Yun Gee was one of the most independent members of the first generation of Chinese oil painters, following a direction in life and in art far different from that of his fellow compatriots. It was natural, therefore, that he would arrive at his own, highly individual artistic path. After the founding of the Chinese republic, many Chinese artists traveled abroad for the first time under the work-study program initiated by Cai Yuanpei, and most of the notable artists of the day, including Lin Fengmian, Xu Beihong, Wu Dayu, and Chen Cheng-po, chose destinations in Europe or Japan. But because Yun Gee's father had been a laborer in America, Yun Gee's overseas stop was San Francisco. But this was not to just study abroad, in fact Yun Gee emigrated when he was only 15 years old, an age when the young are eager to learn more about the outside world. After 1930, Yun Gee settled and lived mostly in New York. New York and San Francisco, of that era, were growing and thriving, each bustling with new industry and urban development. As an artist coming of age in such environments, it was no wonder that Yun Gee's art would come to focus on modern society and the emerging face of urban life. As shown in his Wheels: Industrial New York exhibit, the subjects favored by other Chinese artists-nature, the universe, various kinds of mental imagery-held little interest for this artist. Yun Gee's attention instead veered toward skyscrapers, modern machinery, new urban dwellings and concrete boulevards; this preoccupation with city life was intimately connected with his individuality as an artist. As he gave voice to the spirit of the times and the desire of Chinese artists to be a part of the booming progress of art, Yun Gee showed that expressing a Chinese outlook and the unique aesthetic charm of his culture would hardly limit him to paintings of traditional landscapes, but instead could also be used to express ideas about and concern for modern society. But the preconceptions that others had about Chinese art could be difficult to escape, and Yun Gee was sometimes asked, "Why don't you paint landscapes or bird-and-flower paintings like the other artists?" But Yun Gee understood that the energy for artistic development is drawn from observing one's own life and times, because, as he said, he was "living in a modern industrial society, not sitting on a mountaintop meditating on nature." Art, he believed, must reflect the outlook and ideas of the era, and should be witness to its changes and transformations.
Yun Gee's fascination with urban scenes and small town life helped produce his 1927 China Town, San Francisco (Lot 534), an important work from his series of paintings on these themes and one that exhibits a highly evolved, personal interpretation of color and compositional elements. Yun Gee's proportioning of scenic elements and his perspectives on them are exceptional-they appear bent and strangely twisted, like the dizzying view through a kaleidoscope or distorting lens. The compositional structure of China Town, San Francisco, far from exhibiting any kind of one-point scientific perspective or traditional mode of compositional balance, is integrated by the unusually subjective and intuitive vision of the artist. Yun Gee also applied color with far more freedom and exuberance, and in broader ranges of hues than some others of his generation; his work displays bold and intense patterns in Prussian blue, deep red, saffron, lemon yellow, and fresh lotus green, not just on commonplace objects, but even for the skin tones of human flesh (Nude, Lot 535). Such flexibility with color is rare and lends powerful shaping and emotional expressiveness to the forms in Yun Gee's work, along with a sense of modernity and something akin to the dreamlike atmosphere of fairly tales, psychedelia, or surrealist art. In particular, Yun Gee's portraits of female subjects are divided amongst multiple panes of color that spin across the canvas with a wheel-like motion, threatening to disintegrate the human figures and fuse them with backgrounds painted in similar hues and palettes. In addition, the outlines of these figures remain clear and distinctly set off and while they hover somewhere between defined form and abstraction and between flatness and depth, the canvas is filled with the musical and rhythmic qualities prized by the Cubists and their staggered, overlapping, intertwined bulks and spaces.
Much of Yun Gee's interest in exploring movement, color, complexly layered spaces and three-dimensional structuring can be attributed to the influence of the Cubist and Synchromist movements in vogue in San Francisco in the 1920s. Similarly, the artistic directions of young Chinese artists in Japan or France, where Impressionism and Fauvism were popular, were influenced by those schools. Yun Gee, however, was more in contact with the theories of subjectivism and Synchromism, such influences are particularly shown in early works created between 1926 and 1929. In contrast to the works by other contemporary proponents of Synchromism, for example, Francis Picabia (1879-1953) and Robert Delauney (1885-1941), Yun Gee's works contain geometric rhythms and blocks of color that are closely tied to the outlines of well-defined forms and remain distinct while seemingly linked together and melded into one by the rhythmic action of these colors. It was Yun Gee's constant shifts between abstraction and representation, while never quite following the Cubist mold of severe compositions, angular disintegration of forms, and absolute formalism, that allowed him to absorb western influences and at the same time retain a distinctively, personal view of compositional structure and build a surprising synthesis of color and structural elements. Yun Gee's color and geometrical blocks create musicality and rhythm, and also express the complex spatial relationships between objects and producing layered effects. The result is a settled composition with a sense of stability, ease and graceful, rhythmic motion.
The number of works by Yun Gee for which we have historical and biographical information and especially those that indirectly help to profile the artist himself, is limited. Portrait of Dovr Bothwell (Lot 533), a painting showing American artist Dovr Bothwell (1902-2000) in profile, is a special exception to this. In 1925 Yun Gee and Bothwell were classmates at the California Institute of the Arts, and this portrait is both a memento and a partial record of their student days. That the two had a common interest in Cubism is shown in Bothwell's 1932 Self Portrait, which breaks Bothwell's figure into planes of color, creating weight and texture in a manner similar to Yun Gee, and revealing the strong influence wielded by the Cubists at the time (fig. 1). Yun Gee applied color, however, with greater freedom and bravura, in dazzling and beautiful combinations that impart a sense of mobility. The Dovr Bothwell in Yun Gee's portrait is calm and elegant, sitting quietly with her arms resting easily on her knees, but with perhaps a hint of shy reserve or modesty that may also hint at Yun Gee's cultural origins.