Lot 2
  • 2

Yun Gee (Zhu Yuanzhi)

600,000 - 800,000 HKD
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  • Yun Gee (Zhu Yuanzhi)
  • Park Bench I
  • oil on paperboard
signed in Chinese and Pinyin; titled on the reverse; Robert Schoklkopf Gallery, New York, the William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, the Oakland Museum and Bowdoin College Museum of Art labels affixed to the reverse, executed in 1927


Helen Gee Collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner


New York, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, Yun Gee, 7 - 31 May 1968
Storrs, The William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, The Paintings of Yun Gee, 13 October - 18 November 1979
Greensboro, Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina, The Paintings of Yun Gee, 10 February - 9 March 1980
Oakland, The Oakland Museum, The Paintings of Yun Gee, 18 March - 27 April 1980
Brunswick, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, The Paintings of Yun Gee, 10 October - 23 November 1980
Taipei, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, The Art of Yun Gee, 25 March - 14 June 1992, p. 93


This work is in good condition. There is evidence of very thin craquelure across the surface of the painting, only visible under close examination, predominately on the dark paints across the work. There is evidence of very thin scratches, 3 cm from the left and 5 cm from the bottom edge. There is a slight white accretion and a black mark at the lower left corner, presumably inherent to the artist's working method. There are tapes attached to the edges of the work, presumably inherent to the artist's working method. There is no evidence of restoration under UV.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Park Bench I by Yun Gee
A Kaleidoscopic Vision of Old San Francisco, in the Eyes of a Striving Revolutionist

Overseas modern Chinese artists are typically divided into three main schools — France, America and Japan. Under America’s racial segregation policies in the past, Chinese Americans had long struggled with their difficult position in the society, and the conditions for those in the arts were especially harsh. Among the most fearless of these artists was Yun Gee, the first to rise to prominence and attain an extraordinary level of achievements. Son of a Chinese American immigrant, Yun Gee demonstrated his interest and talent in art since a very young age. He was “among the most advanced modernist painters active in California in 1920s” according to Stanford University Press’ 2008 publication, Asian American Art — A History 1850-1970. Park Bench I is one such work from this period — mature, wholly satisfying yet boldly innovative at the same time, testament to the artist’s modern spirit, already leading the way among his contemporaries whilst still in his 20s.

Synchromism: A Composition Style En-route to Abstraction

Evidently Cubist in its style, Park Bench I is constructed with highly saturated colour blocks, highlighting the complex, intertwining relationship between the objects in the painting. Scenery and real life subjects are turned into two-dimensional, geometric patterns which, in this painting, represent a gentleman smoking his pipe and a woman seated in a composed manner. Almost imperceptibly, there is also the suggestion of another figure, reduced to just an incomplete contour positioned between the couple, who sit side by side as they enjoy a leisure time at the park. Upon closer examination, one could see that the overall composition is still in line with an one-point perspective, its vanishing point set to the left hand side of the gentleman’s pipe. Nevertheless, its spatial depth is absorbed by the colourful and vibrant areas of textured brushwork, to the point where it is nearly impossible for the viewer to distinguish between the people and the scenery at first glance. In this sense, the work shows evidence of progression towards the realm of geometric abstraction. In the work created during this period, Yun Gee applied pure oil pigment directly onto paper, in order to reduce the painting’s reliance on colour-mixing. Without first creating a rough sketch, he constructed the scenery and subjects by painting one colour block after another, starting from the center, until the picture was completed. Because paper absorbs oil paint very quickly, the artist needs to re-charge the bristles with fresh paint with each brush stroke, and it is not possible to adjust the details once the paint has been applied. This practice was instrumental in developing the artist’s creative accuracy, and led to a style that is vibrant in colours and heavily textured, emphasizing strongly on structure. Even the smoke rings coming out of the pipe appear substantially formed, represented by white, weighed colour blocks, subverting visual conventions.

In the early 20th Century, art development in America was still heavily influenced by European trends. Situated in the West Coast, San Francisco’s overall creative climate remained conservative, primarily focusing on Classicism and Impressionism. When Yun Gee first entered the California School of Fine Arts, he was deeply dissatisfied with such unadventurous approach in art education. In 1926, Yun Gee met Otis Oldfield, who returned to America after spending some time in France. Oldfield’s inspiration on the young artist marked Yun Gee’s first true exposure to modernism. Heavily influenced by Cubism, Oldfield developed a Colour Zone theory which was intimately related to Orphism, an European branch of Cubism, as well as Synchromism, America’s own take on the Cubist movement. Oldfield’s Colour Zone theory placed an emphasis on the colour and structure of a painting, as well as a musical, rhythmic quality. This formed the creative foundation of Yun Gee’s own paintings.

Colours and Planes: Enriching the Inner-World of Chinese Art

In terms of artistic development, Yun Gee’s San Francisco period was very brief, yet it was hugely influential to the paintings he subsequently created. During the time, he used colours and planes as the basic building elements of composition. This is a completely different approach to traditional Chinese paintings, which use the Ink and Wash technique as well as lines and contours as the basis. Arguably, Yun Gee’s work provides a substantial complement to the world of Chinese art. Because of his extensive use of pure colours, and its minimal reliance on colour mixing, Yun Gee’s paintings are richly coloured, sensual, vibrant, and highly sensitive to colour temperatures, which are further enhanced by the contrasts between the colour planes. If one is to say that the composition of Park Bench I displays the characteristics of Cubism, then in terms of colours, this work draws heavily upon Expressionism. It uses red and green as the main colours, with varying shades of yellow to create a palette that also includes scarlet, orange-red, blue and emerald green. Overall, the colours are rich and well-coordinated, as if depicting a scene under a bright sunny sky — a puzzle, a kaleidoscope, a mosaic, or a stained glass painting … any of these associations provides us with insights into the artist’s world of personal emotions and passion for artistic creativity. Yun Gee was also a gifted musician, and in line with Cubism’s emphasis on musicality, colour blocks and lines are distributed on this painting like phrases and notes on a music score — the smaller colour blocks are short, hasty and forceful, while the long lines of colours are rugged and expansive, weaving together a symphony of colours.

Around the same period when Yun Gee first caught the art world’s attention, or just a little before, European masters including Monet, Cézanne, Seurat and Matisse all studied and explored the relationship between colour and composition, travelling near and far to paint from real life subjects to capture the most beautiful perspectives of any scenery. In the grand scheme of art development, these works followed a lineage of artistic exploration, whether it was Cézanne’s  Mont Sainte-Victoire in its flickering shades of green, or Seurat’s  La Grande Jatte in precise pointillism. Park Bench Iwas already starting the transformation from using colour to represent the scenery to using it to describe emotions, reaching from a distance into the German Expressionist movement. This piece was also part of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum’s 1992 exhibition on Yun Gee. It was the first large-scale retrospective of his art within a Chinese-speaking society, and indeed the occasion added special significance to the collecting value of this painting.