Asian art on display at the Frye

“Tamanishiki” (“The Wrestler”) by Isamu Noguchi

“Li Tieguai” by Qi Baishi.

The Frye Art Museum in Seattle is currently exhibiting “Isamu Noguchi and Qu Baishi: Beijing 1930” and “Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai.”The show by Noguchi and Baishi is an exploration of artistic and intellectual exchanges between American sculptor, landscape architect, and furniture designer Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) and Qi Baishi (1864–1957), now considered one of the most important Chinese artists of the twentieth century. The work of Noguchi has long been associated with Japan. His introduction to ancient sculpture and garden design traditions during a stay in Japan in 1931 is thought of as a turning point in his early career. Lesser known is the story of Noguchi’s six transformative months in Beijing from July 1930 to January 1931, when Sotokichi Katsuizumi (1889–1985), a Japanese businessman and collector of Chinese paintings, introduced him to Qi Baishi.

Noguchi spoke no Chinese and Qi spoke no English, but they formed a friendship and Noguchi began to study with the master ink painter.

Under Qi’s influence, Noguchi took up brush, ink, and paper — the key tools of East Asian traditional painting and calligraphy — to create the series of more than 100 works later called the Peking Drawings. Seen together as a group and alongside examples of Qi’s paintings, as they are for the first time in this exhibition, suggests the importance of China in Noguchi’s artistic formation.

The exhibition work by Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye, Seattle/Shanghai, is the first exhibition in the United States to explore artistic and intellectual exchanges between American artist Mark Tobey (1890–1976) and his Chinese contemporary Teng Baiye (1900–1980). The two met in the 1920s, when Teng moved to Seattle to study sculpture and complete a master’s degree at the University of Washington.

During this period, Tobey studied calligraphy with Teng, and the two artists formed a deep friendship. In 1934, Tobey visited Teng in Shanghai and soon thereafter embarked on his seminal white writing paintings, works considered by Western critics to be indebted to his study of calligraphy, ink painting, and the Bahá’í faith. It was a time of revolutionary sensations, Tobey would later say, when the old and the new were in battle and his angle of vision was shifting.

“Cranes and Pine Tree” by Teng Baiye.

The exhibition considers Teng’s influence as both a cultural interpreter and an artistic practitioner on the development of Tobey’s distinctive artistic practice and —through Tobey— on the discourse on abstraction in midcentury American art. Whether Tobey’s work had remained “American” or become “oriental” was a subject of debate among contemporary observers in the United States. Merrill Rueppel, the director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, wrote in 1968 that Tobey was “never for one moment anything but an American,” explaining that he had “taken the calligraphy of the orient and made it the foundation of his own art without becoming oriental.” Similarly, William Seitz, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote that in Tobey’s work “the Eastern dragon had been harnessed to Western dynamism.” In China, similar questions regarding the extent of foreign influence on the work of Teng Baiye were raised. After 1949, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, Teng’s paintings were denounced as spiritual pollution. He was condemned to manual labor and few of his paintings survived. (end)

Both exhibitions are on view until May 25. The Frye Museum is located at 704 Terry Ave., Seattle. For more information, call 206-622-9250.

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