Introduction by Robert A. Hefner III from “Through An Open Door” published in 1997
My collection began in 1985 while bouncing along some old dirt roads on the way to visit oil and gas fields in what seemed the middle of nowhere in Sichuan province, China. Everywhere we turned, we were surrounded by a budding economy; there were free markets, cottage industries of every sort and new homes going up on every farm. I was in the midst of a grass-roots economic awakening surrounded by an upwardly mobile peasant class. I knew then that Deng Xiaoping’s post-Cultural Revolution reforms were irreversible and that this unprecedented growth was sure to continue into the 21st Century. These profound socioeconomic and cultural transformations in the world’s most populous country were destined to become a defining moment in history. I believed China would soon change the world.
As I reflected on all that surrounded me, I was reminded of the Renaissance and the turn of the last century – other periods of revolutionary change that became so intensely influential and historically important to the arts. I immediately began to search out contemporary artists, and what I found was that a large group of extraordinarily talented painters had completely broken with the past; with thousands of years of traditional Chinese ink and watercolor painting. I found literally an explosion of creativity releasing itself through the medium of oil. These generally younger artists were not only well disciplined in the basic techniques of drawing and traditional Chinese brush painting, but also, nearly without exception, possessed a deep sense of their history, culture and philosophy. I believe their great determination to confront the age-old norms of Chinese painting, experiment with a new medium and initiate an entirely new movement in Chinese art were the result of equal measures of their own sense of participation in a defining moment of history and their personal rebound from the Cultural Revolution, which had for so long bottled up their intense creativity. Caught up in the high energy of the moment, and in support of their spirit and in admiration of their talents, I became an obsessive collector.
I made many visits to the academies where most artists were studying and teaching, and soon learned of the highly important Sixth National Art Exhibition (National Exhibitions are held every five years) in Beijing at the China National Museum of Fine Arts. The Sixth National Exhibition was the first to display a large body of contemporary oil paintings considered by the critics to be China’s best and most important of the period.
I was stunned by the quality and diversity of the works, and to my surprise and delight, I learned that many of the paintings were for sale. It was then and there that my collection really began. My first purchase was The Wish, 1984, a painting by Jian Feng, of a Sichuanese peasant boy holding his bicycle with empty baskets, who, having sold his produce in the free market and purchased books not available to students during the Cultural Revolution, is reading a wall poster, not of some revolutionary political slogan, but about where to seek continuing education. This painting represented to me all that I saw and felt in Sichuan Province that led to my decision to collect.
Another outstanding painting included in the Sixth National Exhibition was Luo Zhongli’s Father, 1980, a monumental memorial to the harshness of life endured by the peasant farmers of his native Sichuan province. Sadly, this painting had already been acquired by the National Museum. It was only later that I learned that this larger than life painting of a peasant farmer had caused great sensation because it was the first work of art since the beginning of the People’s Republic to be painted in a heroic, larger than life size that was not of Mao Tse-tung. My profound reaction to this painting instilled in me a determination to go to Chongqing to meet the artist. A year later, I shall never forget walking into the Sichuan Academy and once again being struck by a deep emotional reaction to Luo Zhongli’s second in his series of three larger than life paintings. I found myself standing face to face with Spring Silkworms, 1980. In the old peasant woman harvesting her silk, I saw both the beginning of the end of old, classic China, and a clear indication of China’s robust future. Unfortunately, on that trip the artist was off in the country painting and I was not able then to purchase either Spring Silkworms or his third piece in this series, Father II, 1982, depicting a more robust man of the Earth than was the peasant of Father, who is blowing his horn in celebration of both the waning harshness of the past and the dawn of a more abundant future. I held no doubt that these three treasures were the work of a deeply emotional, highly talented artist, well grounded in his traditions and culture and were his summary statement of an electric moment in the history of his country’s momentous transition. It was to be years later that I met Luo Zhongli to confirm in the man all that I saw in his paintings and only in 1995 did Spring Silkworms and Father II become a permanent part of my collection.
During 1985 and 1986 I crisscrossed China visiting artists and museums and purchasing paintings. In those days the academies were of a standard Soviet-style cement block construction. The artists’ studios were small and dark, stacked full of paintings neatly organized because of the very limited space. Lacking proper materials, the artists improvised, some making their own crude canvases. I immediately began to send to our artist friends proper canvases and paints from America. Their surroundings were obviously difficult, but those circumstances seemed only to spur on their enthusiasm and experimentation. Another treasure-trove of paintings was to be found at the Chinese Artists’ Association headquarters in Beijing. It was there I met and soon became a friend of Hu Mingzhi, who later told me of his year-long pilgrimage following the Cultural Revolution to all the academies across the country, carrying with him the official word to the artists, “You are free now to paint whatever you want!” The communication between the artists at that time seemed to far exceed their ability to use the telephone; knowledge of my collection and appreciation for contemporary oil painting now preceded me wherever I traveled. During my stay in 1986, the Artists’ Association asked me if I would consider assembling the first major exhibition of contemporary Chinese oil paintings to be held outside China. I enthusiastically agreed. We then began considerable negotiations with the Ministry of Culture, which in those days had not yet been imbued with Deng’s reforms, as it has today; nevertheless, we broke all records and opened in New York in April, 1987, what today has come to be known as the Harkness House Exhibition. The Artists’ Association was charged with the responsibility of contacting artists, academies and museums from around the country to organize in Beijing a collection of several hundred outstanding works. I was given free reign to choose the paintings that would travel to America. Somewhat daunted by the task, I knew I must establish a set of defining principals, not only for the Harkness House Exhibition, but for my own collection.
First, because of my deep belief in the historical significance of the times, I decided the works to be chosen should incorporate measures of China’s history and cultural legacy; and equally important, paintings that told a story or were representative in some way of China’s great socioeconomic and cultural transformation. Additionally, as I pondered my selections, I recalled what I once learned from a guide at the Frick Museum in New York. I was told that Mr. Frick’s overriding principal was that he always collected paintings he could live with. Borrowing from Mr. Frick, all of the works in this collection are paintings which I personally enjoy living. These tenets are the common thread of my collection. I will never forget the exciting moment of walking into a large warehouse hidden somewhere in the center of Beijing with my friend Hu Mingzhi to view several hundred paintings stacked in every corner, scattered across the floor, and hung on every available wall space. After two long days and conversations well into the night, I had selected over 100 works. It was during those days of planning that I also met with and chose paintings by many of the artists who are a part of the collection. We also traveled to Shanghai to view and choose from the first exhibition of contemporary oil paintings in that city. I was given the honor of joining President Jiang Zemin, then mayor of Shanghai, for the opening ceremony. Nearly as memorable as the paintings were the ten thousand white doves released on the occasion.
By the time the Harkness House Exhibition opened we had assembled over 200 works representing 73 paintings from the People’s Republic. We arranged for a few of the artists; Ai Xuan, Wang Yidong, Wang Huaiqing and Chen Yanning, to join us in New York to visit museums and attend the exhibition. Its success was truly gratifying. New York crowds flocked to the show in ever increasing numbers. At a time when much of the painting produced in the West, particularly in the United States, seemed to this collector either confused or intentionally shocking and difficult for the general public to interpret, our audience showed great enthusiasm for the representational quality and obvious talent of these Chinese artists. The critical reception in the press was very positive, but even more gratifying is the fact that the Harkness House Exhibition has become over time an historically defining event in the development of Chinese oil painting. Nearly half the paintings were sold and my promise to the Chinese Artists’ Association to open up the market began to be realized. Today, the market is truly robust, with frequent auctions by Sotheby’s and Christie’s in Hong Kong and China Guardian in Beijing, as well as a proliferation of new sales galleries across Asia.
With the unsold paintings from the Harkness House and many new works, we opened Hefner Galleries to represent several of the more prominent artists. One man shows were held for Ai Xuan, Wang Yidong, Wang Huaiqing, Luo Erchun, Zhai Xinjian, Lin Hongji, Cao Liwei, Mao Lizi, Chen Yanning and He Datian, and in 1988, Hefner Galleries exhibited and toured a body of works by Deng Lin, Deng Xiaoping’s daughter, who is a leader in the movement to bring Expressionism to traditional brush painting.
Prior to the Harkness House Exhibition, contemporary Chinese oil painters were virtually unknown in the West, with the notable exception of Chen Yifei, who was then represented by Hammer Galleries. Because of the importance of the Harkness House Exhibition, Chen Yifei joined us, exhibiting one of his major works, My View of History, 1979. A painting from his now famous series of works depicting the ancient canals of Suzhou is included in this collection and large body of Chen Yifei’s recent works are currently on a world tour organized by Marlborough Fine Art of New York and London.
Contemporary Chinese oil painters, according to some Western critics, have simply copied Western styles. Of course, that is an arguable claim. However, one sees far too much of their own Chinese history, culture, unique techniques and traditional brush strokes for such a generality to hold credence. Rather, what I see is influence by and respect for the West’s long history of oil painting. After all, this is one of the ways art develops. What is certainly a defining difference between these Chinese artists and their Western counterparts is the depth and breadth of understanding of their country’s five thousand years of history, philosophy and rich cultural tradition, and last and certainly not least, for most of the artists in this collection, the trials and tribulations of their personal lives and unique history.
My favorite example of Western influence is that of Andrew Wyeth upon Ai Xuan. Ai Xuan told me that when he first saw a book of Wyeth’s works, he was struck by a haunting similarity between the loneliness expressed through the starkness of the American artist’s New England subject matter and that of his own loneliness, developed during the years of the Cultural Revolution when he was forced to live in Tibet, and which he, too, expressed through the starkness of his paintings depicting life among the Tibetan people. Ai said to me that he believed there was a communion of their souls being expressed in their art. I took great satisfaction in bringing these two “soulmates” together during one of Ai Xuan’s one man shows at Hefner Galleries. We spent a delightful day together during which I was able to introduce Ai Xuan to Andrew Wyeth, his wife Betsy, and son Jamie, at their Brandywine Museum. The artists spoke animatedly for hours and the experience was memorable for us all.
For me, a gratifying aspect of being a collector is the enjoyment of witnessing the artistic development of these painters. Wang Huaiqing has been exemplary in this regard. His art is typical of a common transition made from the representational Artist’s Mother, 1985, to the more abstract style found in this collection in his architectural series of paintings depicting disjointed Ming furniture and the interior of old peasant homes – Unassembled, 1994, and Stage, 1995.
Although one of my principal goals has been to capture the excitement of the post-Cultural Revolution period and thus, most of the works found in this collection were painted between 1979 and the early 1990’s, an exception is Coming Out To Attack, 1964. It can certainly be called a prime example of Socialist Realism, but I saw it as a work of great artistic merit as well as a painting towards which I had an immediate affinity. I later learned that the artist, He Kongde, was influenced by the Russian artist, Nicolai Fechin, whose works I also admire and have collected.
One of China’s most important early oil painters and a teacher of both contemporary oil painting and abstract brush work is Wu Guanzhong. He was an exciting, vigorous man of 78 whose Yin and Yang of ancient tranquility and spirit and energy fill his works. He has brought to Chinese brush, and oil painting alike, the insightful combination of traditional style and abstract form. He contributed works to both the Harkness House Exhibition and the 1988 Hefner Galleries/Chinese Artists’ Association show; another of his paintings, Hometown of Lu Xun, 1972, is a part of this collection.
Chen Yanning, another of our artists, once pointed out to me an interesting cycle of events. In ancient times in China that roughly correspond to the Renaissance era in the West, Chinese artists abstracted their calligraphy and poetry to the point it often could not be deciphered. Today, however, there is much realism in Chinese art, similar to Western painters during the Renaissance, while art in the West is abstract to the point it often cannot be interpreted by the viewer. No doubt, the artists of our two cultures are telling us much more about our times and societies than we can fully comprehend.
When I started this collection I was truly moved by the exciting and creative body of work during the post-Cultural Revolution decade. Today, in the last decade of the 20th Century, I am just as thrilled by the continuing development of China’s young artists and their insight into not only daily life in these historically unique times, but their own projection of China’s 21st Century. We see in Cao Li’s Opened Notebook, 1995, and The Last Song, 1996, not only a view of China’s ancient culture and contemporary life, but a glimpse into her future. I am sure the future will prove these artists to have been just as visionary as artists throughout history.
Among the great pleasures and most enlightening experiences of my annual pilgrimages to collect art and do business in China has been my acquaintance and, in many cases, friendship with these artists. For me, they have become an important and accurate source of insight into their country, its contemporary culture and its rapidly changing future.
My hope is that this collection endures as an exceptional representation of the souls, passions and expressions of these artists during one of history’s greatest upheavals, and that these works will be viewed as a glimpse into a profound moment in the development of the world’s art. But most of all, it is my overriding desire that Through An Open Door adds another small span to the bridge of understanding between our great cultures; a bridge whose strength and breadth will be so fundamentally important to peace and prosperity in the 21st Century.