C.C.WANG PLANTS HIMSELF AT precisely the same spot in relation to each Chinese scroll painting we view. Adopting precisely the same physical posture every time, he seems almost to be listening as well as looking. It’s the brushwork that, in each instance, he asks us to absorb. He has repeated this lesson countless times over many decades: the Western tradition may focus on color or composition, but the Chinese tradition looks beneath such externals to the underlying “brushvoice,” as Wang calls it. He knows exactly how to approach the canvas to catch its nuances. This must be, one thinks, the connoisseur’s equivalent of the perfect golfing stance. This man has perfected the art of looking.
C.C. Wang (pronounced Wong), who is 93 this year, is said to have seen more classical Chinese landscape paintings than anyone in history. He’s also said to be the 20th century’s greatest collector of such art. So much so that, as a tribute, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently mounted an exhibition, nearly 100 works in all; entitled “The Artist As Collector: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the C.C. Wang Family Collection.” The tribute reminds us of Wang’s multilayered largess of achievement. For he also has not held on to his collection; he thinks nothing of selling paintings. The Met owns some sixty of them. Of the others in the exhibition, those not still owned by Wang came from institutions–including the British Museum and the Cleveland Museum–that got them from him. As Maxwell K. Hearn, the Met’s curator of Asian art, points out, “Without him, most museums in this country simply wouldn’t have the range of Chinese art they have.”
Although Wang sold some of the paintings directly to museums, and some came via a collector or donor who initially acquired them from Wang, the works all share the distinguishing imprimatur of his acquisitive eye.”It’s not just that he’s a great evaluator” says Stephen Little, Pritzker curator of Asian art at the Art Institute of Chicago. “It’s that he’s a living practitioner of the art form–a great painter. He has painted great landscapes in the genre. That’s central in a tradition in which the artists were the great collectors. Most American curators or connoisseurs couldn’t paint a brush stroke to save their lives.”
Neither Wang nor his family think of him as an art dealer in the Western sense. Rather, they regard dealing as part of his adherence to the “literati” principles by which ancient Chinese poet-scholar-painters always lived. Those traditions, dating back over eight centuries, have involved collecting, bartering and selling one another’s paintings. Indeed, when he’s padding around his labyrinthine Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, dressed in a floppy-sleeved Chinese jacket and cloth slippers, Wang seems to move along a timeless continuum that has nothing to do with New York or, for that matter, with Western civilization. He surrounds himself with such objects as his sculptural rocks from around the world; they, too, are an old literati tradition.
Most mornings, he wakes up to an hour or two of calligraphy practice, something he’s done since childhood. “To keep my hand flexible,” he says, “like five-finger exercises.” His days often fill with students who may, if they’re lucky, receive an impromptu master class. Wang still does serious calligraphic paintings. He’s considered a master and is especially celebrated in mainland China, where he’s now regarded as a cultural treasure. In the late afternoon, he likes to look over the great landscapes still in his collection. Watching Wang, one feels that this small, modest figure is as much an irreplaceable piece of history as the art itself. To take them in order, the Chinese paintings for which Wang has acted as custodian were often the equivalent of Leonardos and Michelangelos, according to experts. Says Maxwell Hearn: “C.C. had the connoisseurship to know what was great, and to help us preserve it in the West. As a result, the best pieces in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection are equal to the best anywhere, including China.”
“He acted as a bridge across time and space for the greatest of paintings,” says Stephen Little, “but he was also a bridge for a living tradition in peril. When C.C. brought his expertise to the U.S., he was like a piece of ancient China. He knew how to look at literati paintings, how to paint at the highest level and how to pass on the knowledge. When the West–you could say even China itself–had lost contact with Chinese traditions, say from the late ’40s to the
post-Maoist period, he kept it going. We were able to learn so much from him, down to the smallest nuances of brushwork.” Wang’s own landscape paintings adorn the galleries of museums in the U.S. and China. Unlike many of the old monochrome ink-on-paper landscapes, Wang added high color and abstraction, thus updating and rejuvenating the tradition. He likes to call them “mind paintings” or “mountains of the mind,” a term which perhaps blends his postwar exposure to abstract expressionism with the literatis’ use of landscape to express an internal vision.
Born near Shanghai in 1907 to a well-placed family with its own distinguished literati antecedents, Wang received a classical education in both Confucian and aesthetic disciplines. By the time he finished law school in Shanghai in the 1930s, he had studied under two renowned literati with notable collections and had made it his business to see others. As Wang himself says, “Friendships with other painters and collectors were extremely significant. Each new meeting might mean a new collection to see. In those days, private collections were never publicly displayed. You had to know the owner.”
Wang’s next years have become part of art-historical lore. As his own paintings began to sell, he abandoned law and started to collect Ming and Ch’ing masters. In the mid-’30s, he was selected as adviser to an exhibition of Imperial Palace paintings bound for Burlington House in London. This was art that no ordinary Chinese citizen had ever seen. For the next few years he traveled around China recording and photographing seals on the Imperial collection and in 1940 published the results, based on some 9,000 seals, with a coauthor. In 1947, Wang traveled in Japan and the U.S., gaining his first full-scale exposure to modernist aesthetics. In 1949, he immigrated to the U.S. with part of his family–including his wife and two younger daughters–but without much of his collection, some of which was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Another daughter and son remained behind and suffered under Maoist rule for several decades.
Wang lived through a time that furnished unprecedented opportunities to collect but posed great dangers to the art he collected. From the Japanese occupation of China, through the war, the civil war and well into the triumph of Maoism, the imperial-era collections had scattered piecemeal into the marketplace. Traveling back and forth to Hong Kong, Wang resumed his acquisitions. Meanwhile, in his first New York years, he’d caused a hullabaloo by declaring 149 paintings that the Metropolitan Museum had recently purchased to be of negligible worth. Only ten or fifteen, Wang says, were “of museum quality.” Thus in the late 1940s was born his controversial side, which has waxed and waned and has generated pro- and anti-Wang camps among literati connoisseurs.
In 1973, Wang sold twenty-five Sung and Yuan paintings to the Metropolitan Museum for the considerable sum of $2.5 million. Newspaper headlines instantly swelled with consternation as the flagship piece, an important silk hand scroll by the early Sung master Yen Wen-kuei, was reattributed, postsale, to the master’s pupil. The museum and its then-director Thomas Hoving weathered the storm and ended up with what is now considered a great bargain. Hoving acknowledges the painting’s controversial aura but says, “The collection forms one of the most important mother lodes of Chinese art in the Met.”
Nearly twenty-five years later, in 1997, an almost identical controversy erupted. Businessman Oscar Tang gave the Met twelve paintings that he’d acquired from Wang’s collection. Again, issues arose about the authenticity of the gift’s centerpiece, The Riverbank, by the mid-10th-century master Dong Yuan. The landscape is Wang’s favorite painting, not least because of the subtle brushwork–“so soft that it is almost invisible,” says Wang. He acquired the painting in 1969 from fellow artist and renowned collector Zhang Daqian, who was also famous as a forger of antique painting.
For those in the anti-camp, the Dong Yuan is a mystery painting of uncertain date, though scientific testing shows the materials to be authentic. However, the best forgers–like Zhang–were able to use and reuse the original materials. Wang’s riposte? Look at the brushwork: Zhang was a good friend, but he was a show-off artistically who couldn’t have achieved such restraint.
Last December, the Met hosted a daylong symposium on The Riverbank. Since then, a consensus in favor of the painting’s authenticity has been growing, which doesn’t surprise Wang. He never doubted the outcome, it seems. He had listened to the muted beauty of the brushvoice, knowing it couldn’t lie.
THE PICASSO OF CHINESE ART
C.C. Wang’s chief artistic output these days is calligraphy. In this, as in his landscapes of past decades, he is regarded as a master throughout the Chinese world; examples of his calligraphic art hang in top museums in the U.S. and Asia. Recent works can be purchased from his Manhattan gallery, Ethan Cohen Fine Arts (37 Walker Street; 212-625-1250), perhaps the country’s leading showcase for contemporary Chinese artists. Fully produced and finished calligraphic works by Wang start at $8,000, as do a few of his celebrated landscapes.
Some of Wang’s art is even more affordable. Ethan Cohen, visiting Wang at home, noticed him doing calligraphic exercises in old phone books to save paper. Cohen immediately saw that the works were extraordinary objects, each a full page of Wang’s bold calligraphic strokes done in different styles over printed telephone data. “C.C. is the Picasso of Chinese art,” Cohen says. “Imagine if so many examples of free-flowing Picasso exercises were available.” Each page–evidence of a genius’ practicing–goes for $300.