(ZHU YUANZHI, 1906-1963)
Park Bench II
signed 'Yun Gee' (lower right);dated '6/2/27' (lower left)
oil on paperboard
40.5 x 28.5 cm. (16 x 11 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1927
Tannenbaum Gallery, New York, USA
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1989
Connecticut, USA, The University of Connecticut Storrs, William Benton Museum of Art, Paintings of Yun Gee, 13 October-18 November 1979.
Brunswick, Maine, USA, Walker Art Building, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 10 October- 23 November 1980.
Oakland, Cali

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Lot Essay

"In San Francisco, in the 20's the scene was not Haight-Ashbury or North Beach. It was Telegraph Hill and the lower reaches of Montgomery Street, a block from Chinatown. There I met Yun Gee. He had a square-headed intensity, was hell-bent to revolutionize Chinatown and the world with modern art and, as this exhibition shows, he knew what it was and how to do it." - John Ferren (Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, Yun Gee, exhibition catalogue, New York, USA, 1968)

In the early 20th Century, against a backdrop of rising political tensions and the introduction of western cultures, Chinese artists and intelligentsia found that Chinese painting, with its traditional doctrines, was unable to adapt to reflect the changing times and had reached a state of decline. Bringing "salvation to the nation" through art and how to fuse Western and Chinese cultures were major issues of the time. Many traveled abroad to study in Japan, Paris and America, including Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian, who studied in Europe and returned to China to infuse western styles into Chinese painting. Concurrently, other artists such as Sanyu remained abroad for the duration of his artistic career, advancing Chinese painting through continuous innovation in the spirit of the avant-garde. Yun Gee was one of these artists, and was one of the first to study in America. He followed his father to San Francisco at a young age of 15 and became a pioneer in avant-garde art, painting in a Cubism and Synchromism-influenced style as early as the mid-1920's, later developing this into a new style called Diamondism. He moved to Paris and later New York, but remained in the west until the end of his life.
Yun Gee was born in a village near Canton in 1906. He arrived in San Francisco in 1921 and enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (now known as the San Francisco Art Institute). There he met Otis Oldfield who, having just returned from Paris, introduced Gee to European Modernism through Cubism and Orphism, and the related American Synchromist movement, which relied on colour and shape to express form and convey a link between music and painting. Gee's paintings from his San Francisco Period (1921-1927) demonstrate how readily he embraced abstraction, turning nature into geometric planes of pure colour. His first solo exhibition at the Modern Gallery in 1926 was very well received, an unprecedented feat for a Chinese-American due to the institutionalised racism prevalent at the time. It was then that he met Prince and Princess Murat, his first patrons who invited him to Paris a year later.

Park Bench II (Lot 189) was painted in 1927 at the conclusion of Gee's San Francisco Period. By this time Gee had become primarily focused on colour and structure as evidenced by Park Bench II, in which the figuration is almost indiscernible at first glance. The scene is fragmented into geometric patterns and further broken down into tightly organised facets of colour. Pigments such as yellow ochre, naples yellow, terre verte, sap green, and burnt sienna were painted straight from the tube in tightly organised parallel brushstrokes, forming curves and arcs that neatly interlock. The strong colour harmonies seem to radiate in an outward motion, creating a sense of speed and rhythmicity with the seated figures at the centre of the vortex. Gee used colours and form to model space, resulting in a remarkably flat picture plane. The figure seated closest to the viewer has been simplified to an elegant curving form, and even the puffs of smoke coming out of another figure's pipe have been become three solid chevrons of colour.

Instead of adhering to the pure formalism of the Cubism that Robert Delaunay and Francis Picabia were practicing at the time, Park Bench II fluctuates between abstraction and figuration. The composition's geometricity is oriented around the shapes of the subjects, pointing to Gee's ability to express his personal style. Furthermore, the figures gaze away from the viewer and the beams of the bench extend and expand exaggeratedly towards the edge of the image, keeping the viewer at a distance. Thus, while the work portrays a sense of hopefulness through its bright colours and dynamic composition, it also expresses the alienation that Gee was subjected to as a Chinese immigrant. Through an exploration of colour, structure, and the subjective consciousness, Park Bench II reflects Gee's early avant-gardism and represents a crucial foundational period of the artist's career.

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