A look back at 1980s China-US art relationship – The Washington Post


In 1981, Meredith Palmer helped to organise one of the first surveys of historical and (then-contemporary) American abstract paintings in China. An article published in The Washington Post in December 2011 talks about the exhibition and its impact on Chinese art then and today.

Franz Kline

Franz Kline, 'Mahoning', 1956, oil and paper collage on canvas.

Click here to read about the survey and the subsequent documentary in an article by Meredith Palmer published in The Washington Post in December 2011.

As described by Palmer in the Washington Post article, China had been undergoing economic and cultural reform since 1978, and it was during this decade that a cultural accord was signed between the United States and China. The US State Department decided to showcase American art from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts‘ collection, leading to the organisation of one of the first showings of new western art in China.

The selected artworks were mostly contemporary, with a strong emphasis on abstract art, and the exhibition had an overarching curatorial theme that promoted the idea of freedom of expression. Colonial realist paintings would sit next to 1970s abstract works, with pieces from the 18th century master John Singleton Copley and modern and abstract expressionist works such as those by Milton Avery, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler. As stated in the article,

‘We had the sense that the modern works were important,’ said Theodore E. Stebbins, the show’s lead curator as curator of American paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, now curator at Harvard University Art Museum.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock, 'Number 8', 1949, oil, enamel, and aluminium paint on canvas.

The exhibition informed viewers of the latest international art trends and allowed the audience to explore the American artists’ techniques. Many local artists found inspiration in the works exhibited, which in turn encouraged them to create what was, at the time, experimental Chinese art. Shi Yong, a Shanghai-based installation artist, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying,

‘Since that show, I started to realise there were many other systems and schools beyond what I had learnt. … Previously it was unimaginable…. Its significance lies in the fact that it showed us the possibility to open up the previous system … and take a look at other possible realms…. Later, I started to do some experimental work, installation as well as video.

Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, 'Room in Brooklyn', 1932.

As Chinese artists were often forced to work underground, the exhibition exposed them to a lifestyle and culture that was completely different to their own. The show also encouraged the artists to explore new art forms and ideas, despite the threat of sometimes violent opposition, as highlighted by the remarks, recorded by Meredith Palmer, of Zhang Wei, an artist that was a member of the avant-garde group No Name (Wuming).

‘The exhibition gave us so much support, mental and spiritual; we can see through those paintings how to get so much strength. What we were dreaming about, we can live it; we can keep doing it, we were doing the right thing. But without the show or any foreign art shows in China, we just feel too lonely.’

Thirty years after the survey, named “Important Original Works From the American Paintings Collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts” and presented at both the National Art Gallery in Beijing and at the Shanghai Museum, Palmer returned to China to make a documentary film that explored the importance of cultural exchange programmes and the impact of the exhibition on the Chinese art community. Several Chinese art figures including Zhang PeiliShi YongLi Xi and Zhang Wei were asked for their views.


Related Topics: Chinese artists, political art, art education

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