The experiences of the Chinese-American visual artists Yun Gee, Chao Chun-hsiang, John Way, and George Chann paralleled those of artists such as Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-Chun, who explored abstracti art in Europe during the same period. Their works display a definite feel for the artistic pulse of the times, which they combined with more traditional aesthetics, newly reinterpreted. All were important overseas Chinese artists whose contributions to the development of 20th century abstract art cannot be overlooked.
Yun Gee's Portrait of A Young American Woman (Lot 579) dates from 1928, when the artist was twenty two. He had already studied with Otis Oldfield at the California School of Fine Arts, where he adopted a style known as Synchronism, a system that viewed colour harmonies as analogous to musical modes. Yun Gee's solo exhibition in 1926 brought recognition for his exceptional talent, and under the patronage of the noble couple Prince and Princess Achille Murat, he travelled to France the following year. There, he quickly felt the impact of all the avant-garde styles then in vogue. His Portrait of a young American woman reflects the influence of portraits done by Picasso during his Analytical Cubist period, in particular, the Woman With Pears painted in the summer of 1909 and now in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In contrast to Picasso's combination of bold geometric solids and neutral colours, Yun Gee chooses a relatively reserved composition but adds daring and brilliant colour-almost as if reinterpreting, with his powerfully composed blocks of colour, Cubist theories about time and space. His signature in the lower right, which appears almost like printed text, mirrors the techniques of Synthetic Cubism in which printed materials were sometimes added to the canvas to further highlight its two-dimensionality (Fig. 1). This portrait, painted in May of 1928, is valuable in that it may be a sketch of his new wife, poetess Paule De Reuss, a woman of German descent that Yun Gee married in February of that year.
Chao Chun-hsiang studied with Lin Fengmian. In 1958, he arrived on his own in New York, and would devote the rest of his life to painting works in the Chinese ink-wash medium, but with Western abstract techniques. His work integrated Chinese and Western media as he explored concepts of presence and absence, positive and negative, and fullness and emptiness derived from Chinese philosophy. Chao's Life's Maelstrom (Lot 582), dating from the 1960s, introduces symbols of yin and yang, concentric circles, drip lines, and the kind of simplification employed by Roy Lichtenstein . In Rooster with Red Comb (Lot 583), he draws on splashed-ink techniques, and for the rooster's comb, uses advertising colour acrylic in red to add the finishing touch. Chao thus adds strongly contrasting elements of Pop Art to the more simple and natural style of ink-wash painting. Life ripening into fullness (Lot 476) is a rarely seen large-scale work from Chao's late period, combining the splashes of ink and spreading washes of a Chinese ink painting master with drip painting in the Jackson Pollock style.
John Way came to the US in 1956 to study at Boston Architectural College, and in 1957 met Franz Kline (Fig. 2). Way's work during the 1950s and 60s featured a strongly calligraphic abstract style in which colours collide and blend in complex ways. The four works (Lot 571-574) offered this season all date from the early and middle 60s, relatively small in scale but evoking the primal chaos of the universe.
Hon Chew Hee was born in 1906 in Hawaii but grew up in China, and learned both Chinese ink-wash painting and calligraphy. In the 1940s he travelled to France to study with Fernand L?ger, then returned to the US, where he devoted himself to creating art and teaching. The biomorphic forms of his Untitled (Lot 575) are influenced by the black and white abstract shapes of Jean Arp (Fig. 3), while its rich colour echoes Matisse's late-period cut-outs and the skilful, sinewy brushwork recalls Xu Gu's paintings of swimming fish.
This year's spring sale also presents twelve important works by a master of 20th century abstract art, George Chann. Chann's career spanned more thirty years, from the 1940s to the 70s. It was an extraordinary artistic journey that saw him fusing Eastern aesthetic philosophy with realistic or abstract styles from the West, with characteristic ease and grace. Portrait of a Young Chinese Girl (Lot 581) and Portrait of an Old Man (Lot 580), however, reflect Impressionist tendencies. When Abstract Impressionism became the leading force in American art in the 1950s, Chann's art also underwent transformation as he merged abstract art with Chinese landscape painting concepts. In Coloured Squares (Lot 481), he departs completely from figuration, while in White Calligraphy (Lot 482), Chann chooses to cut and tear pieces of a calligraphy rubbing from a stone stele and add them collage-style to the canvas. He then applies a variety of media-oils, ink, and charcoal pencil-and on top of them continues to add calligraphic brushwork motifs, while pressing, scraping, and rubbing to ultimately deconstruct the characters. The final product emerging from this process is a visual feast that is rich, complex, and intricate (Fig. 5). Chinese Junks (Lot 578) are strongly influence by Mark Tobey (Fig. 4) and Jackson Pollock, while still incorporating calligraphic elements. Chann's Harbour (Lot 478) and Red Mouth Birds (Lot 485) exude a feel for the soul of nature, as found in the work of artists J.M.W. Turner or Caspar David Friedrich (Fig. 6), within a conception based on traditional Chinese landscapes. Late in his career, Chann produced a series of cityscapes cantered around blue-toned palettes. His Hong Kong People (Lot 479) employs a mix of warm and cool tones, along with vigorous lines, to portray a scene of bustling confusion and lively energy from the centre of this great city.