Merry Go-Round, Sun Bathers, and Modern Apartment
The pioneering Chinese-American artist Yun Gee lived a full and varied life. He came to San Francisco at age 15, travelled to Paris at 21, and moved to New York at 24. This wealth of experience helped him become a painter who bridged the Asian, American, and European art worlds. In 1932, Gee was invited by New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to join a 65-artist exhibition titled "Murals by American Painters and Photographers". The same year, he was listed in Biographies of Chinese Leaders, further establishing his reputation. Merry-Go-Round, Sun Bathers and Modern Apartment（Lot 1003）, featured in that MoMA exhibition, is an extremely rare triptych painting by Gee with an indelible significance in his artistic career.
An Outstanding Chinese Painter Striving within the Epochal American Context
In the history of Chinese art, Yun Gee was a pioneer in the American system, where he made significant contributions to the development of Modernism. "Murals by American Painters and Photographers", MoMA's inaugural exhibition in its current location, encouraged American painters and photographers to create murals in order to contend with the European and Mexican mural artists then immensely popular in the United States. The lead curator of the exhibition was the New York cultural impresario Lincoln Kirstein, who commented in the exhibition's press release: "recently, great interest in Mexico and the West have brought the names of (Diego) Rivera, (José Clemente) Orozco and (Jean) Charlot before us and we find in their large achievements new hope" ; "The need for such an exhibition was made urgent by the problem confronting the architects of Rockefeller Center……artists in New York protested against the rumoured choice of foreign artists for painting murals in Rockefeller Center". Clearly, the wide-ranging exploits in the United States of Mexican artists such as Rivera had ignited a strident reaction in local art circles. As a consequence, participants in the exhibition had to be either born in or citizens of the United States. Since Yun Gee had joined his father in the United States at a young age, he was qualified to participate in this historic contest between American and Mexican artists. Of the 49 participants in the exhibition, he was the only artist of Asian descent.
"The Post-war World" was the theme of "Murals by American Painters and Photographers". The museum gave the artists six weeks to deliver either a work of large dimensions or a triptych. According to Gee's biographer, Zhou Nianci, the artist took the opportunity seriously: "Yun refused all visitors during this period. He shut himself in his room, ate little, and rested not at all, relying only on large quantities of Chinese spirits to sustain him". This period of single-minded exertion yielded two of Gee's major works: Wheels: Industrial New York, and this triptych, Merry-Go-Round, Sun Bathers and Modern Apartment.
A Clever Selection of Subject Material: Targeting Core American Values
Yun Gee's artistic career can be roughly separated into San Francisco, Paris, and New York periods. By the time he painted this triptych, the artist had already resided in all three great cities, earning himself a wealth of profound life experience and a broad international perspective. When it came to devising a way to portray the face of New York City, he demonstrated an acute sense of touch. Although the work is a triptych, each panel is a complete painting that can stand on its own. This versatility is a reflection of New York's diverse facets as an international metropolis, but also an expression of the artist's skilful interpretation of the exhibition theme. At first glance, the paintings do not seem to depict middle-class life, but careful consideration reveals that the artist uses a slice-of-life approach to explore the core values of American society. Merry-Go-Round embodies American-style recreation, but the carrousel represents more than fun. It is an amusement ride that originated in Europe and only became an important component of American theme parks following energetic renovation and promotion, thus symbolizing how America learned from and then excelled Europe in economic culture: the apprentice surpasses the master. Sun Bathers portrays five nude women leisurely enjoying the sun in front of a view of New York's iconic Brooklyn Bridge, incorporating the city's landmark scenery into everyday life. The artist also thoughtfully chose a balcony as the painting's setting in order to emphasize the freedom, equality, and open-mindedness of American society. Modern Apartment depicts a woman lying halfway out a window, apparently knitting a sweater. The apartment's interior is ablaze with lights, and the variety of hanging fixtures cast overlapping halos. The woman has no fear of the dark night outside her window. A telephone in the lower-right quadrant of the painting catches the viewer's eye; it represents an advanced stage of modernity, a handy connection to the outside world, and a safeguard of American domestic life.
During his San Francisco and Paris periods, Gee drew more heavily on still life and philosophical ideas for subject material. After relocating to New York, his paintings gradually took on a more societal bent. While Gee's personal experiences doubtlessly guided this transition, he may also have been influenced by the flourishing trend of Social Realism in New York painting circles. In fact, other artists participating in the exhibition, such as George Biddle, Reginald Marsh, and George Bellows, were among the fleetingly popular Social Realist painters of the time. This trend in Gee's work is yet more evident when one considers Wheels: Industrial New York, and Merry-Go-Round, Sun Bathers and Modern Apartment side-by-side. Wheels: Industrial New York is a macroscopic tableau that reflects on the national ideology of capitalism; the triptych, in contrast, is a series of more personal scenes. The two works of art are two sides of the same coin; a Chinese artist's meditation on contemporary American society.
Modern Forms: Drawing on Experiences in San Francisco and Paris
The subject material of Yun Gee's artwork during his New York period was increasingly societal; however, his mode of formal expression remained unequivocally modernist. During his San Francisco period, he adopted the Cubism-influenced idiom of Synchromism. After arriving in Paris, his work took on more Surrealist and Expressionist characteristics. These influences did not fade during Gee's New York period. Instead, the artist began to more skilfully incorporate them into his artistic practice. Merry-Go-Round, Sun Bathers and Modern Apartment draw on societal reality for subject material, but in terms of visual effect, the triptych imbues a strong sense of fantasy, first of all because it comprises three unrelated scenes all made meticulously distinct in terms of time and space. The resulting effect is similar to that of a split-screen scene in a film portraying parallel space-times. Gee was heavily influenced by Surrealism during his time in Paris, and he took a particular interest in Freud's theories of psychoanalysis and dream interpretation. His paintings often feature dream-like distortions such as the diagonal outward warp of Merry-Go-Round from top-left to bottom-right and of Modern Apartment from top-right to bottom-left. The balcony occupied by five nude women in the intermediate painting, Sun Bathers, seems to be slanted, creating a sense of spatial dynamism. The women's feet seem to converge as if wound around a central axis that contributes to the symmetry of distortion between the three paintings and produces a further effect of movement.
In addition to Surrealistic distortions, Merry-Go-Round, Sun Bathers and Modern Apartment also features an approach to composition influenced by Cubism. In each scene, objects form geometrical shapes, an approach that inverts the practice of composing objects out of geometrical planes that Gee favoured during his San Francisco period. The subject of Merry-Go-Round is a cylindrical shape, and the converging limbs in Sun Bathers suggests a circle. Modern Apartment is yet more ingenious: lamps cast interwoven rays of light that form a network of triangles and rectangles. The art critic David Teh-yu Wang points out the correspondence between the three paintings: "The leftmost image is loosely concrete, whereas the central image features a complex balance of spatial relationships; finally, in the rightmost image, the spatial relationships and the characters are almost entirely dispersed. In terms of composition, the large ring in the leftmost painting echoes the invisible circle formed by the converging arrangement of women in the centre painting, which also features a rectangular wall and balcony that correspond to the planes formed by straight lines in the painting on the right. Thus the triptych is governed by a complete overall composition." The geometric shapes provide a clear focus and direction of force in each panel that ensures their mutual coherence when viewed together and demonstrates the artist's masterful ability to implement complex compositions.
Merry-Go-Round, Sun Bathers and Modern Apartment demonstrates the depth of Yun Gee's understanding of Modernism, which the art critic Edward Alden Jewell praised in the New York Times on 22 May 1932: "George Biddle, Reginald Marsh, Henry Varnum Poor, James E. Davis, Kimon Nicolaides and Yun Gee—I would gladly, were they mine to distribute, entrust walls today". Following the MoMA exhibition, Gee received more competitive commissions, and one year later, he founded his own Modern Art Academy in Greenwich Village. He continued to integrate his understandings of Chinese and Western philosophy, psychology, and art, contributed to the development of Neo-Cubism (also known as Diamondism), and pursued his grand aspirations of establishing his own school of artistic thought.
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