CLP 61: 2004 Brief talk given at New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden Society

Brief talk at NYC dinner, April 27

I'm very pleased to be here to receive this great honor, especially because the organization and the people who have chosen me for it are New Yorkers. Although by birth and temperament I'm very much a West Coast person, New York and its Chinese art circles have played a big part in my career. My first visit to the city was in 1944, I think it was, on furlough from the Army Japanese language school in Ann Arbor. I made my way from the train station to the only place I knew in New York, the Paragon Book Gallery (which as you know specialized in books on Asian subjects--still does, but it's now in Chicago and under different ownership. At that time it was a man named Max Faerber.) Looking from its window, in early evening, some stories up and facing south, I had my first sight of the Empire State Building, looming up through a fog--and wonderingly asked the people there why flames were coming out of the top of it. It happened to be right after a plane had crashed into it.

An odd and perhaps uncomfortable anecdote, and I offer it only to say that New York has always seemed, to outsiders like myself, very exciting, full of surprises, and more than a little scary. Why was I more comfortable in Tokyo--with its subways, its taxi and bus drivers, its store people, its night life--than with those in New York? Nevertheless, like most everybody else, I've kept coming back to New York whenever I had the chance, since the pleasures and excitement more than make up for the unease, the jitters.

(Insert here: stuff about garden, why New Yorkers, of all people, need a Chinese garden. Astor Court at the Met well planned and helpful, but not quite a sense of being away from the world--)

My year as a fellowship student at the Metropolitan Museum, 1953-4, brought a series of revelations. Glimpses of the quirkier side of the museum world, through occupying for half a year a desk at the far end of Alan Priest's office. (He was, as you know, for many years Curator of Asian Art at the Met.) This was just when Priest was carrying on a feud with Larry Sickman and Jean Pierre Dubosc, as well as his own curator Aschwin Lippe, arguing against them that Sung paintings, even when they weren't genuine (as most of the ones he was buying and exhibiting weren't) were still more beautiful than the Ming-Ch'ing paintings that Sickman and Dubosc and Lippe were exhibiting and writing about. This was just when Aschwin was organizing his first-ever exhibition of Nanking School painting. Alan Priest lost, of course, and that older way of thinking was discredited, and the serious study and collecting of Ming-Qing paintings was able to begin-- a turning point in the history of our field. Other revelations included my first realization that Chinese painting could be tied to issues of intellectual history, through lectures given by Nelson Wu at China Institute; my first glimmerings of understanding of the Chinese tradition of connoisseurship, through weekly sessions with C. C. Wang; numerous visits to dealers, notably Frank Caro, Alice Boney, Walter Hochstadter, later Nat Hammer, Joseph Seo, and others.

But most importantly, a realization of the crucial role played in Chinese art circles, of which I had previously known only the academic side, by collectors of great knowledge and taste. Time spent with Pauline and Johnny Falk, Frederick Mayer (not a painting collector, but a man with extraordinarily refined taste), Mary and Jackson Burke (more for Japanese paintings than Chinese, but a few Chinese too), Ernest Erickson, Wango Weng, later C. D. or Nick Carter, John Crawford, John Elliott and others, gave me insights into how some of these people had reached levels of understanding of quality in Chinese art beyond those of most academic scholars. And that very distinguished lineage is carried on by still others, notably Guy and Marie-Helene Weill, and Oscar Tang--it's beyond my purpose to try to list them all, and I apologize for leaving out equally distinguished collectors who specialize in areas other than painting. My point is that along with the great museums and dealers and auction houses, New York has always represented for me a world center for Chinese art collecting, and I feel very fortunate to have been the recipient, over half a century, of extraordinary generosity from those collectors. So I want to toast New York's collectors of Chinese art, and their immense contributions to our field of study.

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