23.Wai-kam Ho

23. Wai-kam Ho (written for his 80th birthday celebration)

Wai-kam Ho at Eighty Wai-kam Ho and I have been friends and colleagues for a very long time. I met him ca. 1957 while he was still at Harvard, and was immediately impressed. The field of Chinese painting studies in the U.S. was then in a formative state, with specialists coming into it from a diversity of places and backgrounds; here was a new entrant with a hard-to-match training in Chinese historical studies from the best programs in China, to which Harvard's was now added. I watched with pleasure and anticipation his taking on the Chinese art curatorship at the Cleveland Museum of Art, envisioning, as did others, an ideal symbiotic relationship between Wai-kam and Sherman Lee, each with extraordinary strengths in his own areas of expertise. We were not wrong: the conjunction of these two, rocky as it sometimes proved to be, produced a very strong series of acquisitions, exhibitions, and publications, culminating, perhaps, in the 1980 Eight Dynasties exhibition and catalog.

In the fall of1977 I chaired a ten-person Chinese Painting Delegation on a one-month tour of China, during which we saw nearly five hundred paintings. Most of us were photographing madly throughout the trip, making slides for our own use and for colleagues back home; we spent correspondingly less time looking. Only Wai-kam brought no camera and took no photographs. Instead, he was writing constantly in his notebook, and studying the paintings with such intensity that he noticed things--details of the picture, scarcely legible seals, a hidden inscription--that the rest of us missed. His essay on "Religious Paintings" in the report we published on our return is a piece of solid scholarship in the midst of a lot of reportage.

Wai-kam's crowning achievement, most of us would agree, was the great 1991-92 Tung Ch'i-ch'ang exhibition, symposium, and set of publications, a truly massive and multifaceted project for which Wai-ching Ho, as Executive Coordinator of the whole project and editor of the volume of symposium papers, shares the credit. With most of the established specialists in the field contributing in one capacity or another, this was also probably the largest collaborative effort in our history. Never had a Chinese artist and his works been subjected to such a heavy-artillery onslaught; no other, one might speculate, could bear up so well under it. And the guiding hand of Wai-kam was evident throughout, even when the participants were offering views that were at odds with his own. One can only regret that for reasons of time or mood, Wai-kam's planned final remarks went undelivered. Perhaps they will be published.

Someone else should write an evaluation of Wai-kam's large body of publications and unpublished but circulated manuscripts; I can only say that I have learned a great deal from them over the years, as have my students for whom some of them were assigned readings. These studies have set a benchmark for scholarship in our field. Wai-kam's recent writing, e.g. the paper on the "Trubner stele" delivered at the 1999 "Issues of Authenticity" symposium at the Met, will dispel any fear that he is slowing down in his later years. (Since he has only a few years on me, I would be obliged to make that argument even if it were not true, as in fact it is.) On the occasion of his 80th birthday I join others in congratulating him on his lifetime achievements, in looking forward to what is still to come, and in celebrating a friendship of nearly half a century.

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