Spencer Museum of Art The University of Kansas
detail: Malcolm X Selling Newspaper by Gordon Parks

Media Release

A Tradition Redefined: Modern and Contemporary Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-tsing Li Collection, 1950–2000

February 21 – May 24, 2009 / Kress Gallery

Lawrence, KS – A spectacular national traveling exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art honors Chu-tsing Li—one of KU’s most distinguished retired faculty members and a pioneer in the teaching, study, and collecting of modern and contemporary Chinese art in the West.

A Tradition Redefined: Modern and Contemporary Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-tsing Li Collection, 1950–2000 is on view February 21 through May 24, 2009. This traveling exhibition of more than 60 works, drawn entirely from the collection of Chu-tsing Li—the finest and most comprehensive collection of its kind in the West—is the first to survey Chinese ink paintings produced during the second half of the 20th century. In examining this five-decade period, the exhibition demonstrates the dramatic evolution of Chinese ink painting in recent times and lays a foundation for understanding the international-style work that is being created in China today. In addition, the exhibition illustrates parallel lines of development in different geographical areas by artists active in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and abroad, thereby bringing to light differences in style and technique from one area to another.

The exhibition commemorates decades of growing awareness in this country of modern and contemporary Chinese painting.

“Many of the paintings in this exhibition were given by or directly purchased from the artist, which is a testament to Dr. Li’s enduring support of living artists,” says Kris Imants Ercums, SMA Curator of Asian Art. “Furthermore, the exhibition charts many of the dramatic changes that transformed Chinese ink painting tradition during what is often referred to as China’s ‘long twentieth century.’”

A Tradition Redefined is organized by Phoenix Art Museum and the Harvard University Art Museums. The Spencer Museum of Art venue is generously supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. All three of the exhibition’s curators did their graduate work in Chinese painting at the University of Kansas, studying with Chu-tsing Li.

Many of these paintings have not previously been exhibited in the West. Robert D. Mowry, Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art, Harvard University Art Museums, co-curated the exhibition with Janet Baker, Curator of Asian Art, Phoenix Art Museum; and Claudia Brown, Professor of Art History, Herberger College of the Arts, Arizona State University, and Research Curator for Asian Art, Phoenix Art Museum.

“Our research on Professor Li’s collection of modern and contemporary Chinese ink paintings provides an unprecedented view of the new artistic directions that Chinese ink painters explored between 1950 and 2000,” says Mowry. “Since the majority of the works in the Li collection were acquired directly from the artists, the authenticity of the paintings is above question; thus, this exhibition, and particularly its catalogue, will serve as a standard by which authenticity can be measured.”

A Tradition Redefined features works by artists who have reconsidered numerous aspects of classical Chinese painting and who have in various ways synthesized elements of Western modernism with Chinese abstraction. In the early 20th century China experienced a drive to modernize; as part of that phenomenon, young Chinese painters, tired of the sanctioned styles and codified brushwork of their predecessors, eagerly began to explore Western styles. These experiments of China’s first generation of modern artists were cut short by evolving historical circumstances including Japanese invasions from the 1930s through World War II, the Chinese Civil War (1927–50), and the rise of competing governments in Beijing and Taipei.

Mainland China’s postwar focus on reshaping its economy, government, and society in the Communist model meant that artists were actively discouraged from exploring foreign artistic styles. Artists working in Taiwan and Hong Kong, by contrast, were free to experiment with foreign idioms, so that painting styles followed different lines of development from one geographical area to another. Contemporary Chinese artists continue to struggle with a balance of traditional and international styles, all the while maintaining a reflection of their own inner personality and continuing the powerful legacy of their Chinese ancestry.


The exhibition is grouped into five categories:

A Tradition Redefined presents more than 60 works by artists active in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and abroad. The works effectively convey some of the artistic tensions brought about by the overwhelming changes in Chinese culture from 1950-2000, providing a unique glimpse of modern and contemporary Chinese art. In examining this five-decade period, the exhibition demonstrates the dramatic evolution of Chinese ink painting in recent times and lays a foundation for understanding the international-style work that is being created in China today. In addition, the exhibition illustrates parallel lines of development in different geographical areas by artists active in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and abroad, thereby bringing to light differences in style and technique from one area to another.


About Chu-tsing Li

Professor Chu-tsing Li is one of the pioneers in the study of modern and contemporary Chinese ink paintings. His interest in art began while he was studying for his BA in English literature at Nanjing University in the early and mid-1940s. He befriended Michael Sullivan, a young architect from Cambridge University who taught English at Nanjing University but who also offered an introductory course in Western art history. Sullivan and Li shared many of the same interests, and the two attended exhibitions and visited with artists, becoming friends; through this association, Chu-tsing Li became interested in art history and, almost by coincidence began his first contacts with modern and contemporary art.

Li came to the United States in 1947; after completing his MA in English literature at the University of Iowa in two years, he switched to their art department to study northern Baroque painting. In 1955 Li completed his PhD at Iowa, where he then taught classes in Baroque painting and was urged to teach modern and Asian art as well. Preparation for these new courses awakened a deep interest in both fields, and he subsequently immersed himself in the history of Chinese painting. Best known for his studies of classical Chinese paintings, particularly paintings of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), he was also developing a second specialty in modern and contemporary Chinese painting by visiting artists and studying their work first-hand. At this time, Li began to acquire contemporary works and to form lifelong friendships with artists.

After 10 years of teaching at Iowa, Li in 1966 moved to the University of Kansas, Lawrence, where he established a doctoral program in Chinese art. He was Judith Harris Murphy Distinguished Professor of Art History until his retirement in 1990. In 1975 he offered the first course in modern Chinese art taught in the West—perhaps the first course in this subject taught anywhere; he wrote most of his best-known works on classical Chinese paintings and on modern and contemporary Chinese art while at Kansas.

As an art historian well-trained in Eastern and Western art, a specialist in Chinese painting, and an acclaimed author of scholarly works on modern Chinese painting, Li has been in a perfect position to assemble a collection of modern and contemporary Chinese ink paintings.

His collection ranks among the finest and most comprehensive in the West; though wide ranging, it is particularly strong in works created during the second half of the 20th century.


More on the Li Collection

Many of these paintings have not previously been exhibited in the West. Robert D. Mowry, Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art, Harvard University Art Museums, co-curated the exhibition with Janet Baker, Curator of Asian Art, Phoenix Art Museum; and Claudia Brown, Professor of Art History, Herberger College of the Arts, Arizona State University, and Research Curator for Asian Art, Phoenix Art Museum.

“Our research on Professor Li’s collection of modern and contemporary Chinese ink paintings provides an unprecedented view of the new artistic directions that Chinese ink painters explored between 1950 and 2000,” says Mowry. “Since the majority of the works in the Li collection were acquired directly from the artists, the authenticity of the paintings is above question; thus, this exhibition, and particularly its catalogue, will serve as a standard by which authenticity can be measured.”

A Tradition Redefined features works by artists who have reconsidered numerous aspects of classical Chinese painting and who have in various ways synthesized elements of Western modernism with Chinese abstraction. In the early 20th century China experienced a drive to modernize; as part of that phenomenon, young Chinese painters, tired of the sanctioned styles and codified brushwork of their predecessors, eagerly began to explore Western styles. These experiments of China’s first generation of modern artists were cut short by evolving historical circumstances including Japanese invasions from the 1930s through World War II, the Chinese Civil War (1927–50), and the rise of competing governments in Beijing and Taipei.

Mainland China’s postwar focus on reshaping its economy, government, and society in the Communist model meant that artists were actively discouraged from exploring foreign artistic styles. Artists working in Taiwan and Hong Kong, by contrast, were free to experiment with foreign idioms, so that painting styles followed different lines of development from one geographical area to another. Contemporary Chinese artists continue to struggle with a balance of traditional and international styles, all the while maintaining a reflection of their own inner personality and continuing the powerful legacy of their Chinese ancestry.


Public Programs in Conjuction with the Exhibition

3.27
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Special Event: Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica
7:30 PM / Lied Center
New York-based conceptual artist, writer and musician Paul D. Miller, the DJ prominently known as DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, presents a multi-media event Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica / An acoustic portrait of the rapidly changing Antarctic ice forms that incorporates Spookys original field recordings to create a unique and powerful moment around mans relationship with nature. / In conjunction with Climate Change at the Poles
3.26
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Tour: Second Life Island tour
11 AM / Spencer Art Museum Island in Second Life
Join Spencer Staff Member Jessica Lea Johnson (SL: Beacon Wirefly) on a tour of the Museums Second Life Island. Teleport now.
3.26
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Panel Discussion: Climate Change at the Poles
5 PM / North & South Balcony Galleries
Co-sponsored by the Lied Center and the ’Art, Ideas, and Action’ program / Invited guest speakers Jonathan Chester (photographer), Brandon Gillette, (PolarTREC & CReSIS), Stephen Williams, photojournalist, and Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) share their personal experiences at the Poles. / Panel moderator Stephen A. Ingalls, associate director administration at Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) / In conjunction with Climate Change at the Poles / Reception follows.
5.16
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Gallery Attendant: Second Life
11AM - 12PM / Process Space 20/21 Gallery
An SMA staff member will be on hand at the Second Life installation in the 20/21 Gallery to talk with visitors and answer questions.
5.23
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Gallery Attendant: Second Life
11AM - 12PM / Process Space 20/21 Gallery
An SMA staff member will be on hand at the Second Life installation in the 20/21 Gallery to talk with visitors and answer questions.
4.5
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Film: Innocent Voices
1 PM / SMA Auditorium
Sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies
4.19
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Film: Bananas
1 PM / SMA Auditorium
Sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies

MEDIA CONTACTS

Bill Woodard
Director of Communications
785.864.0142
bwoodard@ku.edu
Elizabeth Cattell
Communications Intern
785.840.8245
elizacat@ku.edu