened up doors for Asian artists, for them to do what they want to do.”
Every contemporary Chinese artist that I interviewed at the Met, referred to you as “the pioneer”. Now, from a pioneer’s perspective, I’m putting you on the spot, Contemporary Chinese Art is hot. And today’s audience, the popular interest in Contemporary Chinese Art is tremendous. As the artist that so many younger generation Contemporary Chinese artists refer to, and many of them regard you as there older brother (Chihung and his lovely wife Jane really took care of some the artists when they first came to New York City), what is your feeling about what is happening in the Contemporary Chinese Art market?
Yang Chihung: I remember when Zhang Xiaogang had a show at a Gallery in Chelsea called Max Protech Gallery (not in business anymore). After the show, he came to my studio and he asked me, early 2000, “you think painting is dead?” I said, “no. It is so much alive and kicking.” After a few years, his work in the auction reached 5 million dollars. When he first came to New York to have a show, he saw a lot of installations, video art. “Is painting still alive?” he asked. I said, “yes, because, 15,000 years ago already have painting. In the 60’s, or earlier than that, a lot of artists said, “painting is dead.” They are all dead, but never dead.
Two ways to answer your question – first, my practice, my paintings, it’s like a sample for Asian artists, because when I got here in ’79, early 80’s, the Neo-Expressionist, new painting, were so much in the air. I write the book, essay article and send back to Taiwan. They have the article in the magazine. At that time, 80’s, even China and Taiwan very closed, they don’t know much about what happened here. I opened a window for them. My work also in a way is very close to the Neo Expressionism.
If you say pioneer, I see that in the very early stage, not the art trend, but it is what painting is about and where it will lead to. I write article and the essay, and they all read in Taiwan. Zhang Huan somehow got a book from an artist and copied it and then he told me himself, he used a needle and thread and stitched it together. He referred to it as his bible for a whole generation of Contemporary Chinese Artists. Ai Wei Ai Wei, very close friend of mine, said, “the Chinese artists look at this book because they don’t know much about Western art supporting Systems – or how they function.” That’s why Central Academy in Beijing, they invited me to have a lecture there, it was a full house in 1992. They all sit around like I am preaching or something.
Andrea Louie, Executive Director of Asian American Arts Alliance: We support individual artists and small arts groups in New York city. I think many of the challenges that young artists have, especially when they come from When immigrant families, is their families want them to grow up to be doctors, lawyers. If you had something you could share with those parents who are confronted with a child who grows up and wants to be an artist , what would you tell them?
Yang Chihung: When I decided to commit my life to art, my parents cannot understand it. “You’re starving, it’s not a profession.” Today, I see it’s not a profession, it’s my whole life.
So, although people called “professional artists”, I think art, to make art or creation, it’s not a profession, it’s a whole life commitment. My mother, because she’s a Christian, she kind of encouraged me to draw and paint. My father is the totally opposite, he said, “Even selling potatoes is better than an artist. I’m very lucky. I came to New York and tried to live and work here as an artist. I did, so I’m very pleased.
Q: You said you came in 1976 and immediately knew you wanted to live here. What is it about the city of New York that attracted you and attracted 60,000 other artists?
Yang Chihung: I read somewhere, “Why New York is the capital of the Art World?” In Soho or the Village, on a Saturday afternoon or evening, you will see people sometimes line up to buy The New York Times, because The New York Times has a great section of art. Which city has this kind of newspapers? All the major art periodicals or magazines’ headquarters are in New York. Not only painting, film, fashion, writer, everything. When you go to the Venice Biennial, you see the work that you’ve already seen in New York. That’s why New York is the art capital.
Click the link below to watch video of the full interview.
The New-York Historical Society recognizes the leadership support of Oscar Tang and Agnes Hsu-Tang – Tang Family Foundation for Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion. Generous funding has also been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Achelis and Bodman Foundations, and Harold J. and Ruth Newman. Additional support provided, in part, by Lulu C. Wang.
Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, an exhibition that interprets the legacy of Chinese in the United States as a key element of American history, spanning the late-18th century to the present and all regions of the country is currently on view at The New-York Historical Society through April 19, 2015. The exhibition addresses the challenges of immigration, citizenship and belonging that shaped not only the Chinese American experience, but also the development of the United States from the formation of its policies to its national character.
“Chinese American tells the fascinating but complex story of relations between the United States and China, from the Chinese tea thrown overboard in Boston Harbor, to one of our earliest models of international educational exchange, to the nation’s first-ever exclusionary immigration policy, based solely on Chinese origin’” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “The impact of the Chinese in America over more than two hundred years of history has been extraordinary, and yet its story is little or entirely unknown. This exhibition will provoke a new understanding of what it means to be an American.
Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion features approximately 200 objects, including historic documents, maps, artworks, artifacts, and ephemera, drawn from New-York Historical’s collection and loaned by leading cultural institutions and private lenders.
Click below for complete photo coverage of Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion Exhibition.
Photos: Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion on View through April 19, 2015 at New York Historical Society
Programs and Special Initiatives
Two interchanging multimedia pieces greet visitors to the New-York Historical Society. The Chinese in America: We Are Family is a rotating array of Chinese characters for family names and thousands of individual portrait photographs, including distinguished individuals like architect I.M. Pei or champion figure skater Michelle Kwan. The piece was developed by the Committee of 100 for the USA Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Another large rotating collage of portraits will feature profiles of historical and contemporary individuals, and the public can submit personal images through New-York Historical’s website to be incorporated into the display. To learn more, click here.
A related publication, Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion (Scala 2014), features 65 artifacts from the exhibition, serving as a companion guide to the show and a stand-alone chronological overview of the critically important history of the Chinese in America.
Friday, October 17, 7 pm-a film screening of Flower Drum Song (1961), which featured one of the first largely Asian-American casts in Hollywood cinema, with comments by Judge Denny Chin and playwright and screenwriter David Henry Hwang
Saturday, October 18, 9:30 – 11 am-22 Lewd Chinese Women, A Trial Reenactment, telling the story of a landmark 1874 court case, hosted by Judge Denny Chin and members of the Asian American Bar Association of New York, registration required
Saturday, January 10, 7 pm-Award-winning composer/conductor Tan Dun will be joined by special guest Chinese American composers for a lecture and performance program that will trace their musical journey from China to America. Co-Presented by U.S. China Cultural Institute, Cultural Associate of the Committee of 100
Thursday, April 23, 6:30 pm-Spring Concert: China West, featuring performances by Manuel Barrueco and the Beijing Guitar Duo
TICKETS: Ticket prices vary by program. For more information, please call (212) 485-9268 or visit nyhistory.org/programs
Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday – 10am-6pm
Friday – 10am-8pm
Sunday – 11am-5pm
Monday – CLOSED
Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion is curated by Dr. Marci Reaven, Vice President for History Exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society, and the chief historian is Dr. John Kuo Wei Tchen, co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America and founding director of New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute.
A distinguished advisory group of scholars in the fields of history and law helped to develop the exhibition, including Thomas Bender, Joshua Brown, Judge Denny Chin, Eric Foner, Sander Gilman, Madeline Hsu, Erika Lee, David Lei, Mary Lui, Cathy Matson, Mae Ngai, Dael Norwood, Kevin Scott Wong, Frank Wu, Renqiu Yu, and Judy Yung. The Museum of Chinese in America, the Chinese Historical Society of America, and many other lenders of artifacts and images provided critical knowledge and support.
About the New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s pre-eminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.
Other articles by Lia Chang:
Oct. 2: New-York Historical Society Presents Screening of Discovery Channel Asia’s Chineseness with Artist Yang Chihung and Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang
Oct. 15: An Evening with Hollywood Legend Nancy Kwan at the New-York Historical Society
Photos: Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion on View through April 19, 2015 at New York Historical Society
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Photos at Shanghai World Expo USA Pavilion Library of Congress, Hollywood Chinese: Arthur Dong Collection
Other articles by Lia Chang
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Cori Thomas’s When January Feels Like Summer with Debargo Sanyal, Dion Graham, Mahira Kakkar, Maurice Williams, Carter Redwood, Returns to Ensemble Studio Theatre through October 26, 2014
Reg E. Cathey, Ching Valdes-Aran, Joseph Harrington, Tony Torn and More in La MaMa’s The Tempest through November 2, 2014
Sept. 30 – Nov. 2: André de Shields, Adam Chanler-Berat, Kevin Mambo, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kyle Beltran & More Set for THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE at The Public
David Henry Hwang and Lynn Nottage Appointed to the Playwriting Faculty of Columbia University School of the Arts Theatre Program
Joe Mantegna to Helm ‘Criminal Minds’ Season 10 Episode to Honor the late Meshach Taylor
Photos: Maxine Hong Kingston, Billie Tsien, Bill T. Jones, Linda Ronstadt, John Kander, Julia Alvarez, Jeffrey Katzenberg Receive 2013 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama
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Joe Mantegna, Delta Burke, Gerald McRaney, President Bill Clinton and More Remember Meshach Taylor
Photos: Meshach Taylor Celebrates 67th Birthday with Arlene and Joe Mantegna, Delta Burke, Gerald McRaney, Jean Smart, Dennis Franz, Ernie Hudson, John Heard, Keith Szarabajka, Stuart Gordon, Shadoe Stevens and More
Crafting a Career
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Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia recently starred as Carole Barbara in Lorey Hayes’ Power Play at the 2013 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., with Pauletta Pearson Washington, Roscoe Orman, Lorey Hayes, Marcus Naylor and Phynjuar, and made her jazz vocalist debut in Rome Neal’s Banana Puddin’ Jazz “LADY” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York. She is profiled in Jade Magazine. All text, graphics, articles & photographs: © 2000-2014 Lia Chang Multimedia. All rights reserved. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Lia Chang. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. For permission, please contact Lia at firstname.lastname@example.org