A Brush with History: The Artist Who Immersed Himself in Classical Chinese Painting

A Brush with History: The Artist Who Immersed Himself in Classical Chinese Painting

Artist, collector and scholar C. C. Wang became the foremost expert on Chinese literati paintings by mastering the genre himself – and then innovating it for the 20th-21st century.
Artist, collector and scholar C. C. Wang became the foremost expert on Chinese literati paintings by mastering the genre himself – and then innovating it for the 20th-21st century.

I n the late 1970s, artist Arnold Chang made a cross-country move that altered his life. While he was in his twenties, Chang packed up his longtime home in New York City and left for northern California to pursue a graduate degree in Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. There Chang crossed paths with James Cahill, the late art collector and historian, who introduced him to Chi-Chien Wang, known as C. C., a renowned collector and connoisseur of Chinese paintings – and now the subject of “Foundations of Abstraction,” an exhibition at Sotheby’s New York on view through 20 March. A gifted authenticator, deft calligrapher and boundary-pushing artist, C. C. Wang (Wang Jiqian) was known for melding classical Chinese techniques with a modernist bent in his painting practice.

At the time, Chang had planned to pursue his studies further with a PhD at Berkeley. Then he happened to take two classes with Wang at the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco. “Once I met C. C. Wang, I decided this guy really knows what I want to know,” says Chang. “He epitomized everything that I was interested in: He was a collector, he was an artist, he was a scholar.” After graduating, Chang moved back to the east coast to study with Wang, who had been living in New York since the late 1940s, with the intention of later re-enrolling at Berkeley for his doctorate degree. Chang never went back, because he “kept learning for the next 25 years” as Wang’s student and eventual colleague.

Images from left to right: Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), Detail of Abstract (王己千 抽象書法 水墨紙本 立軸 二零零零年作), 2000. Ink on paper, hanging scroll. Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), Detail of Abstract Calligraphy (王己千 抽象書法 設色紙本 立軸 一九九七年作), 1997. Ink and color on paper, hanging scroll.

Wang, who died in 2003 at the age of 96, leaves behind a critical legacy. Angela McAteer, the Senior Vice President and International Head of Department for Chinese Works of Art at Sotheby’s, says that “you cannot separate C. C. Wang from the story of Chinese paintings in America – he’s critical.” Wang is central to both the evolution of Chinese painting in the United States and how the market for Chinese art has unfolded in ensuing decades, at once through his work as a collector, his mentorship and his pivotal role in fleshing out the Chinese Paintings market along with his student, Chang.

“When Wang came to this country, there weren’t that many people who knew as much about Chinese painting as he did,” says Chang, who formerly led the Chinese Paintings Department at Sotheby’s as Vice President and Director. “He influenced a whole generation of scholars in looking at classical Chinese painting.”

While Wang had a reputation as a singular connoisseur of Chinese art, his prowess as a collector cast a long shadow over his prolific work as a painter. Since his death over two decades ago, though, Wang’s own artistic output has been gradually thrust into the spotlight and the subject of critical reevaluations, mostly recently at last year’s Hunter College exhibition “C. C. Wang: Lines of Abstraction.”

C. C. Wang (left) and Arnold Chang (right) painting in Huangshan, 1987. Image courtesy Arnold Chang
“C. C. Wang epitomized everything that I was interested in: He was a collector, he was an artist, he was a scholar.”
- Arnold Chang

At Sotheby’s, a selection of works that Wang created in his later years, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, offers a window into a unique period of the artist’s oeuvre: Wang was not only committed to refining his techniques, but he also embarked on a fertile era wherein he experimented more playfully with abstraction, especially related to the calligraphy he’d rigorously practiced throughout his life.

Regardless of medium or era, Wang’s artistic work can always be traced back to the late artist’s studies in techniques culled from Chinese literati painting traditions. “His emphasis was always on brushwork, which was the actual weight, the quality of the line that’s created with ink on absorbing paper, and being able to control that with the touch of your brush,” Chang says. “That was always fundamental to him.”

Artist, Collector, Scholar – C. C. Wang’s Life

Wang was exposed to a trove of extraordinary Chinese art from an early age. Born in Suzhou (in China’s Jiangsu Province) to a family of scholars in 1907, he studied poetry and practiced calligraphy as a young man. He painted the likes of flowers and bamboo in addition to learning landscape painting, and had rare access to the Chinese paintings in private and imperial collections – many of which had not been seen by members of the public, let alone in the West. While pursuing a law degree from Suzhou University, Wang simultaneously taught art.

By his early twenties, Wang had already garnered a reputation as a singular authority of premodern Chinese paintings, beginning in the Song dynasty. In the 1930s, when Wang taught at the Shanghai School of Fine Arts, one of his former teachers of landscape paintings, Wu Hufan, put his name up for a position to help advise and select paintings for the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, which opened to the public from 1935 to 1936. As one of the first international exhibitions to showcase the staggering variety and breadth of Chinese art – with an estimated 4,000 works spanning 35 centuries – the monumental show ushered in a newfound interest in Chinese art globally. The exhibition also marked the first time that the Chinese government had loaned a series of artistic treasures to a foreign country.

Images from left to right: Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), Scholar’s Rock (王己千 靈石 水墨紙本), ink on paper. Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), Scholar’s Rock (王己千 靈石 水墨紙本), ink on paper.
“I always paint rock formations. It’s the same to me as the nude for the Westerner.”
- C. C. Wang

Amid China’s political unrest in the 1940s, Wang decamped to New York City by the end of the decade with his wife and his two youngest children. At that point, Wang was known as not only a deft collector of old master works of Chinese painting, but also a skilled authenticator. In the late 1940s, Wang helped the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to assess that a cache of Chinese paintings they’d recently acquired turned out to be forgeries. Coupled with his work studying artistic seals along with scholar Victoria Contag, to help the process of verifying Chinese art, Wang became a go-to authenticator of this period. “When he came to the US, he was looking at paintings and applying his connoisseurship and skill in a totally different way than US curators had been doing,” McAteer says. “He had a very distinct approach, rooted in being a practicing artist trained in that tradition.”

Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), Landscape (王己千 山水 水墨紙本 二零零零年作), 2000. Ink on paper

But when Wang arrived in the United States, he couldn’t make a living selling his own art. “Initially he used his artistic skills to find a job designing wallpaper and painting decorations on lamps, but a career in commercial art would never satisfy his deeper artistic ambitions,” Chang once wrote of his mentor. That’s partially due to the fact that in the 1950s, there was very little knowledge about Chinese painting in the United States – so Wang supplemented his income with teaching as well as collecting. In 1962, he cofounded the Department of Art at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and he traveled back and forth between Hong Kong and New York City for a while. And starting the 1970s, the Met acquired a large group of early Chinese paintings he’d amassed throughout his lifetime.

Wang continued painting and absorbing everything around him. “He never tried to be an international contemporary artist,” Chang says. “He was always a Chinese artist, but was informed by what he was seeing. Not just in the museums and galleries, but just by being a New Yorker.” Wang frequently turned to natural landscapes in his work, but put his own spin on the genre. “I love rocks, mountains. I always paint rock formations. It’s the same to me as the nude for the Westerner,” he told the North Carolina News & Observer in 1977, on the heels of his show “Mountains of the Mind: The Landscape Paintings of C. C. Wang.”

“There are so many textures that come out of nature. But not one of these paintings is real. They are all from my subconscious, from the logic of nature.” He stated that while his work might look traditional, he saw what he was doing as a sort of “new opera” for Chinese art. Over time, Wang’s style gradually evolved from more conservative approaches to landscape painting into work inspired by Abstract Expressionism and graffiti, among other artistic movements and creative pursuits.


A Scholar’s Approach to Art and an Artist’s Approach to Knowledge

Wang didn’t paint just for the sake of painting. His artistic practice was directly related to his collecting acumen. “In the old Chinese literati framework, painting was a way of learning the techniques, a way of understanding the art of the past,” Chang says. This became Wang’s ethos: “You paint in order to learn about painting, and you collect in order to become a better painter,” as Chang describes it.

Similarly, Wang’s eye for collecting Chinese art wasn’t necessarily about being well ahead of a future commercial boom. Nor did he purchase these pieces solely for aesthetic purposes. “He collected in order to study,” McAteer says. “He would acquire the painting so that he could understand the techniques, the strokes. He reproduced them himself, sometimes quite faithfully, sometimes not so faithfully. But it was about emulating those masters and understanding the fluidity of their brush and how they applied the ink, and trying to train his hand in the movements of historic artists.”

Wang’s teaching philosophy stemmed from a similar place. “The main way you learn about Chinese brushwork is by copying, whether it’s calligraphy or painting. And most teachers have you copy their own work, which makes sense – it’s accessible,” says Chang. “The thing that was absolutely extraordinary about my chance to study with C. C. Wang was that he didn’t want me to copy his work. He said, ‘learn from the old masters and find your own voice.’”

Images from left to right: Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), Abstract Calligraphy (王己千 抽象書法 水墨紙本). Ink on paper. Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), Landscape (王己千 山水 設色紙本 立軸). Ink and color on paper, hanging scroll. Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), Landscape (王己千 山水 水墨紙本 立軸). Ink on paper, hanging scroll.
“He would acquire the painting so that he could understand the techniques … and train his hand in the movements of historic artists.”
- Angela McAteer, SVP and International Head of Department, Chinese Works of Art

By the late 1970s, Wang had amassed an encyclopedic collection of works ranging from the Song dynasty through the Qing dynasty, comprising hand scrolls to album leaves and beyond. As part of his studies, Chang was able to both study and copy from this collection of paintings directly. “He would just set me free. I would sit in the studio, and he would come in say, ‘what would you like to paint today?’ It was like going into a candy store.”

When they weren’t painting, the two would often visit museums, seeing everything from Dong Qichang pieces acquired by the Met to Henri Matisse shows at MoMA. “Even though he had this great knowledge of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, he was very open minded and constantly experimenting with new techniques, with new media, and really expanding his own horizons,” Chang says. “He took classes at the Art Students League for many, many years. He was trying to understand more about Western painting at the root.”


The Birth of the Chinese Art Market in America

For the first 15 years or so that he studied with the late artist, Chang also worked at Sotheby’s, which became a different kind of education. “I would travel all over looking for consignments, and I would bring the best things back and go over them with Mr. Wang,” Chang says. “I was also learning to paint at the same time. It was really a wonderful experience, and he was a tremendously generous teacher.”

Chang says that while dealers occasionally dabbled in Chinese paintings, neither an infrastructure nor a way to determine the public market value existed within the United States back then. So he and Wang, who was consulting for Sotheby’s at the time, “had to build up the market, literally, artist by artist, period by period, school by school, through trial and error,” Chang says.

Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), Abstract Calligraphy (王己千 抽象書法 水墨紙本). Ink on paper

Initially buyers emerged locally, some of them Chinese citizens who had immigrated to the United States, like Wang. “At that time, mainland China was completely closed off. There was no market inside China at all,” Chang says. “Once China began to open up and currency restrictions were loosened somewhat, China started to come into the market. That changed everything.” The department that Chang worked for no longer exists, Chang says, because most of the market for Chinese paintings these days has moved primarily to Asia.

McAteer, who started working in the field in 2008, says that year proved to be consequential. “When we look back at the trajectory of the Chinese art market, 2008 was really the first year when we saw increasing participation in the market from mainland China – and that continued to its zenith around 2011-2012,” McAteer says. “That five-year period was wild. You were seeing year-on-year increases in values.” As a newcomer back then, McAteer says she couldn’t get a firm handle on “what the values were of things or how to estimate things, because it was changing every six months.” Wang’s exhibition now arrives amid much clearer demand for significant works of contemporary Chinese art.


C. C. Wang’s Aesthetic Innovations

As time went on, Wang experimented more in his paintings. Starting in the late 1960s and 70s, he began toying around with using ink, brush and rice paper in new ways, sometimes crumpling the paper itself, dipping it into ink and using that to create texture. By his later works, he was “breaking calligraphy’s traditional readability as a literary text and creating a provocative series of abstract calligraphic images,” as his biography describes. Sometimes he used felt markers, or painted on phone books (so as to not waste paper), construction paper and other colorful backgrounds.

Images from left to right: Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), Abstract Calligraphy (王己千 抽象書法 設色灑銀紙本). Ink and color on silver-flecked paper. Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), Abstract Calligraphy (王己千 抽象書法 設色紙本 一九九四年作), 1994. Ink and color on paper.
“He was always a Chinese artist, but was informed by what he was seeing. Not just in the museums and galleries, but just by being a New Yorker.”
- Arnold Chang

Some of these works are on view at the Sotheby’s exhibition, which builds on the focus of the 2023 Hunter College show and showcases a sampling of what he painted in the last few years of his life. “We didn’t confine it to a particular theme or type – we looked for a representative selection for the painting styles, formats and price points as well.” McAteer. “It seemed like a shame to divide up his paintings in different auctions.”

A constant of Wang’s art is that he approached it with intrepidness and curiosity – and his sensibilities seemed to become more experimental with every passing year – while hewing closely to Chinese literati traditions. “Usually when you’re looking at an artist, you’re looking at an evolution of style,” McAteer says. “C. C. Wang was working simultaneously in these very distinct styles. So while he was experimenting with paper, texture and the application of ink onto paper, he was still, at the same time, doing quite classical subjects. He was still emulating these 12th-, 13th-century masters of literati painting, while observing what was happening with Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and 60s. To be able to straddle those two worlds at the same time is really remarkable.”

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