Prologue: Yun Gee at the Turn of an Era
At the turn of the 19th century, China underwent an unprecedented historical transformation amidst the insurmountable onslaught of Western influence, which led to massive emigration overseas, particularly in light of the Gold Rush and Qing Reforms (“The Self-Strengthening Movement”, c. 1861–1895) which, at its peak, urged many Chinese people towards the distant shores of America. Since then, China and the United States began an intensive period of modern cultural exchange. China’s modern art scene emerged as a part of three inter-related trends, including emigration to the United States, which commenced before later emigration trends towards Japan and France. This glorious opening chapter was first penned by Yun Gee (1906–1963), who chartered the beginnings of more than a hundred years of cultural history.
Born in China but raised in America, Yun Gee also traversed Europe, thus garnering a reputation for inheriting the vitality and cultural traditions of the East, whilst having experienced the international modern arts movements in Paris during the inter-war period. Most notable is his pioneering status as an avant-garde artist who witnessed, participated in and steered the development of American contemporary art, which was a rare phenomenon given the prevalence of anti-Chinese sentiment in American society at the time. At this evening sale, Sotheby’s is honored to present Yun Gee’s Wheels: Industrial New York (Lot 1017), the most significant artwork during his entire career. Not only is this piece the artist’s largest in terms of its physical dimensions, whilst representing a masterpiece illustrating his unique style of Diamondism; it also epitomizes the fact that Yun Gee became the first Chinese artist to be invited to exhibit his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, when it relocated and re-opened in 1932 to tremendous fanfare, thus establishing a crucial milestone in the development of Chinese Modern Art.
As the 20th century Chinese philosopher Mr. Tang Chun-I once said, “One understands that the Chinese reverence for heroes derives largely from their ability to create themselves from the ground up, and to do so in a manner that avoids all vulgarities. As such, the value of these heroes’ characters will not be diminished or increased based on their intermittent moments of failure or success.” [i]As the balance of power between East and West draws even in the 21st century, modern Asian art also comes successfully into its own, and has thus achieved excellence results at various auctions. At this critical juncture, we must recall those predecessors who, in the last century, cared less for their own interests and focused their efforts on the rejuvenation of Eastern civilization. Without their herculean efforts, we would not be witnessing this glorious new chapter of Asian modern art at this very sale. With this special catalogue, we salute Yun Gee, and the ages of cultural history which he pioneered.
Sotheby’s Modern Asian Art Department
The Three Dreaming Spires of an Artistic Genius
Wine makes one wise,
rolling as a wheel,
rocking from left to right,
never drifting, neither ending;
as clever as Solomon’s hand
when one looks where the skyline strips along,
at the very top of the Empire State,
it stirs awhile leaving white marks, like rainbows.
One wanders to the top strolls but the foot is still.
Then I was on a ship.
Excerpts from Aboard for New York by Yun Gee[ii]
From his life experiences, it appears that Yun Gee was fated to be a wanderer, a nomad of sorts, a cosmopolitan whose travels would see him traverse multiple continents. In 1925, the nineteen-year-old Yun Gee attended the California School of Fine Arts (known today as the San Francisco Art Institute), during which he encountered his mentor Otis Oldfield, who had just returned from his years of expatriation in France. During this period, Yun Gee underwent the avant-garde baptism of Sychromism, which sparked his passion for artistic flair. Within the West Coast’s conservative art world, Yun Gee established the Modern Gallery, which, alongside the Chinese Revolutionary Artists’ Club, broke the local artistic stalemate that had taken hold. In 1926, at the age of twenty-one, Yun Gee held his first solo art show. This proved to be a resounding success, since not only were all his artworks successfully sold, but they also attracted the attention of Prince and Princess Achille Murat, who in turn invited Yun Gee to visit France. From 1927 to 1930, Yun Gee commenced his years in Paris. With an introduction by Murat’s couple, Yun Gee met a group of intellectuals and artists, including art critic Gertrude Stein, artist André Lhote, art agent Paul Guillaume, as well as his beloved wife Paule de Reuss. Amidst the congregation of international talent in Paris, École de Paris developed as Yun Gee found himself amidst an artistic movement that was to shape his creative style and content dramatically for decades to come. One detects especially the impact of philosophies of literature and history, Freudian concepts and Surrealism on his artwork.
In 1930, Yun Gee boarded a steamer that would take him to New York, despite longing for the Paris that he was about to leave behind forever. As a twenty-four-year-old, he has just held his first solo show at the famous Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris the year before. Having displayed his artwork in a gallery that promoted the grand masters of Impressionism and Modernism, Yun Gee was heartened by this career milestone, but the sudden onset of the Great Depression interrupted his career development. In order to continue on his career, Yun Gee had to temporarily leave behind his newly wedded wife, setting his sights on New York, so as to broaden his creative horizons.
From China to San Francisco, then San Francisco to Paris – now, en route to New York. For a youth, how difficult this must have been. However, based on his passion for life and art, Yun Gee had a deep conviction that he would be able to overcome all challenges, so as to continue his exciting artistic journey in New York. The youth that he was enjoyed limitless possibilities, whilst New York was precisely the metropolis that everyone admired and dreamed about dwelling in.
Yun Gee perhaps never anticipated that the 1930s – the precise year he chose to move to New York – would coincide with the gradual transfer of power in the contemporary art world from Paris to New York, thus allowing Yun Gee to become one of the few Chinese artists to witness New York’s post-war rise as the art capital of the world. With the fundamentals of San Francisco’s Synchromism up his sleeve, alongside his breath of artistic experiences in Paris, Yun Gee became the creator of a new form in New York – that of Diamondism – during which his seminal artwork Wheels: Industrial New York was born.
The Hurricane Years: The Rise of American Art
On the 5th of February, 1932, Yun Gee received a delightful letter from the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, informing him that they wished to cordially invite him to their first official exhibition at the museum since its relocation.
At this time, Yun Gee had not been living in New York for more than two years, but had – through sheer tenacity and hard work – exhibited his work on multiple occasions, including at the In Tempo Gallery in 1931, and at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the College Art Association in the same year. In 1932, he also showed work at the Balzac Galleries and the Grand Central Palace. Despite not yet having attained critical success, the opportunity to make a name for himself lay just around the corner.
This particular exhibition at MOMA was entitled “Murals by American Painters and Photographers”, with Lincoln Kirstein[iii] as the show’s chairman. According to past news articles on the exhibition, this exhibition originated from a grand construction project spearheaded by the Rockefeller Center, which was rumored to have outsourced its mural project to foreign artists – a move that provoked the ire of many artists in New York. In order to diffuse the situation, MOMA took the opportunity to relocate the museum to its current address on Fifty-Third Avenue in Manhattan, New York, and, on its grand re-opening, invited sixty-five artists of American nationality or citizenship to submit their artwork in order to demonstrate the strength and vitality of local artistic production.
Since Yun Gee had been granted American citizenship a few years back, he became the only artist to represent China overseas in this epic struggle between local and foreign artists. As the youngest artist among those invited to exhibit their work, Yun Gee attained yet another significant milestone on his artistic journey.
As the Great Wheel Begin to Turn
The theme of the “Murals by American Painters and Photographers” exhibition at MOMA was “Post-War World”. The museum gave the artists a six-week deadline, during which they were asked to submit a triptych and a masterpiece of four by seven feet[iv]. This was a fine opportunity for Yun Gee to display his talent, and to express his deepest desires and artistic visions.
New York, the city where the American Dream comes to fruition – a paradise for dreamers, a stadium of heroes for artists. In the name of art, in the name of life, in the name of success and tangible visions of happiness, Yun Gee sank into a deep contemplative state, vowing to create a masterpiece of monumental scale.
During these six weeks, Yun Gee refused all visitations, locked himself in his room, neglected both sleep and nourishment, allowing only a large quantity of Chinese liquor to sustain his artistic frenzy. Despite the limited amount of time, he managed to complete two paper sketches of Wheels: Industrial New York, one as a complete composition and another as a close-up study of a group of polo players converging into a circle. Apart from these, he finished an oil on canvas with an upper composition being akin to that of Wheels: Industrial New York, entitled Wheels: Industrial New York 1, which served as the mural’s oil study. After such detailed preparations, Yun Gee began painting the mural. Due to the confines of his studio, Yun Gee needed to leave his room at times in order to draw on the perspectives and angles afforded by standing at the far ends of the corridor, and on various flights of stairs.
Where there is a will, there is a way. After six weeks, Yun Gee finally accomplished two classics that epitomized the heights of his artistic achievement: a triptych entitled Merry-Go-Round; Sun Bathers; Modern Apartment, while the other more significant piece was named Wheels: Industrial New York.
Wheels: Industrial New York reflects America’s rapid development during the post-WWI years, with a focus on depicting its industrial society and processes of mechanization, thus revealing a dynamic and creative modern country despite the United States’ relatively short history as a nation. From a bird view, the painting allows the viewer a clear sweep of Brooklyn and Manhattan, which New York’s East River flows regally through. The physical dimensions of the painting are impressive and towering. There is a gradual intensification, a layering effect that causes the scene to impress itself upon the viewer as one takes it in from all sides; a magisterial scene full of rich imagery, which can be divided into three component parts:
Background: The biplane which enters the painting from the top left-hand corner appears to pass through sunlight to descent onto the skyscrapers lining the Manhattan skylight, encircling the soaring birds, and the faint tendrils of smoke rising from the factory chimneys;
Middle ground: The Brooklyn bridge enters the painting from the left, slanting into the reaches of Lower Manhattan, whilst the Manhattan River and the East River flow ceaselessly under the bridge, with a plethora of cargo ships and steam ships arriving from near and far, approaching the piers of Brooklyn, visible on the painting’s shores.
Foreground: Ascending from the piers of Brooklyn on the lower left-hand corner, one passes through a slightly obscured statue Discobolus, only to suddenly alight on a vast grassy plateau, on which a dozen polo players form a circle which appears to moves slowly in an anti-clockwise direction.
Wheels: Industrial New York reveals the full majesty of Yun Gee’s vision and aspirations. Despite being less inclined to landscape works of art, Yun Gee infuses his depiction of New York with structural compositions prevalent in Northern Song landscape paintings, thus intermingling the quintessence of Chinese art with that of Western modern cityscapes. When compared to Li Cheng’s A Solitary Temple and Clearing Peaks, one notices how Yun Gee transforms the lofty mountains of China into towering skyscrapers, mountain pavilions into harbors teeming with cargo, quiet waterways into rushing canals, eccentric shrubbery and outcrops of rock into individuals on a grassy plain. Such transmogrifications allow New York’s bustling and chaotic scenes to be arranged in an orderly manner along the same vertical axis, thus allowing Yun Gee’s unique compositions to sit well within the overall structure of the mural. In order to develop and promote Chinese art, one does not need to choose between traditions. As a lover of Eastern and Western philosophy, Yun Gee mastered the art of grasping the quintessence of things, in order to spark his own creativity and artistic pursuits.
A Poetic History of New York
Yun Gee’s keen intellect and detailed observations allowed him to draw tremendous inspiration from the ebbs and flows of the twentieth century. After the sound and fury of the Roaring Twenties, New York had become one of the world’s most dazzling metropolises. Compared to San Francisco and Paris, New York was a land full of unexplored opportunities – a city that gestured relentlessly towards the future. In Wheels: Industrial New York, Yun Gee sings songs of praise for the unique metropolis that is New York: from the swooping biplane entering the frame on the top left-hand corner which appears to evoke America’s military and scientific prowess in the 20th century – a VCP military fighter jet designed and built in the United States. Amongst the towering skyscrapers, the tallest Chrysler Building and Empire State Building are surrounded by dazzling architectural feats including the Woolworth Tower, the Bush Tower, the Ritz Tower, altogether comprising one of the most imperious sights of the twentieth century. As one of the key New York landmarks since the nineteenth century, the Brooklyn Bridge is surrounded by canals on which ceaseless ships meander, symbolizing the wheels of prosperity turning, hinting at the commercial success that many of the city’s inhabitants experienced at the time. Cargo spills from both sides of the harbor; families are well-fed. The crucial scene is the hallmark of Wheels: Industrial New York: a group of entrepreneurs playing polo.
Much of America’s widespread esteem for entrepreneurs stems from the fact that much of its inhabitants emigrated to America from Europe, with few entrenched aristocracies when compared to those in Europe. Wealthy individuals tended not to have inherited wealth through properties or legacies, but were often “self-made” individuals who put their intellect and efforts to good use. With the rapid development of capitalism and industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries, America successfully escaped the shadow of Europe to become a leading world power. The meteoric rise of this new country relied heavily on a large group of stellar entrepreneurs, industrialists, and capitalists in order to create its economic miracles. In his draft sketches, Yun Gee skillfully ensures that the twelve polo players would form a perfect circle, encircling the ball. Later, in Wheels: Industrial New York, Yun Gee uses perspective and shadow to great effect, creating a ying-yang fish symbol akin to the taichi emblem for oneness, which, along with the movement of the polo players, emblematizes the vital role played by these entrepreneurial teams in sustaining the beating heart of America’s economy, which in turn supported the modern-day American economic juggernaut that had successfully conquered land, see and air.
New York – a dreamer’s playground which also exists in reality – reveals how talent and hard work can result in greatness. This was the reason Yun Gee arrived in New York in the first place, and such is the hope placed by Yun Gee in his masterpiece Wheels: Industrial New York.
The Understatements of the Artist
Despite praising the attributes of New York in Wheels: Industrial New York, Yun Gee’s reflections on the city were never borne out of a desire to sing empty praises, given his character as an independent-minded thinker. Apart from lauding America’s image, Yun Gee was also intentional about embedding a note of warning in his artwork, which echoed the emergence of Social Realism as championed by Diego Rivera and other left-wing American artists at the turn of the 1930s, as America’s socio-economic crisis deepened. Although New York is all gold and glitter at first glance, the sun’s position is gradually moving towards the West – a warning that such unrestrained prosperity might be on the cusp of waning. Meanwhile, Brooklyn Bridge’s majestic architecture features finely wrought iron wires is juxtaposed against a transparent figure located below the bridge yet above the cargo. Despite taking up very little space, this transparent figure is situated in the middle of the frame, thus drawing attention to itself. When contrasted with the polo figures, the viewer is left with a lingering sense of disquiet: is this t figure on its way upwards, surging towards the heavens, symbolizing a grand aspiration; or is it in fact a figure leaping off the bridge the way a needle might puncture a page, thus piercing the unsettling reality simmering beneath the city’s superficial scenes of glory?
Even more beguiling is the wheel-shaped polo team that appears to spur on the city’s success. This entrepreneurial entourage with resplendent clothes and pampered horses constitute twelve individuals, which brings to mind the Twelve Disciples of the Christian faith. In the Bible, the twelve disciples are not on a perfect unit, since there is betrayal in their midst; whilst the polo members appear glamorous, they are also portrayed as flawed characters with their worries, suspicions and manipulations, thus discrediting any notion of harmonious coexistence within the group. Furthermore, these entrepreneurs are dressed in a fashion akin to the Crusaders of the Middle Ages: with the Crusades being one of the key battles between Christians and Muslims which lasted from the 11th till the 13th centuries. The Crusaders struck out a path towards the East in the name of defending the Christian faith, but were also guilty of many crimes towards humanity, thus suggesting the Janus-faced ways in which American entrepreneurs created immense wealth through the exploitation of the working classes. In the foreground’s composition, Yun Gee did not stop at the majestic wheel, but also includes the sculptural depiction of an ancient Greek discus thrower in the lower left-land corner of the painting. The motions of the discus thrower form a singular circle, juxtaposed against the wheel formation created by the polo players, which evokes a sense of isolation and helplessness. This perhaps serves as an ironic comment on how America’s self-aggrandizing in economic and military terms often undercuts its cultural impact on the world stage.
The key message of Wheels: Industrial New York is not to paper over the cracks, but to offer a unique perspective from the point of view of a Chinese artist in America. On one hand highlighting the strengths of this rapidly developing nation, on the other hand pointing out its limitations through hinting at the injustices and looming crises that threaten the continual prosperity of America. Only such a nuanced reading can offer us a clear understanding of the artist’s personality and characteristics.
The Birth of Diamondism
The birth of Wheels: Industrial New York epitomized the gradual maturation of Yun Gee’s Diamondism theory. Yun Gee’s creative approach focused on perfecting Synchromism between 1925-1926, with crisp and clean color palates depicting scenic views, forming semi-concrete structures that pulsed with rhythmic vitality. During his interlude in Paris, a wave of new experiences wrought dramatic changes in Yun Gee’s artistic style, which embodied all the characteristics of Surrealism. Yun Gee began to reconcile these two different approaches to art during his days in New York, resulting in his unique style of “Diamondism”. From a theoretical perspective, Yun Gee divided his creative elements into three main categories (Physics, Brain, Psychology) and nine subcategories (color, form, light, time, morality, purpose, mood, observation and desire)[v], whilst using groups of triangles to depict any particular image. In terms of execution, one notices that the semi-concrete images are imbued with psychological metaphors and dream-like narratives, as the thick colors evoke the key features of Expressionism whilst being comprised of a plethora of miniscule triangular shapes, evoking the clear angular surfaces of diamonds.
Wheels: Industrial New York derives its inspiration from reality, yet in the process of artistic transformation, it is imbued with the artist’s musings and fantasies to create a dream-like state. When compared to the actual scenes of Manhattan in the 1930s, the skyscrapers in the background of this artwork seem far more severe in their dizzying heights and claustrophobic clustering, whilst the polo players in the foreground are located on what ought to be a low, flat plain on New York’s East River (i.e. where the Brooklyn Bridge Park and Empire - Fulton Ferry Park is currently located), rather than a plateau as is depicted by Yun Gee. The translucent figure in the middle of the painting appears like an ethereal snark, as if it were something conjured up by the viewer’s hallucinations. The wheel-like formation created by the polo players alludes to the climax of a musical with its theatrical movements, as the sun’s rays allude to the cyclical nature of light and time whilst highlighting the squares and other geometrical shapes that comprise basic units of this majestic piece.
Another key distinctive feature of Diamondism is its acquisition and evocation of Chinese philosophy. In Yun Gee’s magnificent handwritten scripts, he includes pictorial and essayistic explanations of his theory, which reveal how Diamondism links theories of the “color-wheel” in Western contemporary art to Chinese yishu theories that derive from the classic text of Hetu Luoshu[vi]. Even in Paris, Yun Gee was already very well versed in the Daoist philosophy of Zhuangzhou Mengdie, and thus deeply understood Freud’s groundbreaking work The Interpretations of Dreams. Yishu suggests that constant change as the only eternal principle, thus inspiring Yun Gee to take in all the various philosophical thoughts to inspire his own artistic production, in order to stand firmly on the shoulders of giants. When considering Wheels: Industrial New York, the wheels drive the energy flow of the entire scene. Whilst the sculpture on the lower left-hand corner might be symbolically at odds with such positivity, it allows the formation of an infinity cycle “∞” in terms of energy flow, thus rendering the infinite nature of taichi philosophy in concrete terms. That this artwork contains both sides of seemingly opposing forces evokes this phrase in the Daodejing: “that disaster relies on the existence of fortune; that fortune in turn is always near when disaster occurs” – a principle that ought to be deemed as the entire philosophical basis of Yun Gee’s artistic thought.
A Precious Monument for Future Generations
From the 3rd till the 31st of May, 1932, “Murals by American Painters and Photographers” took place at MoMA in New York, as Wheels: Industrial New York took its rightful place in the exhibition, attracting the attention of large audiences. This exhibition galvanized public opinion towards art, with the New York Times mentioning Yun Gee’s work and specifically Wheels: Industrial New York on multiple occasions. On the 3rd of May in 1932, The New York Times described this artwork as possessing the “charming spirit of fantasy”, whilst its editorial on the 22nd of May in the same year praised six of the exhibition’s most outstanding artists, such that Yun Gee’s fame traversed the oceans to reach Shanghai, China, which prompted The China Weekly Review to include Yun Gee in their Who’s Who in China – Biographies of Chinese Leaders.
Given the significance of this exhibition, all the artworks were gathered after their display in MOMA for a national tour in the United States, with stops including the University of Michigan, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, The Texas Arts Association, The Palace of Fine Arts in California, and the Washington National Gallery of Art. This tour greatly increased the audiences reached by this particular exhibition, with other exhibited artists including Georgia O'Keeffe – once known as “the mother of American modern art” – whose artwork Manhattan continues to be kept in the Smithsonian American Art Museum given its monumental significance in terms of the history of American modern art. Another famous modern artist Davis’ artwork entitled New York Mural was later kept and displayed at the New York Whitney Museum of American Art. After his major success at “Murals by American Painters and Photographers”, Yun Gee continued on his artistic journey. In 1933, he was awarded a mural contract and also founded the Modern Art Institute to promote his style of Diamondism, whilst Wheels: Industrial New York continued on its journey around the world, representing Yun Gee’s artistic flair on the international stage. In Chinese art history, it must be noted that most artworks by first-generation oil painters created before the Second Sino-Japanese War era all damaged or destroyed during the war effort; the only piece to have survived and flourished till today is Yun Gee’s Wheels: Industrial New York.
As the status of Chinese artists in America continued to rise, alongside China’s civilizational revival during the twentieth century, Yun Gee’s artistic merit and contributions continued to be recognized by Eastern and Western art historians. In January 1974, the American Artist magazine dedicated much of its contents to an overview of its graduates and their artistic successes: University of Connecticut, North Carolina State University at Raleigh, Auckland War Memorial Museum and Bowdoin College all held exhibitions for Yun Gee in 1979 and 1980. In Asia, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum held a grand exhibition in 1992 entitled “The Art of Yun Gee”; in 2007, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum arranged for a grand touring exhibition on “Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation”, involving the National Art Museum of China, Beijing, the Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. In the catalogue for this exhibition, Yun Gee was deemed as the key focal point of Chinese diaspora artists in America, and Wheels: Industrial New York became emblematic of Yun Gee’s active participation in all the aforementioned exhibitions. In 2008, Wheels: Industrial New York was displayed at the De Young Fine Arts Museum under the banner of “Asia/America/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900-1970”. This inclusion epitomized the key representative role assumed by Yun Gee within the Chinese diaspora in American contemporary art, and bears testament to his role in promoting the growth of American Modernism. Yun Gee’s artwork became increasingly sought after in many important art museums across the globe, including Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, North Carolina State University at Raleigh, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, amongst others, with his intellectual and artistic worth held in high regard.
Despite Yun Gee’s passing, modern aesthetics continue to shine through in the many works he has left behind. The triptych entitled Merry-Go-Round; Sun Bathers; Modern Apartment which was completed alongside Wheels: Industrial New York was sold at a Hong Kong Sotheby’s evening auction for twice its estimated value in 2014, which sparked a renewed fervor for Yun Gee’s work. Three years later, Wheels: Industrial New York appears at the 2017 Hong Kong Sotheby’s Autumn Sale, as we gather to extend the glorious legacy of the artistic legend that is Yun Gee.
[i] The Spiritual Value of Chinese Culture, Tang Chun-I, Taipei, 1994, V of Chapter 13
[ii] Lee, Anthony W. ed., Yun Gee: Poetry, Writings, Art, Memories, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 2003, p.91
[iii] Murals by American Painters and Photographers, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1932, p.6
[iv] See Letter of Invitation to Yun Gee issued by Museum of Modern Art on 5th Feburary 1932.
[v] The Art of Yun Gee, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, 1992, p.29
[vi] Gu Yue, World Famous Artists: Yungee Chu, Hebei Publishing Media Group, Beijing, 2014, p.68
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